In the preface to Pax, the latest volume of his magisterial history of the Roman Empire, Tom Holland notes that the northern bank of the river Tyne was the furthest north that a Roman Emperor ever visited. What was so important about Hadrian’s visit to Tyneside in 122AD was his decision there to mark in stone, for the first time, the official limits of his Empire. North of this great wall, there was paucity and unspeakable barbarism, scarcely worth bothering about; below the wall was civility and abundance and the blessings of Romanitas.

To this day, those 73 miles of the Vallum Hadriani across the jugular of Britain still shape the common conception of where England and Scotland begin and end, even though the wall has never delineated the Anglo-Scottish border. For this colossal structure left enduring psychological as well as physical remains. To the Saxons, it was “the work of giants” and was often thought of as a metaphysical frontier with the land of the dead.

The Roman conquest of southwestern Britain was more ambiguous. For generations, scholars have assumed that the legions did not march much beyond the river Exe, leaving much of Devon and Cornwall as terra incognita. However, archaeological evidence now suggests that they may have penetrated further down the peninsula than many realised, probably attracted by the rich reserves of Cornish tin and copper.

Yet the perception that Cornwall, in particular, was a place apart persisted after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. For a Celtic Kingdom of Dumnonii then emerged in Devon and Cornwall — with strong ties of kinship to the Celtic realms of Ireland, Wales and Brittany — and resisted the Germanic kingdom of Wessex for several centuries, until their eventual conquest by their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. But Cornwall’s culture did not become anglicised: place names remained mainly Brittonic, most of the people still spoke Cornish, and, after 1066, the new rulers of England thought it prudent to appoint a Breton from Cornouaille in Britanny as Earl of Cornwall. As late as the reign of Henry VIII, an Italian diplomat noted that “the language of the English, Welsh and Cornish men is so different that they do not understand each other”. He went on to give the alleged “national characteristics” of the three peoples, noting that “the Cornishman is poor, rough and boorish”.

Interestingly, the far north of England was often described in similarly condescending terms. “The miners and fishermen of Devon, Cornwall and Northumberland were as far away from London as the English could get,” wrote Robert Colls in Identity of England, “and were usually described in the same terms as their environment: hard, simple, natural.”

There are certainly curious parallels between Cornwall’s medieval and early modern history, and that of their countrymen in what might we call Angleterre périphérique. Where Northumbria had the quasi-independent Prince Bishops of Durham and aristocratic warlords of Northumberland who held the frontier with Scotland as Lord Wardens of the Marches, Cornwall was governed as a royal duchy, under whom a “Lord Warden of the Stannaries” (from the Latin, stannaria meaning tin-mine) governed the mining districts of the county. To this day, the estate of any Cornish resident who dies with no will or surviving relatives passes by right to Prince William as Duke of Cornwall.

The Cornish Stannary Parliament (officially, “the Convocation of the Tinners of Cornwall”) was the representative body of the Cornish tin industry, whose ancient privileges exempted the tinners from any jurisdiction other than the Stannary courts. This mirrored the system of courts that the Prince Bishop oversaw in the County Palatine of Durham and had further parallels with the powerful “Newcastle Parliament” — the Opec of its day — that cartel of Northumbrian mine-owners who emerged in the 18th century to control the lucrative coal trade with London.

Despite Northumbrian pre-eminence in subterranean exploration, it was the engineers of Cornwall who were, for a time, at the leading edge of mining innovation: from the breakthroughs of Richard Trevithick, in steam engines and steam locomotion, to William Bickford’s safety fuse and the safety lamps of Sir Humphrey Davy (although Northumbrian miners always preferred George Stephenson’s “Geordie” lamp, which might explain the nickname). But the decline of Cornish copper and tin mining from the mid-19th century began a great exodus on a scale that is quite astonishing. It is estimated that between 1861 and 1900, 45% of the Cornish male population aged 15 to 24 left for mining districts overseas. One newspaper report of a riot in Ballarat, Australia, in 1857 described a melee involving “Tips” [Irish miners], Geordies and “Cousin Jacks”, as the clannish Cornish miners were known.

Yet the Cornish diaspora migrated within Britain, too. For those same Cousin Jacks streamed north to places such as the orefields of Cumberland and the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. And in great numbers: in the Northumberland pit villages that I grew up in, there were families who were proud to carry sonorous Cornish surnames like Trewick, Kneebone and Penaluna. The great laureate of the northern coalfield, whose paintings celebrated the pitfolk of County Durham, was the miner-turned-artist, Norman Cornish.

But a specialisation in extractive industries is not the only shared inheritance between Cornwall and the North East. Northumbrian martial traditions are well-known, but as a finger of land pointing into the Atlantic, Cornwall still bristles with fortifications — much like Northumberland — from its role in the frontline of wars against Spain and France; and Cornwall was a much fought-over royalist stronghold (as was the far North) during the English Civil War.

Indeed, one account of the Cornish rebellion of 1497 notes Cornish grievances about crippling taxes, and that they had provided “more than their fair share of soldiers and sailors” for Henry VII’s campaign in Northumberland against the pretender Perkin Warbeck and his Scottish allies. Warbeck then landed near Land’s End to capitalise on Cornish resentment, and was proclaimed King Richard IV on Bodmin Moor before leading a Cornish army to besiege Exeter. Warbeck was soon captured, and later executed. But this rebellion can be seen as one of several uprisings against a centralising Tudor state based in the South East, which would include the “Pilgrimage of Grace” 40 years later, when the North mobilised under the banner of St Cuthbert of Durham in protest at Henry VIII’s suppression of the old religion.

Cornish national awareness re-emerged in the early 20th century, centred on reviving the Cornish language and attending bardic rituals in Celtic costume (Cornwall, like Northumberland, even has its own tartan). Yet Cornish political demands have only stirred intermittently.

Even Lord Salisbury conceded in 1889 that if Ireland were granted a Parliament, “the claims of Cornwall could not be overlooked to a separate and independent Government”. This was a view shared by Cornish nationalists. Their party Mebyon Kernow was founded in 1951, and has had some success in local government elections, leading to the launch on St Piran’s Day in 2000 of a “Declaration for a Cornish Assembly”, which was supported by more than 50,000 people.

Yet Cornwall’s most recent moves to secure a devolution deal, with an elected mayor — like that agreed for the North East — have now been abandoned. Cornwall may have been identified as the second poorest region in all of northern Europe in 2018, but political solutions and devolved power seem as elusive as ever. Even so, places such as post-industrial Cornwall, like much of South Wales, are really, functionally, “northern”. In English history, the divide between centre and periphery has been — and remains — as important as the separation between north and south. After all, Land’s End is further away from London than the River Tyne.

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