Cornish Engine House

Cornish Stannary
(Tin) Law

Kernewek Steneck Lagha


Cornwall's own parliament

Study the history of any country and you will come across tyranny, deception, greed and rebellion. Rulers have imposed laws for their own advantage, made heroes of weaklings and put bold men to death. Cornwall's history is no exception. Here we deal with an important law of Cornwall which has come down through the ages to cause problems in English courts today.

The Latin word "stanum" means tin. The word "stannary" means pertaining to tin mines, as in "Stannary Parliament", "Stannary Courts", and "Stannary Law".

The areas of Cornwall in which tin has been mined are known as "The Stannaries". The Law affecting those Stannaries is known as Stannary Law.

The Duchy of Cornwall was created by King Edward III in 1337. The Duchy territory in Cornwall was based on the ancient British Royal Territory. Further grants of land were attached to the Duchy which were extra-territorial to Cornwall. The Cornish Stannaries are a constituent part of the Duchy of Cornwall and are currently vested in the Prince Charles as Duke of Cornwall. The Duchy Palace at Lostwithiel was once the administrative centre for the Duchy of Cornwall.

The tin miners of Cornwall lived and worked in areas which were isolated and were remote from the then centres of population. From times of great antiquity Cornish tin miners enjoyed rights and privileges, and had rudimentary institutions which were the forerunners of the Stannary Parliaments or Convocation of Tinners, and the Stannary Law Courts. Such institutions became of great importance to all those persons who were engaged in tin mining in Cornwall.

Because the tin mining areas of Cornwall produced considerable profit for the Kings and Queens of England, and the Earls and Dukes of Cornwall, those associated with such mining enjoyed for many centuries the protection of the Crown, and the Earls and Dukes for the time being.

It would appear that the geographical area of Cornwall has never been formally incorporated into England and its constitutional position as a Royal Duchy is unique.

As stated above, The Cornish Stannaries form part of the Duchy of Cornwall and are at present vested exclusively in Prince Charles, in right of his Duchy of Cornwall. The constitutional position rests upon the Charters of 1337 whereby King Edward III created the Duchy of Cornwall and appointed his elder son, Prince Edward, known as "The Black Prince", as the first Duke of Cornwall.

There is a Duchy Council which consists of high officials appointed by the Monarch or Duke of Cornwall for the time being. One such official, whose concern is supposed to be the administration of the Stannaries, is called the Lord Warden of the Stannaries. The Lord Warden of the Stannaries used to exercise judicial and military functions in Cornwall, and is still the official who, upon the commission of the Monarch or Duke of Cornwall for the time being, has the function of calling a Parliament or Convocation of Tinners in Cornwall. The last Stannary Parliament convened by a Lord Warden of the Stannaries sat in 1753.

The first Lord Warden of the Stannaries of Cornwall (and Devon) was William de Wrotham who was appointed during the reign of King Richard I of England on 20th November 1197. During the year 1198 juries of miners were convened at Launceston in Cornwall before William de Wrotham to declare the Law and Practice of the tin mines, and the Royal Tax on the tin which was mined was known as the "coinage of tin". The Writ appointing William de Wrotham confirmed the "just and ancient customs and liberties" of miners, smelters and merchants of tin. It was from those sessions of jurymen sitting under a Royal official that the Parliaments or Convocations of Tinners of Cornwall (and Devon) originated.

The four main Stannaries were Foweymore covering Launceston and Bodmin, Blackmore covering the St. Austell area, Tynwarnhail covering the north Cornish coastal areas and Penwith and Kerrier taking in the Camborne and Redruth areas as well as all of the Land's End Peninsula.

Royal Charters affecting the administration of the Stannaries of Cornwall (and Devon) and the rights and privileges of Tinners were those of King John in 1201, King Edward I in 1305, King Edward IV in 1466, and the Charter of Pardon of King Henry VII in 1508.

The Charters of King John and King Edward I granted privileges to Tinners to be tried by their own Courts and substantial exemptions from taxation.

A tax, known as 'coinage', was paid on all smelted tin until abolished by Cromwell, but re-introduced later by Charles II. Coinage became more elaborate and complicated over the years but was not finally abolished (in favour of excise duty) until as late as 1838.

Coinage was payable at 'coinage towns': Lostwithiel, Liskeard, Truro, Helston, Bodmin and Penzance.

The 1508 Charter of Pardon affected only Cornish Tinners who paid the sum of £1,000.00, then a huge sum of money, to King Henry VII, and that sum was raised by a general levy on all Tinners. In return for the payment the King included in the Charter provisions for the self-government of the Stannaries and a right for the Tinners to veto statues and ordnances which affected them and the Stannaries.

Convocations or Parliaments of Tinners (now known as "Stannary Parliaments") were convened from time to time over several centuries in accordance with the procedures stipulated in the Charter of Pardon of 1508. Commissions were issued to Lord Wardens of the Stannaries for the time being, who by virtue of such commissions, required the Mayors and Councils of the four Boroughs of Truro, Lostwithiel, Launceston and Helston in Kerrier, to elect 6 Stannators for each such Borough, to serve as Members of such Parliaments and to determine the Laws affecting Tinners and the Cornish Stannaries. Such Parliaments had great authority and their enactments passed into Law after receiving Royal or Ducal assent.

The Duchy Palace at the corner of Quay Street in Lostwithiel was the location of the last Tinners Parliament in 1752.

In 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh was knighted and was appointed warden of the Stannaries in Devon and Cornwall.

Subsequently, provision was made for the election of Assistant Stannators who met separately and who advised the Stannators. The Assistants had no voting rights.

Unfortunately, since the decline of tin mining in Cornwall, and the abolition of the coinage duty, the Royal interest in and protection of the Cornish Stannaries has been withdrawn. The Stannary regulations were abolished in 1650. The tin coinage was abolished in 1838 and Queen Victoria, and subsequent Monarchs and Dukes of Cornwall, have been compensated by a perpetual annuity. That annuity was charged to the Duchy of Cornwall. Customs duties were imposed on imported tin ore and refined tin to make good the loss of revenue.

The revenues and perquisites enjoyed by the present Duke of Cornwall in right of his Duchy are very substantial. Alas! Apart from occasional ceremonial functions, the present Duke of Cornwall appears to have abdicated from all his constitutional functions as Duke of Cornwall.

It is currently suggested that the Duchy of Cornwall is a mere property agency which has to be run at a profit and has nothing to do with the constitutional position of Cornwall and its relationship to England. That is wholly false.

A number of attempts have been made to persuade the Duke of Cornwall to issue a commission to the Lord Warden of the Stannaries to convene a Stannary Parliament so that Stannary Law can be brought up to date and stated in modern terms. All approaches have been rejected without any explanation.

Cornish tin miners have been affected to their detriment and have suffered the denial of their rights and privileges as provided by Law as a result of the withdrawal of any Royal interest.

In Cornwall, tin miners have the right to pitch bounds in land belonging to other persons provided that strict conditions are observed.

Stannary Law is supposed to be enforced in the Truro County Court. Attempts to register tin bounds have been largely frustrated.

The Cornish Stannaries still contain large quantities of tin ore, and the ores of other metals, which could be exploited economically in small workings if Cornish Tinners were to avail themselves of the extant Stannary Law.

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