Flying the Cornish Flag of St Piran

by JoHarrington

The national flag of Cornwall also belongs to St Piran. But what are those colors and who, indeed, was this patron saint?

It's said that Irish St Piran washed up on a Cornish shore tied to a millstone. It wasn't his fault.

Back in his native Cork, he had upset some powerful people with his knowledge and, dare we say, magic. There are perhaps many ways of getting rid of such a man; but in their infinite wisdom the best idea was to weigh him down and chuck him into the Irish Sea.

This did not go according to plan. That usually wild and capricious stretch of ocean merely calmed; and the millstone floated. It carried St Piran along, gently conveying him all the way over to Cornwall.

Legend doesn't record how he freed himself of the stone. It merely says that he was there and hungry. What happened next was later to inspire the Cornish flag.

Buy a St Piran's Flag - the Flag of Cornwall

Province and County 3' x 2' Polyester Flag-Cornwall

St Piran, Patron Saint of Cornwall and Tin Miners

The major Cornish export for centuries was tin. Therefore it's a good job that its national saint also looked after its miners.

Dark, rugged and hauntingly beautiful, the coastline of Cornwall is still visited by thousands of tourists every year.

These days, there are cafes, restaurants and bars aplenty to cater for them all. Though most will be heading straight for the nearest retailer of hot Cornish pasties. (At least they will be, if they have any sense.)

None of this was there, in the 6th century, when St Piran appeared. He had to rummage around the undergrowth and find sustenance for himself. The local animals were out. He encountered them first and converted them to Christianity, before he'd even spotted a human being.

It must be assumed therefore that Piran's foraged meal was some kind of broth or stew.  Maybe it was a soup, made up of wild mushrooms, hedgerow plants and roots. Either way, it involved building a fire to heat his food up, good and proper.

Piran picked himself out a hearthstone; and this is how the flag got formed.

Since before the coming of the Celts, Cornwall has been famous for its tin. In fact, the metal was being exported before the country was even called Cornwall.

(Which simply coupled the old English 'wælisc' (pronounced 'wales' or 'walls'), aka 'foreigners', with an abbreviation of the Celtic tribe Kernow. In short, Cornwall means 'Celtic foreigners'; and it was intended as a racial slur.)

It was, therefore, hardly any coincidence at all that Piran's hearthstone held a surprising property. As his fire heated up that black rock, it started to ooze a molten material. Greyish white and sliding through its crevices, the tin was extracted from the hearthstone.

Look carefully at St Piran's flag, also the symbol of Cornwall itself. That's the black background of the rock and, running across it, the lines of white hot tin.

T-Shirts Emblazoned with the Proud Cornish Flag

Wear St Piran's flag to declare your allegiance, or to show solidarity with the people of Cornwall.
Cornish Cornwall Flag Front Flag Whit...Cornish Cornwall Flag Front Black T-S...Cornish flag Union jack Women's Cap S...

St Piran's Day Celebrations in Perranporth

This town overlooks the beach where Piran is said to have landed in Cornwall. Every March 5th, they join the rest of the Cornish nation in a patriotic party.

Unfurling the National Flag of Cornwall

Was it always the Crows Wyn (St Piran's Flag) or did the Cornish once display two wrestlers?

Every British country has a saint's flag, but Cornwall's has merged into being its national emblem as well.

Whether the references are spoken in laziness or ignorance, this one flies alone. A red cross on a white background is the St George flag of England. A golden cross on a black background is the St David flag of Wales. A white, diagonally rendered cross, on a blue background, is the St Andrew flag of Scotland.

Yet nobody calls this the St Piran flag. It's always the Cornish flag.

The discrepancy appears to have been going on for a long time. As early as 1838, David Gilbert was writing in The Parochial History of Cornwall, that the 'white cross on a black background 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.' (Vol III, pp 332.)

What is unclear is which came first. Did the Cornish co-opt their patron saint's flag for themselves; or vice versa? There are some clues that the Cornish flag originally depicted the legendary wrestling match between local hero Corin and the giant(s) Gog Magog.

At least this is the implication given in the 16th century poem The Battaile of Agincourt by Michael Drayton. He described all of the flags and banners flown by the amassed British armies. In stanza 66, we read:

The men of [d]Surrey, Cheeky Blew and gold,
(Which for braue Warren their first Earle they wore,
In many a Field that honour’d was of olde:)
And Hamshere next in the same Colours bore,
Three Lions Passant, th’ Armes of Beuis bould,
Who through the World so famous was of yore;
A siluer[e] Tower, Dorsets Red Banner beares;
The Cornishmen two Wrestlers had for theirs.

