Medieval Towns and Churches

Medieval Towns and Churches

The growth of towns came relatively late to Cornwall, and before the middle of the 12th century few settlements had assumed urban charac­teristics or functions. Unfortunately the early history of the county’s towns is poorly documented and the picture is further complicated by the fact that historians have been unable to agree on a common interpretation of the little that is known about their origins and early development. The traditional view, advanced by the late Charles Henderson and others, follows the argument that the Cornish, like their Welsh cousins, showed a cultural reluctance towards nucleated settle­ments, preferring a landscape made up of small hamlets and scattered farmsteads. Towns were consequently the result of Norman and Angevin influences, and they cite the negative evidence of an early 10th-century document known as the ‘Burghal Hidage’ which does not list a single town in the whole of the county. To Henderson, towns were mainly ‘planted’ as the artificial creations of speculative Anglo-Norman barons, who saw in them potential sources of wealth and prestige. More recent writers, however, while accepting the important role played by these landholders in granting legal and commercial privileges, have stressed the theme of continuity in the development of settlement patterns since pre-Roman times. Dr. M. E. Witherick, in particular, has put forward the view that Cornwall’s earliest towns were the result of native economic and social forces, which saw the gradual transformation over several centuries of hamlet into village and village into town. To Witherick, the granting of a borough charter by some medieval dignitary only rarely represents the actual creation of a town but rather recognition of what had already become a reality.

At the heart of the problem, as we have seen, lies the paucity of documentary evidence as town records for Cornwall are very meagre before the 13th century. The Domesday Survey of 1086 is particularly uninformative although it says enough to suggest that a few com­munities were already regarded as towns; but we should remember that most early medieval towns would have contained only a few hundred • inhabitants and would have looked to the modern eye more like over­grown country villages. The Survey recorded Bodmin as the largest town, but with only 68 houses, while the ecclesiastical settlement of St Stephen’s-by-Launceston seems to have originated as a Saxon town­ship. Interestingly, both examples illustrate how important was the pre­sence of a monastery as a stimulus to early growth. Previous references to Domesday Book, though, have shown that it has its limitations, and other evidence suggests that communities like Padstow, Launceston itself, Kilkhampton and Heiston were also assuming town characteristics and functions.

During the 12th century, town development accelerated with growth stimulated by economic forces and by the conferring of trading privi¬leges. Authority to hold a regular weekly market was particularly coveted, a right granted to the men of East Looe by Henry II, while in 1194 Robert of Cardinham paid 10 marks to enjoy the same privilege at Lostwithiel. At some point between 1190 and 1225 Prior Theobald of Tywardreath established a free borough at Fowey which quickly grew into Cornwall’s most important medieval port. Again, in or about 1173, Earl Reginald granted a charter of privileges ‘to my free burgesses of Truro’, a document interestingly addressed ‘to the barons of Cornwall, and all men both Cornish and English’. During the 13th and 14th centuries this process accelerated, and by 1400 about thirty-five settlements enjoyed sufficient privileges and performed enough func¬tions to warrant classification as towns. Some of them, like Calhington, St Columb Major, St Ives and Wadebridge, did not enjoy the formal status of a borough but still had the lucrative right to hold weekly markets. These were exceptions, however, and most of the county’s early towns were classified as boroughs either because they had been granted a charter or because they traditionally claimed such a status by prescription. Borough charters were coveted documents which conferred special privileges on the inhabitants and exempted them from normal judicial customary obligations. The basic criterion was the possession of free burgage tenure, which gave the burgess or tenant the right to hold his burgage or house plot without having to perform the kind of labour service expected from an ordinary villein. As well as being allowed to hold regular markets, boroughs could host annual fairs and assume responsibility for the administration of justice within their designated boundaries. As the Lostwithiel example showed, borough status was often worth paying for, and in 1201 the men of Heiston paid 40 marks of silver to King John ‘that their town be made a free borough with gild merchant’.

