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Cornwall (England)

Last modified: 2011-10-21 by rob raeside
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[Flag of Cornwall] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007

See also:


Cross of Saint Piran

Cornwall has a white cross on black. I have seen this referred to as "the flag of St. Piran" or "St. Petroc".

Roy Stilling, 21 November 1995

The black flag with the white cross is the banner of Saint Piran, and is now recognized as the 'national flag' of Cornwall.

Saint Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners. Tin was formerly the most important element in the economy of Cornwall. Is is said that Saint Piran derived his colours from his discovery of tin, a white metal in the black ashes of his fire. Another story tells that the colours stand for the ore and the metal, although Cornwall was of course famous for tin long before the beginning of the Christian era.

An article in Encyclopædia Britannica tells that the flag was carried by the Cornish contigent at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). In a history of 1837 Saint Piran's flag was described as the "standard of Cornwall", and another of 1880 which said that: "The white cross of St. Piran was the ancient banner of the Cornish people."

Source: Heraldry Society Flag Section Newsletter, Autumn 1969.

Jos Poels, 17 January 1996

According to Divi Kervella (Emblemes et symboles des Bretons et des Celtes [ker], (headword 'Drapeau', p.41-42, col. ill. p. 38), the flag with the white cross on black field is shown and described as 'the banner of St. Pyran', in Cornish 'Baner Sen Pyran'. A few details can be added to what Jos Poels says in the reference page: Pyran was a bishop-abbot of Irish origin, who came to Cornwall in the Vth century, where he is said to have died aged 206 because of alcohol abuse (sic). The author further highlights the possible link between the Cornish flag and its exact reverse, the former Breton national flag (black cross on a white field). Cornwall was among the Celtic nations the closest to Brittany in several aspects. Another coincidence can be found in the arms of the Saint-Peran family in Brittany, which show a white cross pattee on a black field.

Ivan Sache, 3 March 2001

Notes, based on a presentation by Philip Rendle, at the ICV 19 in York, entitled "Cornwall: The Mysteries of St. Piran". Thanks to Phil for permission to forward these notes to FOTW.

The Cornish flag in use today is a white upright cross centred on a black field, and is referred to as the St. Piran's (or Pirran's) cross. St. Piran was apparently a 6th Century holy man who floated across to Cornwall from Ireland on a millstone. He became patron saint of the tin miners of Cornwall, and in due course of Cornwall itself, with 5th March being celebrated as his Saint's day. Not much more seems to be known about him.

The first firm reference to the St. Piran's cross flag dates from the 1830's, although several groups of antiquarians, Celtic revivalists and Cornish nationalists have laid claim to somewhat dubious earlier uses. In 1835 Davies Gilbert edited the history of over 200 Cornish parishes, including one called St. Piran-in-the-Sands, where there is a reference to "a white cross on a black ground [that] was formerly the banner of St. Perran and the Standard of Cornwall; probably with some allusion to the black ore and the white metal of tin." It is not known where Gilbert obtained his information - probably from oral tradition. From his comments, the impression is gained that he believed it to be a flag that was much older.

The unknown source of the flag has obviously resulted in many groups speculating on its origin. Here are a dozen possibilities:

  • it was invented by D. Gilbert himself
  • it is a relatively modern invention
  • it was invented by the Cornish language scholar R. Morton Nance
  • it was invented by Helena Charles, one of the founders of the Cornish Nationalist Party, who popularised the flag in the 1950's
  • St. Piran melted tin ore, resulting in a tin (white) cross in the black ashes
  • it is based on the arms of the Earl of Cornwall
  • it is based on the black and white arms of Cornish families
  • it is related to the Breton flag
  • it is related to a Breton admiralty flag
  • it is derived from the St. George's cross, but given Cornish colours
  • it is linked to the black and white livery of the Knights of St. John
  • it is rooted in celtic cross designs
As if that list isn't enough, there is the problem of frequent misidentifications. Being black and white, this flag is easily misidentified from colour flags in B&W photos. In particular, a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh's standard on his car was published in a newspaper when he visited Truro. The second quarter on his standard is the white cross on blue of Greece (his birthplace), which showed up as white on black in the newspaper photograph.

Several misattributions have been noted, including the sighting of a B&W flag at the Battle of the Boyne, skirmishes in Cornwall during the English Civil War in which St. Piran's crosses are commonly used in recreations, Cornish rebellions in 1549 and 1497 that were celebrated in 1999 and 1997 saw recreations with St. Piran's flags, and King Henry V had a Cornish contingent at the Battle of Agincourt. This last misattribution appears to the basis of the Encyclopedia Britannica article that the flag dates to the 15th Century, but is highly speculative.

Reference: Davies Gilbert (1838), Parochial History of Cornwall, Vol III, p. 332.

Rob Raeside , 31 July 2001

In response to the paper above, the following comments were received from a contributer (name withheld by request)  (responses are bulleted):

The Cornish flag in use today is a white upright cross centred on a black field, and is referred to as the St. Piran's (or Pirran's) cross.

