A Land of Saints

A Land of Saints. The Early Cornish Church

The earliest Celts were a pagan people for whom religion and super­stition were inseparable. They worshipped numerous underground gods and attributed special mysterious significance to physical features such as woods, springs, wells and pools. They were great practitioners of cults, the head being particularly revered and commonly carved in wood and stone. Classical writers wrote of the existence of Druids although frequently associating them with mystery and human sacrifice in a deliberate attempt to depict the Celts as undesirable barbarians in desperate need of the civilising influence of Mediterranean culture. In reality, as Julius Caesar himself observed, these Druids do not seem to have been priests but a kind of official class, well versed in tradition and learning, who acted in the manner of ceremonial supervisors.

Unfortunately we know virtually nothing about the specific pagan practices of the early Dumnonii. Celtic religion was essentially an open-air activity which probably utilised existing stone monuments and circles leaving little tangible evidence behind. Most of our knowledge of Celtic paganism comes from Ireland, which was untouched by the Romans, or from Gaul which was close enough to attract the attention of their scholars. There are, however, a few Cornish gleanings worth our attention; the place-name element neved, meaning a ‘pagan sanctuary’, can be detected in Lanivet and Carnevas, while at Bosence a votive offering was found to have been deposited in a well situated within an earthwork. In the 1940s a rough-worked Romano-Celtic stone idol was found on St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly, and Charles Thomas has proposed that the islands take their collective name from a goddess, also commemorated at Bath, whose name began with Sil or Sul, and were in fact a centre of pagan pilgrimage.

Christianity first reached the British Isles in the second century but it is unlikely to have acquired a significant following until the end of the fourth. Its progress was often sporadic, with temporary periods of retreat, but by about 600 its position had become secure. Lewannick in the east and Philack in the west were among the first Christian focal points in Cornwall, perhaps dating from the early fifth century, while there are also indications of early Christian influences being introduced from Gaul. Wales, and to a lesser extent Ireland, also made important contributions to the conversion of the Dumnonii throughout the Romano-Celtic period. The whole process is traditionally seen as a gradual one in which the new faith existed alongside paganism and, indeed, absorbed many pagan traditions. The veneration of holy wells and pools continued, and heathen wells now became holy wells which were often renamed, like the famous well of St Keyne, after saints and hermits.

Evidence for the early Christian period is derived from a variety of sources which include standing stones, interments and place-name elements. In 1843 one of the earliest known Christian burials in Cornwall, dating from the fifth century, was discovered at Carnsew near Hayle. Here a grave 4 ft/1.2m. below the surface was found to contain an inscribed stone which recorded the death of a certain ‘Cunaide aged 33 years’. The progress of the new faith is also confirmed by the appearance of the so-called chi-rho monogram, a representation of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ which was carved into a stone face. Early forms exist on a slab at Phillack which has been set into the wall on the south side of the church, while another, since lost, was recorded at Cape Cornwall in the 1870s. Later chi-rho forms are also known from St Endellion, South Hill and St Just, the latter being particularly interesting as the monogram appears on a small upright pillar discovered in 1834 and which also bears on its obverse the Latin inscription Senilus Ic lacet – ‘here lies Senilus’. This hic iacit formula, the product of continental influence, characterised very early Christian memorials although it tended to give way in the late sixth and seventh centuries to the filius inscription, introduced from Ireland, by which the deceased was styled as the ‘son or daughter of’ a named parent. A fine example stands in the churchyard at St Clement and bears the inscription Vitali fili Torrid – (the stone of) ‘Vitalus the son of Torricus’.