With about thirty medieval boroughs Cornwall occupied an impres¬sive third position in the national county hierarchy and was only surpassed by Somerset, with 31, and Devon with seventy-four. It is far from clear, however, exactly why the south-west in general had so many boroughs when the more fertile and populous counties of East Anglia and the Midlands had so few. For Cornwall the earldom was certainly a stimulus, and Earl Richard, in particular, granted charters to Bossiney, Tintagel, Camelford, West Looe, Bodmin, Launceston, Liskeard and Lostwithiel, although the last four, at least, were already established towns at the time of their incorporation. The increase in Cornwall’s maritime importance must also have played a part, and the concentration of boroughs along the south coast including Looe, Penzance, St Mawes and Penryn reflects the growing importance of trade to the county’s economy. Others, though, seem to have been purely speculative ventures which hardly got off the ground, quickly reverting to country villages in the aftermath of the Black Death and in the fluctuating economic climate of the 15th century. Few today would imagine that tiny Crafthole near St Germans had been granted a charter in 1314 or that Mitchell and Tregony once enjoyed the same status as Bodmin and Penzance. Some foundations were even recognised as failures almost from the start, like the borough of Penknight which Earl Richard wisely amalgamated with nearby Lostwithiel in 1268.

Not only was the town map of medieval Cornwall very different from its modern counterpart but the urban hierarchy had an unfamiliar look to it. Population estimates for this period depend on the survival of burgess totals and, while many have been lost, it is still possible to reach a few generalisations. In the first place, several of today’s largest towns were still in their infancy, overshadowed by communities which would now be classified as villages. In 1306, for example, Boscastle was a borough of 100 burgesses, perhaps 500 people in all, while 20 years later Penzance had a population of only about a hundred and fifty. Tintagel, with 86 burgesses, was bigger than East Looe and Camelford with about sixty each, while modern urban centres like St Austell were mere hamlets and Falmouth hardly existed at all before 1613. Those towns which occupied the very top of the urban ladder, on the other hand, were more familiar places which have managed to retain their importance through the centuries. Bodmin was particularly important, enjoying the advantages which stemmed from its geogra­phical position in the centre of the county. Mentioned in Domesday Book, it was the religious centre of Cornwall throughout the Middle Ages; its Augustinian priory was reconstituted by Bishop Warlewast of Exeter between 1107-37, and it had a Franciscan friary and numerous chapels. The borough’s importance was also enhanced by its early role as the most important tin market in the county. The second largest town was Truro which had been granted a borough charter in or about 1173. Thereafter it grew rapidly, being chosen as the home of the Sheriff’s Tourn and by the end of the 1250s the borough also housed a Dominican friary. In addition the burgesses enjoyed the familiar right to hold a weekly market together with an annual fair in November, and the town’s importance was further recognised in 1295 when along with Bodmin, Tregoriy, Launceston and Liskeard it was allowed to send two representatives to Edward I’s Parliament, a privilege which it continued to exercise right up to the Second Reform Act of 1867. As the tin industry expanded and continued in its westward advance Truro also became a coinage town, as did Cornwall’s third largest medieval borough, Lostwithiel. This community expanded under the patronage of the Cardinham family (originally known as Cardinan), although its precise origins are lost in the mists of the 12th century. In or about 1195 Robert de Cardinan granted his burgesses of Lostwetell ‘all the liberties which his ancestors had given them’, adding the frustratingly uninformative comment ‘on the day when they were founded’. Each burgess was to rent his burgage at the rate of 6d. a year, half the normal requirement. In 1268 Lostwithiel was amalga¬mated with adjoining Penknight, granted a market, fair, gild merchant and other privileges, and by the early 14th century it had become a leading coinage town as well as the headquarters of the Duchy adminis¬tration. From a burgage total of 305 recorded in 1300 the number of houseplots had risen to 400 by 1337, which suggests a total population of between one and two thousand. Heiston, Liskeard, Fowey and Launceston were also important Cornish towns throughout the medi¬eval period, the first two as coinage towns, Fowey as a thriving maritime centre. Launceston, with its important castle enlarged by Earl Richard, was a major administrative and judicial centre and interestingly it was the only Cornish town to be surrounded and defended by stone walls and gates. In places the walls were six ft. thick and substantial in height as they were raised on the top of a large earthen bank, but centuries of robbing for house-building have left only the Southgate remaining.