  • I have never seen Piran spelt Pirran. Now and again the saint is referred to as Peran, the Cornish language original of his name, e.g. Deth Peran lowen tha whye, Happy St Piran's Day. This is especially true of people trying to 'reclaim' the original form into English. In my own household we use the terms 'Cornish flag', 'the cross of St Piran' (anything where a white cross is charged on a black background) and, when we are speaking Cornish, the 'Gwidn ha Du' (literally, 'white and black', which is, coincidentally, also the name of the Breton flag, the Gwenn ha Du).

St. Piran was apparently a 6th Century holy man who floated across to Cornwall from Ireland on a millstone. He became patron saint of the tin miners of Cornwall, and in due course of Cornwall itself, with 5th March being celebrated as his Saint's day. Not much more seems to be known about him.

  • The way the legend was told in our area, St Piran was an Irish missionary whose original Irish name was Ciarán (Ir. [c] to Corn. [p] is a standard sound change, well attested). Historically there was some confusion and competition between St Piran and St Petroc(k), but Piran won out in the end and is now universally referred to as Cornwall's national saint. Given that tin mining was Cornwall's main industry (the original Cornish national toast and motto was 'Kober, Sten ha Pesk', or 'Copper, Tin and Fish', referring to the three core occupations of Cornish life), it is unsurprising that the patron saint of tinners should also become the patron saint of the country. There is a long history between Cornwall and Ireland. Cornwall became Christian through the efforts of Irish missionaries whose names are found in placenames throughout the country: Gwinear, Breage, St Erth, Merther, St Ives, and so on.

The first firm reference to the St. Piran's cross flag dates from the 1830s, although several groups of antiquarians, Celtic revivalists and Cornish nationalists have laid claim to somewhat dubious earlier uses.

  • Since we don't have any evidence of whether the flag was in fact used earlier or not, I think a better description would be 'unattested'. 'Dubious' is a little emotive.

In 1835 Davies Gilbert edited the history of over 200 Cornish parishes, including one called St. Piran-in-the-Sands, where there is a reference to "a white cross on a black ground [that] was formerly the banner of St. Perran and the Standard of Cornwall; probably with some allusion to the black ore and the white metal of tin." It is not known where Gilbert obtained his information - probably from oral tradition. From his comments, the impression is gained that he believed it to be a flag that was much older.

  • Contrary to the legend that seems to be doing the rounds on the web (that the white represents tin flowing from the blackened hearth of St Piran's  first campfire), I was told as a child that the white represented the rich veins of tin running throughout Cornwall, and that the black field was the fertile, peaty podsol soil in which the tin sat, waiting to be found. I dare say the flag is older than 1835. It is only a white cross on a black field, after all.

The unknown source of the flag has obviously resulted in many groups speculating on its origin. Here are a dozen possibilities:

  • it was invented by D. Gilbert himself (unlikely, as the oral tradition is older)
  • it is a relatively modern invention (see below)
  • it was invented by the Cornish language scholar R. Morton Nance (there is no evidence for this; and if Gilbert mentioned it in 1835, Nance would merely have been popularising an extant design)
  • it was invented by Helena Charles, one of the founders of the Cornish Nationalist Party, who popularised the flag in the 1950s (utter nonsense. The flag was well known by then.)
  • St. Piran melted tin ore, resulting in a tin (white) cross in the black ashes (oral legend, possibly 'true')
  • it is based on the arms of the Earl of Cornwall (again, utter nonsense. The arms of the Earl of Cornwall were a red lion rampant on a white field with a black border punctuated by silver (not gold) bezants. See Speed's 1510 map of Britain. The bezants go back to the ransom the Cornish people [tinners, probably] had to pay to have their earl released from [I think] Austrian or French captivity. Part of this shield forms the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary logo today.)
  • it is based on the black and white arms of Cornish families (such as? Most of the arms of Cornish families are based around the colour gold, e.g. Godolphin)
  • it is related to the Breton flag (possibly; Cornwall and Brittany for long periods shared a single history, including a monarchy. There is a Kernev region of Brittany that echoes the Kernow [Cornish language] name of Cornwall. Both countries share legends of the sunken land of Lyonesse, ownership of the Tristan, Iseult and Arthurian myths)
  • it is related to a Breton admiralty flag (unknown)
  • it is derived from the St. George's cross, but given Cornish colours (I doubt it. In any case, this establishes that the white and black pre-date the flag.)
  • it is linked to the black and white livery of the Knights of St. John (this is so ridiculous as to be unworthy of comment)
  • it is rooted in celtic cross designs (unlikely).

As if that list isn't enough, there is the problem of frequent misidentifications. Being black and white, this flag is easily misidentified from colour flags in B&W photos.

  • I can generally tell vague colours from black and white photographs by a process of tone juxtaposition, as can most people born before the advent of colour television, so the 'misattribution' of black and white photos might be a modern phenomenon. In any case, many old black and white photos were coloured in by watercolour, so this problem wouldn't arise.

In particular, a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh's standard on his car was published in a newspaper when he visited Truro. The second quarter on his standard is the white cross on blue of Greece (his birthplace), which showed up as white on black in the newspaper photograph.