How should we envisage the pattern and organisation of early Christian worship in Cornwall? The first requirement is to dispel any images of those sturdy granite churches and monasteries which characterised the medieval period and still grace the landscape of many communities. The first holy men lived as hermits in caves or rudimentary stone cells like the example excavated at St Helen’s Oratory on the Scillies. With the appearance of the earliest religious communities would have come the erection of timber and wattle buildings which would not have looked out of place during the Iron Age. These would have been associated with cemeteries, although not always so, and in some instances abandoned ’rounds’ appear to have been utilised for such purposes as may have been the case at Carnsew and St Buryan. The erection of inscribed memorials commemorating prominent figures, both lay and secular, would have contributed to raising the social prominence of these graveyard sites and, as the desire for communal Christian activity increased, simple stone chapels would be built within the cemetery perimeters. At this point, however, a note of caution needs to be sounded. It may well be a popularly held view that this sort of progression from burial site to Dark Age chapel and then to medieval church represents the normal model of ecclesiastical development in the county, but archaeologists have been at pains to point out that surmise should not be allowed to replace hard evidence, and there are too many gaps in our knowledge for this to be more than an assumed pattern in many cases.

Cornwall has often been described as ‘a land of saints’, and no visitor to the county can fail to be impressed by the sheer range, not to mention the distinctive nomenclature, of the many holy figures commemorated in church dedications and place-names. The results of recent scholarship, however, have called into question some of the traditionally held assumptions about these figures and the part played by them in the conversion process. Partly because many saints’ names duplicated in Wales, Ireland and Brittany, and partly because the many medieval ‘Saints’ Lives’ frequently depict the first generation of holy men and women as some sort of pan-Celtic missionaries, it has become customary to envisage them endlessly traversing the western seaways, each founding a number of Christian communities and performing such wondrous acts that their cults spread throughout the Celtic world. While ‘Saints’ Lives’ may make fascinating reading, however, their historical reliability is highly suspect; they were often written 500 years after the events they describe and only then with the express purpose of eulogising the ‘founder’ of a particular religious community. The frequency of supposed multiple dedications has also allowed conclusions to be made which are questioned by today’s specialists. Take, for example, the figure of St Piran, patron saint of tin miners and more recently adopted as Cornwall’s national saint While few would accept the story that this sixth century figure sailed across from Ireland on a millstone, he is repeatedly claimed to have established an oratory on the north coast at Perranzabuloe and given his name to Perranporth and Perranarworthel. While an oratory was discovered beneath the sands in 1835, it is unlikely to have been older than the ninth century and, in the absence of written evidence, it is quite impossible to claim that religious houses dedicated to St Piran or anyone else were actually founded by that saint, or, indeed, even refer to the same person. Even if we accept multiple dedications as commemorating a single individual and not several bearing indentical names, they probably represent the subsequent spread of a particular cult rather than reflect personal religious foundations. The many Cornish churches dedicated to Welsh saints, including St Breock, St Teath, St Mabyn, St Issey and St Endellion, are again best interpreted as indications of the importance of Welsh influences during the early Christian period rather than as houses actually founded by the individuals commemorated.

In all about 170 saints are honoured in Cornwall, including some native ones such as Just, Seleven and Constantine. About twenty are recorded in place-names which comprise the element lann, later lan, followed by a personal name. The term is equivalent to the Welsh llan and literally meant ‘cemetery enclosure’, although it is usually interpreted as indicating an early religious site, although this connection cannot be claimed with certainty in every case. The oldest spellings of Launceston took the form of Lanstaphadon indicating that this was the ‘town of the church of St Stephen’, while Landewednack on the Lizard represents the ‘lan’ of St Tewennoc. Other examples can be found in older place-name forms which are no longer in general usage; the church at St Keverne appears in the 11th century as Lannache bran and that at Perranzabuloe as Lanpiran. The village of Madron near Penzance is named after St Madernus and was originally known as Landithy while St Just-in-Roseland appears as Lansioch in 1202. The term lann also appears to be synonymous with a definite physical form, the raised, oval enclosures which represent early Christian grave­yards within which many churches were later erected. In some instances this distinctive oval shape has survived the centuries relatively unscathed and fine examples remain with the churchyards of Lewannick, Gulval and St Buryan.