For the inhabitants of these early towns life varied considerably accord¬ing to the economic pursuits of the immediate locality. It was usual for the burgesses to have their strips or ‘stitches’ in the common fields which can still be detected around Penryn, Marazion, Bossiney and elsewhere. Some towns, as we have seen, benefited from the expansion of the tin industry and were designated coinage towns where the ore was weighed and taxed. The boroughs of St Germans, fostered by the wealthy Arundell family, and Lostwithiel were renowned for their pottery while the inhabitants of Boscastle, Looe, Mousehole, Padstow, Penryn, Penzance, St Ives and St Mawes were heavily involved in the fishing industry. Maritime functions, in fact, developed an increasing import¬ance as the Middle Ages progressed and as Cornwall became steadily assimilated into the medieval trading orbit. Despite the many fluctua¬tions in output, tin was the county’s staple export, though the expansion of the cloth industry proved a boon to the burgesses of Fowey who handled most of the trade. During the first half of the 15th century, in fact, exports of cloth from Cornish ports increased 10-fold and these kinds of trading activity help us to account for another characteristic of the early town – the large numbers of foreigners recorded in contemporary tax returns. Many native Cornishmen do not seem to have been particularly attracted to urban life at this time and the vacuum was often filled with outsiders, with the result that many early towns, especially those on the coast, became quite cosmopolitan in their population. Evidence for this is derived from the Subsidy Rolls which conveniently separated native taxpayers from foreign ones, most of whom clearly came from similar maritime regions on the Continent. In 1327 there were 15 foreigners at Fowey; in the same year Penryn was equally divided between natives and foreigners and at Tregony and Grampound the foreign element actually predominated. By 1437 almost one-third of the population of Fowey was classified as ‘alien’ and the great majority came from Ireland and Holland with a scattering also of Flemish and French inhabitants. Cornwall’s traditional association with Brittany also continued to be reflected in similar fashion and again :most of the county’s ports contained a sizeable Breton minority. Fowey again headed the list; a later subsidy roll of Henry VIII recorded the presence of 23 foreigners at St Ives, all Bretons, while the surrounding parishes also housed a liberal sprinkling of Breton families. It is clear, in fact, that up to the Reformation Bretons were still coming to Cornwall in impressive numbers and when war broke out between England rand France in the 1540s we hear of the dilemma faced by many who ‘would rather die than go hence’. The conflict prompted many to become naturalised and it is noticeable in the later subsidy rolls that while the number of Bretons listed as foreigners decreases, the surname Briton’ or ‘Brette’ becomes more common. Other Breton names entered the local nomenclature and in the Penwith area, in particular, surnames like Jewell, Tangye, Gruzelier and Rouffignac’h still survive as evidence of this long-standing connection between Cornwall and little Britain’.

Some of the early towns already discussed have shown the importance f a monastic community in providing a stimulus to urban development. resident community of monks often enjoyed the privilege of holding a regular market which in turn attracted traders and craftsmen quick to appreciate the advantages of a permanent site. The Augustinians were the principal order in Cornwall with priories at Bodmin, Tregony, St Germans and Launceston, and their foundations clearly acted as strong nucleating forces, just as another priory at St Anthony-in‑Roseland may have been a factor in the growth of nearby St Mawes. In addition there were important collegiate churches at St Columb Major and at Penryn, where Glasney College emerged as a centre of Cornish literary activity; most medieval towns, in fact, had their stock of churches, chapels and related institutions which stimulated economic and urban growth. By 1400 the borough of Penryn housed the chapels of SS Mary and Leonard, a bishop’s palace, a chantry, as well as the once magnificent Glasney collegiate church begun by Bishop Bronesco­mbe of Exeter in 1264. Demolished during the Reformation, this fortified residence for 26 clerics had its church, domestic quarters, refectory, chapter-house and its own cemetery. The borough of Truro, later to become a cathedral city, was already an established religious centre with its Dominican friary and three chapels dedicated to SS Mary, George and Nicholas, while the spiritual needs of the people of Padstow were so well catered for that the vicar in 1745 lamented that ere were seven or eight chapels in my parish but they are all in ruins and the names of most are entirely forgotten’.

