Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2013

6 - Asser's Parochia of Exeter


… sequentis temporis successu ex improviso dedit mihi Exanceastre, cum omni parochia, quae ad se pertinebat, in Saxonia et in Cornubia …

This passage in Asser's Life of King Alfred has given rise to discussion owing to the uncertainty of the meaning of the word parochia, and particularly with regard to its potential implications for the ecclesiastical assimilation of Cornwall into Wessex, since Cornwall's integration into Wessex advanced considerably during King Alfred's reign. The translation by Keynes and Lapidge, using the noncommittal word ‘jurisdiction’, wisely avoids precision about its implications. My purpose here is to examine some aspects of this clause in closer detail than has been possible in the more general surveys in which it has usually been discussed.

One preliminary aspect to be clarified is the exact meaning of Saxonia and Cornubia. It has generally been assumed without comment that, in this context, these words mean the later Devon and Cornwall respectively. The interpretation is surely right, but it bears closer examination. At this period such words would normally be understood with an ethnic or linguistic meaning, rather than a political one. In fact the River Tamar was probably, in the late ninth century, the boundary forming not only the administrative division between Devon and Cornwall but also, for much of its course, the linguistic division between speakers of West Saxon and Cornish.