It has become traditional to claim that the early Christian church in Cornwall was monastic in structure and that the list of religious houses recorded in Domesday Book represents communities established as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. In the absence of any documentary or archaeological evidence, however, such an interpretation is difficult to sustain, and in any case the distinction between church and monastery is essentially a medieval one which has little place in post-Roman Cornwall. Nonetheless, the Domesday evidence is the best insight we have into the number and distribution of early religious communities in the county. The port of Padstow takes its name from the ‘stow’ or place’ of St Petroc, but the canons were subsequently obliged to move inland to Bodmin, a decision probably prompted by the Viking attacks of 981. As it transpired, the transfer proved beneficial with Bodmin outranking the other religious houses – Perranzabuloe, St Kew, St arantoc, St Constantine, St Probus, St Neot’s, St Keverne, St Buryan, St Germans and St Michael’s Mount. There remains, finally, the controversial site at Tintagel which legend dictates was the birthplace of King Arthur. This rocky promontory has been excavated, interpreted and reinterpreted, although the most recent assessment favours a secular settlement rather than the traditional view that it should also be included any list of early religious communities.

Before the assimilation of Cornwall into the newly united Kingdom of England the native Celtic church enjoyed a considerable degree of independence. It retained important differences in custom and practice from the Roman model adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, notably in the ritual of baptism, the shape of the monk’s tonsure and, above all, in the method of calculating Easter. These issues had been fiercely debated at.the Synod of Whitby in 663, a grand ecclesiastical gathering at which the Anglo-Saxons agreed to adopt Roman usages, but the Celtic church refused to follow suit. Most hostility was directed against the obstinate Welsh, but there is no reason to suppose that the Dumnonian Celts behaved differently or that they had begun to conform before the second half of the eighth century. The division of the county into parishes was also a late development and under the native system the territorial structure appears to have been rather amorphous, although it must be said that we know very little about the administrative structure of the Cornish church at this time. In the absence of documentary evidence we are obliged to look to Wales for a suitable model, and there the 10th-century Laws of Hywel Dda differentiated between the mother church or clas with its body of resident canons and the lesser church with its solitary priest. If the Cornish church had developed along similar lines, and the intimate cultural contacts with Wales make it hard to envisage otherwise, then we should regard houses like St Petroc’s and Perranzabuloe as mother churches with a status also similar to the Anglo-Saxon minsters.

It is to the administrative innovations of Athelstan’s reign that we should look for the widespread introduction of a parochial system in Cornwall, as before the early 10th century only the northern areas seem likely to have been affected. It should be appreciated that the absorption of the Celtic church into the see of Canterbury must have been a gradual process which echoed the hesitant nature of the Anglo-Saxon military conquest. After Egbert’s victory over the Cornish at Hingston Down in 838 the Cornish bishop Kenstec was compelled to acknowledge the authority of Archbishop Ceolnoth. From Kenstec ‘s letter of submission it is clear that his church remained ‘monastic’ in character, and, On his death the bishop of Sherborne was commissioned to make annual visitations into Cornwall in order to ‘uproot the errors’ of the natives. In 909 Cornwall and Devon were united for ecclesiastical purposes into a single diocese centred on Crediton. Athelstan, perhaps anxious not to offend the sensibilities of the recently-conquered Cornish, made a conciliatory gesture by attaching a large endowment to the church of St Germans and making it the seat of a bishop to officiate ‘west of the Tamar’. Moreover, by choosing a Cornishman, Conan, to fill this office, Athelstan made another gesture to native sentiment. Conan and his successors were auxiliary, bishops acting on behalf of the Bishop of Crediton, and this pattern continued until 994 when King Aethelred made Cornwall into an independent diocese with its seat at St Germans. This arrangement, however, proved only temporary, and in c. 1027 Lyfing, abbot of Tavistock, was appointed Bishop of Crediton and subsequently Bishop of Cornwall as well. He began a process of consolidation which was completed after his death in 1046 when, under Bishop Leofric, the two dioceses of Devon and Cornwall were amalgamated. The seat of the united bishopric was fixed at Exeter, and in 1059 Edward the Confessor granted lands in St Keverne and St Martin-in-Meneague to Bishop Ealdred. Exeter was now to remain the ecclesiastical centre of the south-west until 1876 when Parliament sanctioned the creation of a new Cornish bishopric to be centred on Truro.