Cornwall’s flag, the Cross of Saint Piran or Saint Piran’s flag, which was included on the registry from its creation, doesn’t really fit into the broad categories of county flag types (as outlined in our ‘About‘ section, under ‘Types Of Flags’). It is not a banner of council arms nor is it derived from such a banner and it is not a new design by any means, having existed since the early nineteenth century, at least. The first definitive reference to it is in an 1838 work entitled ‘The Parochial History of Cornwall’ by Davies Gilbert, ( Vol III, p. 332)
in which he writes
“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“.
; a description that both informs and confuses because it’s unclear why he believes it to be “formerly” the “Standard of Cornwall” and does not indicate any time when it may have first been raised or named. Significantly though, this is evidence that the land of the Cornish was represented by a distinct flag decades before banners of arms or application of local symbols in flag form, appeared for other counties. The flag’s singular provenance reflects the unique character of the territory it represents.
Whilst it received a local council in 1889 along with all British shires, Cornwall has an ethnic distinction that sets it apart from the other counties, being historically an assimilated Celtic land rather than plainly, a territorial division of England, the east bank of the River Tamar,
being fixed as the border between England and Cornwall by King Athelstan in the year 936. Accordingly, asserting their status as a distinct nation comparable to Wales and Scotland, Cornish people contend that theirs is a national flag, symbolic of a distinct national identity
and similarly comparable therefore to the Scottish saltire, the Welsh dragon or England’s cross of Saint George
However, practically, the territory has been regarded as one of England’s counties since roughly the later Middle Ages, following the gradual retreat of the language barrier behind which Cornish was spoken. This headed further and further west
until to all intents and purposes, the language died out, some time in the eighteenth century
; albeit that it has been revived by enthusiasts in the modern era.
As Gilbert describes, the colours of the flag are traditionally held to symbolise the colours of black Cornish ore
and the white tin
which emerges from it when heated. Legend holds that the flag reflects the discovery of tin in the territory by the 6th century abbot, Saint Piran,
who adopted the contrasting colours upon seeing the white molten tin spilling out of the black ore in his fire. He is accordingly recognised both as the patron saint of tin miners
generally and of Cornwall particularly. An alternative but similar interpretation is that the colour white stands for Cornwall’s rich veins of tin
while the black is the fertile, peaty soil which contains it. Another explanation describes the white light of truth shining through the blackness/darkness of evil!
The flag appears in a stained glass window at St Petroc’s Church, Bodmin, installed in 1886, along with an image of St Piran
and is famously included in another window at Westminster Abbey, unveiled in 1888, in memory of the celebrated Cornish inventor and engineer, Richard Trevithick. The flag features amidst a tableau, depicting an assemblage of saints, with Saint Piran at top left.
The saint, whose features appear to be modelled on Trevithick
, carries a Cornish flag.
From roughly the same era, a photo taken at Brighton beach, Sussex,
includes an unidentified flag in the background
which, speculatively, could be a Cornish flag, although it is unlikely that this can be confirmed.
These are evidently the oldest depictions of the flag but it is speculated that its origins date back several centuries; considering Gilbert’s description of the flag as being ‘formerly’ a Standard of Cornwall this indicates that it had been in use before 1838, although without any record of his research, one may only speculate. It is certainly true that Saint Piran’s flag has similarities with the flags of other Celtic nations and emblems used there. The historical and cultural links between Britanny and Cornwall are well attested and Cornwall’s flag is the reverse of that used in the Duchy of Brittany until 1532, namely white with a black cross
suggesting an origin inspired by or perhaps alongside, their Celtic cousins across the channel. Accordingly, it has been claimed that the design dates from the middle ages and was used in the first crusade. Strikingly, a number of the designs of the arms of Breton families feature the same white cross on black field as the Cornish flag, particularly noteworthy is the design
used by the Saint Peran (Saint Pezran) family, as is, of course the name of the family, which hailed from the equally significantly named “Cornouaille”
region of Brittany. The earliest evidence of this design, “sable, a cross pattee argent” dates from the fifteenth century. Thus we have a family named Saint Peran, hailing from a place named Cornouaille (directly named for Cornwall as a result of the influx there of emigres fleeing the Anglo-Saxon incursion into their territory) bearing a white cross on a black background; it does seem highly probable that this is the source of the Cornish flag.
Other such designs include Geoffroy le Borgne
and Rouvroy de Saint-Simon
In the twentieth century a very similar flag, black with a gold cross, started to be used in Wales, originating as a symbol of the Church in Wales. While the similarity broadly appears to be coincidental one wonders if the colours and arrangement are in any way indicative of a general consensus of Celtic association with such patterns and colours?
In similar vein, one may consider the black and yellow colours of the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall with gold “bezants” on black
and its precursor, the arms of the Earl of Cornwall
also suggested as possible sources for the colours of Cornwall’s flag i.e. a black background with lighter coloured elements upon it.
Given its designation as a symbol of national identity, the Cornish flag enjoys a wide usage and recognition, being regularly seen around both Cornwall and the world as a symbol of the Cornish diaspora. It is displayed on cars
and from buildings,
including Cornwall Council in Truro
and appears, of course, in abundance, on March 5th, St Piran’s Day,
and at other Cornish festivals
, as well as traditional Cornish wrestling competitions
and rugby matches
. It is seen below at the River Tamar, Cornwall’s eastern boundary
As the symbol of Cornish nationality the flag is a ubiquitous feature across the territory
Cornish flag of St. Piran flying over the gardens at Mellingey
Saint Piran’s Cross has been incorporated into a series of unofficial “ensigns”, in the UK naval pattern
with a Union Jack in the canton
and another in the style of a red merchant ensign
where Saint Piran’s cross replaces the Union flag. Several such designs also include the gold bezants from the ducal arms
And as a symbol of Cornish nationality, the flag has been adapted
for use by Australians of Cornish descent to indicate their ethnic heritage.
The flag has also been adapted for use in the logos of a number of organisations, such as the flag of the Cornish Rugby Union
and the Cornish Pirates rugby team
The Cross of Saint Piran
is further used by a variety of Cornish businesses, especially Ginsters
; it also features on the labels of local breweries
In August 2018 a successful campaign saw Waitrose supermarket agree to depict the Saint Piran cross on a Cornish cheese,
rather than the national flag of England, Saint George’s cross,
as it had originally done. “Following the feedback from our customers…”the store announced , “we’re going to change the Saint George flag to a St Piran on the two Cornish Yarg lines…”.