the G7 Summit
With the 2021 G7 Summit arriving at Carbis Bay from 11th to 13th June, we explore the history between Cornwall and the nations it will be welcoming. From bee-sting mead to a king with horse’s ears, here are five Cornish connections with our friends in France.
To find the first connection between France and Cornwall, you would have to head back hundreds of millions of years. Cornwall’s vast riches of tin and tungsten, unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom beyond the southern reaches of Devon, have puzzled geologists for eons; very recently there has been increased evidence that Cornwall was formed when the land mass of France collided with the British Isles, explaining how Brittany has displayed a similar history of mining and mineral wealth.
cornish mine ruin
Even 10,000 years ago, a land bridge would have made the northern regions of France considerably more neighbourly. But the relationship between the two peoples of Cornwall and France would begin in written history with the escape of Britons from the oncoming Anglo-Saxons. The Britons would make Armorica their new home on the northwest tip of France; the region would instead become known as Brittany, named after them, and they would become a Celtic nation like Wales and Cornwall. Brittany would long champion a culture near identical to that of Cornwall, including a language similar to Cornish, and much of their heritage still exists in the present day.
With the winds of fortune on their side, a boat could reach Brittany from Cornwall in under a day; the Celtic neighbours were always within reach and ready to lend a hand. If the winds of fortune went against a fisherman – caught in Brittany during a storm and unable to get back to Cornwall, or vice versa – the Bretons and the Cornish have been known to offer safe harbour to their stranded comrade until it has all blown over. It was as good a time as any to exchange tips, too; techniques for catching mackerel in large quantities were first introduced to St Ives by Breton fishermen.
Sailing forward to the present day, La Vallée des Saints in Brittony celebrates St Piran with a sculpture from Mabe that was carved from Trenoweth Quarry granite by Cornishman David Paton and Breton Stéphane Rouget. On a wider scale, there are many Celtic festivals in Cornwall which have counted Breton revellers amongst the merriment, including Lowender Peran in Newquay and Golowan in Penzance. The Lorient Inter-Celtic festival in Brittany, meanwhile, has seen many Cornish folk travelling over in support.
For the largest celebration of the Breton and Cornish bond, there is the festival which alternates between Cornwall and Brittany every year – known as AberFest when it takes place in Cornwall and Breizh-Kernow when it takes place in Brittany. A cornerstone of the festival’s traditions is for households to host families from the travelling nation, whilst public events have included singing, wrestling, cookery and dancing.
penzance Mazy Day Credit: Penzance BID
The alcohol made of honey that gave us the term ‘honeymoon’ – traditionally drunk during the month after a wedding for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities – mead is a tipple of choice in both Cornwall and Brittany. Originally mixed with cider for an extra West Country touch, the French variant is called ‘chouchen’ and is made using buckwheat honey for a bolder flavour.
It has long been suggested that chouchen was made extra potent by the presence of bee venom in the mixture; there is little evidence that this was the case, but it is plausible given that the whole honeycomb was added into the brew whilst potentially still containing a few of the straggler bees.
Another French aperitif with a Cornish link is pastis, pronounced ‘pa-stees’. Its similar-sounding name is enough to prick a few Cornish ears in expectation of their favourite lunchtime treat, something of which Tarquin’s were fully aware; the popular Wadebridge gin distillery now produce their ‘Cornish Pastis’, topped off with gorse flowers from the Cornish clifftops.
There are a couple of instances in the murky corners of history in which kings would rule over both Cornwall and Cornouaille, its Breton namesake. In Tewdwr Mawr’s case, it was one and then the other; Mawr would become king of Cornouaille upon the death of his grandfather, but a ruler of a neighbouring region would take over as soon as he was aware of the change to the throne. Instead, Mawr would scurry to Cornwall and rule over Penwith from Carnsew; there he would become infamous for throwing his enemies into a pit of reptiles.
His alleged sister, or at least step-sister, was believed to be Iseult from the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Iseult, a tale which has produced a number of Hollywood films. The uncle of Tristan, meanwhile, may have a 1,500 year-old gravestone near the town of Fowey. Mark of Cornwall, as he was known, has been named as a ruler of both Cornwall and Cornouaille.
During a visit to Cornouaille, it is written that Mark of Cornwall chased a sorceress who retaliated by turning his ears into those of his favourite horse. Subsequently, the king would murder every barber who knew the secret of his ears, except for one who would whisper the secrets to the sand beneath him; reeds would grow from the sand and, when these reeds were whistled into, the music they would create would hum about how the king has horse’s ears, audible for all who dared to listen.
The murkier corners of history are so murky that it becomes hard to see clearly…
Allure of the
A hilltop castle that stretches out from the Penzance coastline, protected by the tides and only accessible on its granite walkway at the right time of day; it would be easy to look upon St Michael’s Mount and praise its unique qualities. And yet, while the island fortress is a sight to behold with its flower gardens and oodles of history, it is in fact the younger twin of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy – an island fortress dictated by the tides, of which it doesn’t take a single French lesson to translate as St Michael’s Mount.
Both sites were home to religious communities dedicated to St Michael by the 8th Century; there is even a conspiracy that the sites were connected along a straight line with other St Michael’s from Ireland to Israel, forming a sacred channel. Mont Saint-Michel was significantly larger by the time the Cornish island was gifted to the French monks in return for their support of William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne.
st michael's Mount
Allure of the
The monks were appreciative of their new mount and its novel similarities, with a later abbot building an offshoot monastery on St Michael’s Mount in the likeness of Mont Saint Michel. The French edition may be bigger, but Penzance’s castle wins as the only St Michael’s Mount where you can buy a delicious Cornish pasty.