Cornwall’s flag, the Cross of Saint Piran or Saint Piran’s flag, doesn’t really fit into the broad categories of county flag types. 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. Accordingly, asserting their status as a distinct nation comparable to Wales and Scotland, Cornish people contend that their flag is a national flag, symbolic of their distinct national identity and similarly comparable therefore to the Scottish saltire, the Welsh dragon or England’s cross of Saint George. Practically however, 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 ore and the white tin (a distinctly Cornish product) which emerges from it. 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
The tableau depicts an assemblage of saints including Saint Piran whose features appear to be modelled on Trevithick and who carries a Cornish flag.
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 and indeed the name of the Saint-Peran or Saint-Pezran family.
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
and its precusor, 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 widely displayed on cars and from buildings, including those of Cornwall Council and appears, of course, in abundance, on March 5th, St Piran’s Day,
and at other Cornish festivals and celebrations, as well as 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
Saint Piran’s Cross 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
and is used by a variety of Cornish businesses, especially Ginsters.
It also appears on the labels of local breweries