Sunday, October 16, 2022


A stannary was an administrative division in the counties of Cornwall and Devon based on tin-mining. The term comes from Middle English stannarie based on Medieval Latin stannaria, "tin mine,"which itself is from the Latin stannum, "tin." (You may know that the chemical symbol for Tin is Sn; now you know why.)

Tin was so important that a body of law was developed to deal specifically with stannaries. King John in 1201 gave the tin miners of Cornwall the Stannary Charter: the right to prospect for tin anywhere, to be exempt from standard taxation, and to have their own stannary courts in the case of law-breaking. King Edward I in 1305 confirmed these rights, as did Edward III when he created the Duchy of Cornwall in 1337. Crockern Tor, pictured above, was the site of the Stannary Parliament, representing the tin industry.

Tin mining pre-dated the Middle Ages in Cornwall. When the Romans arrived, it was already thriving. Diodorus Siculus in 44BCE wrote the earliest reference to Cornwall we know:

The people of that promontory of Britain called Belerion [west Cornwall] are friendly to strangers and, from their contact with foreign merchants, are civilised in their way of life. They carefully work the ground from which they extract the tin.

In the Middle Ages, the tin was smelted and made into blocks (later standardized at 170 kilograms). They were taken to specifically designated locations called stannary towns where a "prover" would test it for quality, then put an official stamp on it and allow it to be sold. A duty would be calculated on the sale, equivalent to four shillings per hundredweight (170 kilograms = 3.34 hundredweight) under Edward I. Duty amounts changed over time, but the amount of tin coming out of Cornwall and Devon was considerable, so anyone given the right to the duties could have a hefty income. After King John died (and after some other events), the king's council allowed his widow, Isabella of Angoulême the duty from the stannaries of Devon.

This whole system of special privilege, etc., existed until the Tin Duties Act of 1838.

The history of mining in Cornwall was far more extensive than dealing with tin, even tied to a Biblical legend. I'll tell you more next time.

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