  • Flags are not generally a part of heraldry, and Cornish genes haven't made their way into the consanguine aristocracy of Europe as far as I know.

Several misattributions have been noted, including the sighting of a B&W flag at the Battle of the Boyne, skirmishes in Cornwall during the English Civil War in which St. Piran's crosses are commonly used in recreations, Cornish rebellions in 1549 and 1497 that were celebrated in 1999 and 1997 saw recreations with St. Piran's flags, and King Henry V had a Cornish contingent at the Battle of Agincourt. This last misattribution appears to the basis of the Encyclopedia Britannica article that the flag dates to the 15th Century, but is highly speculative.

  • Speculations yes, but hardly misattributions. A misattribution is a mistake; someone may well turn up the Cornish flag brandished by the Cornish contingents at Agincourt or in the Civil War. There is no proof that the flag didn't exist then, and no proof that it did. Hence it is speculation.

Anonymous, 5 March 2004


Coat of Arms

[Arms of Cornwall] by Ivan Sache, 3 March 2001

According to Divi Kervella (Emblemes et symboles des Bretons et des Celtes [ker], headword 'Armoiries', p. 20, col. ill. p.19), the coat of arms of Cornwall is 'sable, fifteen golden bezants placed 5-4-3-2-1'. The arms might be dated 1337, when Edward 'the Black Prince', son of king of England Edward III, was made Duke of Cornwall. The golden bezants on sable were already present as border of the shield of Richard, made count of Cornwall by his brother Henry III of England. The origin and meaning of the design are disputed.
Ivan Sache, 3 March 2001

[Banner of Arms of Duchy of Cornwall] image by Graham Bartram

The banner of arms of the Duchy is displayed in http://www.flags.net as the Standard of the Duke of Cornwall (the Prince of Wales).
Jonathan Dixon, 13 July 2007


Duchy of Cornwall

[Banner of Arms of Duchy of Cornwall] image by Graham Bartram, 30 October 2007

I observed this  flag flying from the offices of the Duchy at 10 Buckingham Gate, Westminster (opposite Buckingham Palace). The flag contains a shield with the Duchy arms, with some sort of crown as crest (a ducal crown?), on a black over yellow field with a red and yellow three sided border.
Jonathan Dixon
, 13 July 2007


Cornish ensigns???

[Cornish ensign] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007

Divi Kervella reports in 'Ar Banniel' [arb] (#13, Winter 2000, p. 21, bw. ill.) a Cornish ensign made of the banner of St. Pyran with the pile of bezants placed in canton. The ensign was flown by the ship 'Sweet Promise', owned by captain John Greeneway, during the 'Brest 2000' festival.

Ivan Sache, 3 March 2001

[A Cornish ensign?] by António Martins

Whilst on holiday in the Isles of Scilly I saw the above flag flown at the jackstaff of a civilian diving ship and on the flagpole of the local marine pilot. It is the Cornish flag (St Piran's Cross) with the addition of the United Kingdom union flag in the canton (like the Royal Navy's white ensign). The effect seems to be the creation of a Cornish naval ensign, and the local marine pilot says it is a new Cornish flag. Would anyone have an idea just what it is, or is it purely a local creation?
Mike Ingham, 19 May 1998

The Cornish Ensign design is on sale all over Cornwall. A good few boats have it, but it isn't the only place you see it. It appears to be a design which asserts regional identity without wanting to be separatist. As far as I know it has no official standing and is entirely spontaneous.
Andy Fear, 15 August 2000

This flag is actually the house flag of a Cornish shipping company, but is often used as an unofficial "Cornish" ensign.
Graham Bartram, 15 August 2000

This "Cornish ensign" is in fact just a sardonic symbol! As far as I am concerned it is a tongue in cheek design to depict that Cornwall is a colony of England as we are always being called English, when we are Cornish!
Phil in Cornwall, 6 April 2001

"The Flag Loft" sells a series of Cornish flags:

  • Cornish Red Ensign: Red ensign with the Cornish flag in canton

  • [Cornish red ensign] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007
     
  • Cornish bezants: Black flag with the Cornish bezants
    [Cornish red ensign] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007
     
  • Cornish Red Ensign defaced: Cornish Red Ensign with the Cornish bezants in lower fly

  • [Cornish ensign with bezants] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007
     
  • Cornish ensign defaced : Cornish ensign with the Cornish bezants in lower fly.

  • [Cornish ensign with bezants] by Ivan Sache, 22 March 2007

Cornwall Rugby Football Union flag

[Corwall Rugby Football Union flag] by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 29 September 2001

The Cornwall Rugby Football Union flag is seen it at rugby games Cornwall play. It is a basic St. Piran flag but in the white cross is the thin gold lines for the rugby team.
Phil from Cornwall, 7 September 2001

The Cornwall Rugby Football Union flag can be located from their website. This flag has two narrow gold stripes in each quarter, and (officially?) what is probably the CRFU emblem in the center.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 29 September 2001