An essential part of the duties of the medieval church, at least since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, involved catering for the sick, aged and infirm, and for pilgrims en route to one of Cornwall’s many holy shrines like St Michael’s Mount. Several towns had their hospices for this purpose, like St John’s Hospice at Helston; the ‘Lazar House’ for lepers was also a common feature of the Cornish landscape. Leprosy was a frequent ailment in the Middle Ages, and in 1179 the Church ordered the Christian community everywhere to show a more benevolent attitude towards sufferers. By 1309 two lazar houses at Bodmin were catering for 39 lepers, and there were others at St Ives, Truro, Helston and Padstow. Often, though, mistaken fear of contamination prompted other leper houses to be built well away from centres of population, and the Cornish word clodgy or clojy (meaning ‘sick house’) can be found in several remote locations. In his will, Bishop Bytton of Exeter (1291-1307) left legacies to as many as 23 leper hospices in the county, stating that the money was to be apportioned ‘to every sick person – twelve pence’.

In the countryside as well as in the towns the Church was an essential ingredient of medieval life. In general, though, it was not rural monasticism which made a significant contribution to Cornish society, although the communities at Tywardreath and St Buryan were important, but the numerous local churches which were the mainstay of Christian worship. As we have seen in Chapter Four many of these churches had their roots in the sixth and seventh centuries when Celtic Christianity was at its height, but only about one third, just over two hundred, seem to have been selected as parish churches. It is not really clear when the parochial system was first introduced into the county, though it seems reasonable to assume that the process began with the Anglo-Saxons in the eastern area and was completed by the first generation of Normans. Certainly by the early 12th century the pattern had become clear, and parish boundaries often coincided with manorial limits which in turn appear to represent much older territorial divisions. At all events, the 12th century saw an energetic phase of church building, although relatively little architectural evidence from this period has survived the later programmes of rebuilding and expansion. Tintagel church, however, remains as a fine example of the late – Norman style with its familiar cruciform shape and north and south transepts. Each parish church was attached to one of Cornwall’s eight deaneries, whose borders closely corresponded to those of the hundreds, while the archdeacon exercised authority on behalf of the Bishop of Exeter.

During the late Middle Ages the Church fell into general disrepute for a number of inter-related reasons. The tithe was particularly resented and the resentment was aggravated by the increasing trend towards appropriation, by which the revenue of a parish was often diverted to a monastery, frequently beyond the county. By the late 15th century over half the Cornish parishes had been appropriated and this was condemned by those who paid the tithe but saw little in return. The moral and spiritual standards of the clergy had also declined, and not without reason did Bishop Grandisson refer to them as ‘corrupters rather than leaders. . . riotous and debauched’. There were numerous complaints about the behaviour of individual clerics for neglect of duty, ignorance of the scriptures and moral lapses, while many bene­fices were neglected as priests took on several parishes to increase their incomes and then failed to provide an adequate service to their enlarged flock. Monastic life also deteriorated with allegations of ignorance and sexual debauchery, and at St Germans in 1355 only four of the 10 canons could even write their own names. When Edward IV appointed a commission to reform the important collegiate church at St Buryan, it was found that the dean and prebendaries lived elsewhere, the curates led a life of drunkenness and fornication, and the church’s fabric was decaying at a faster rate than the morality of the inmates. Half a century later Henry VIII was to address himself to the fundamental issue of the Church’s status, although he could never have envisaged the reaction his measures were to provoke among the Cornish people themselves.