If this is then compared with Drayton's introduction to Cornwall in Poly-Oblion, then it's undoubtedly Corin and Gog Magog who are on that flag.

So what happened to them?! Of course, this is a poet (an extremely long-winded poet prone to artistic licence) writing in 1628. It is not an actual eye-witness account from over 200 years previously.

Moreover, a quick search of every other flag mentioned in that stanza does not bear fruit. Neither Surrey, Hampshire nor Dorset seem to have banners thus described. Nor do any of the counties in the subsequent stanzas match their Drayton determined emblems.

The trouble is that no-one before Gilbert mentions St Piran's Cross; and no-one before Drayton alludes to a Corin and Gog Magog banner. Since then, the latter has only been noted by quoting Drayton; while the former has moved swiftly out of the hands of the saint and into the grasp of a nation.

The Flag of Cornwall in House and Kitchenware

Window Clings, coasters and magnets can be bought, so guests know all about your Cornish credentials.
Cornwall Flag 6 inch x 4 inch Window ...Pack of 12 6cm Square Stickers Flag D...Cornwall Flag Clear Acrylic Fridge Ma...

Who is St Piran?

He is a 6th century abbot, who brought Christianity to Cornwall. At least, that's the legend.

This should have been the easy part. The conversion of Britain from Paganism into Christianity is very well documented.

When I was writing about St David, it was all there. I had to strip away some 11th century fluff, with had rendered the saint a kind of British anti-Pagan messiah, but nevertheless the history remained intact beneath.

There was no reason to doubt a thing about St Piran. Someone evangelized Kernow; and that somebody has a name, a legend, an oratory and a flag.

Unfortunately, that's about all that he has and there's little corroborating evidence for it. So much so that, in the 14th century, a scribe at Exeter Cathedral had to resort to rewriting the story of Saint Ciarán of Saighir. He just changed the name and location, then entitled it The Life of St Piran.

Over the past century, several researchers have attempted to find solid historical evidence for Cornwall's patron saint. The very fact that Christianity dates from that period in the country says that someone was there, but who? 

Piran has been linked with various Irish saints. Some of them led to cold trails or dead ends; some tantalizingly led straight back to the aforementioned Saint Ciarán of Saighir.

I'm no expert on Celtic Catholicism nor the comings and goings of Irish abbots, but I would like to proffer one point of my own. Coming to this via researching genealogy, I've learned a thing or two about how Celtic names get mangled over the years.

If Sion ap Rhys can become John Price, and Mark ap Ragnell become Mark Prangnell, then couldn't the same thing have happened here?  Piran might be nothing more than 'ap Erin' - son of Ireland. 

It might even be plural. This would allow all of those Irish saints associated with the legend to take their places again; as well as taking into account more than one holy bone in the vaults of Exeter Cathedral.

The Sons of Ireland came to Cornwall, with Gaelic names, which the people of Kernow couldn't pronounce. They were collectively nicknamed 'ap Erin'. Their evangelism worked and history lumped them together into a single legendary abbot - St Piran.

That's my theory anyway. Any thoughts?

St Piran Gift Ideas for your Cornish Man

Buy tie pins or cufflinks bearing the flag of Cornwall to complement his formal dress.
St Piran Cornish Flag Rhodium Tie SlideSt. Piran Flag Tie TacSt Piran Cornish Flag Cufflinks

Flying the Crows Wyn for Kernow

In many ways, what matters more is not the history, but the present day flying of the Cornish flag.

Cornwall is legally, traditionally and morally a separate country to England; as well as one of the six Celtic nations. However, this fact is barely recognised at all abroad. Even many British don't even know it.

The flying of the Crows Wyn (St Piran's Flag) is one sure fire way of raising awareness. If you support the cause of Kernow, then it's practically your duty. Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn! (Freedom for Cornwall now!)

As far as the Cornish people are concerned, it is their national banner; and long may it remain.

Updated: 05/31/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 03/10/2012

Thank you. It really surprised me that there's not more on him. The ecclesiastic history of this time is very well documented.

JoHarrington on 03/08/2012

Hiya! I love that you actually did come and have a look at my article about this. Thanks for your comment.

EMK Events on 03/08/2012

Interesting thought on Ap Erin. Makes sense to me.

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