From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 21-28.




Curious Churches in Cornwall.


THERE are few counties in England where we can better study the past in the present than in Cornwall. Side by side we see the last improvements in machinery in the mines, and the monuments of the most remote antiquity, perhaps, the new school of antiquaries say, as old as the Father of History, or indeed a great deal older, for they belong to the Bronze or later Stone age — before the Aryan Celts had come to this part of Western Europe, and when a sort of broad-headed Lappish savages inhabited the Cornish moorlands and the English forests. In fact, in Cornwall you find remains which elsewhere in England are curious and very rare indeed. Why?

1. The granite of Cornwall is one of the most enduring of stones. What is made of it may last, with decent treatment, two or three thousand years in excellent condition. So the cromlechs, the hut circles, the menhirs of the aboriginal Euskarians of Britain remain in admirable condition, though perhaps older than Rome itself, or 22 the dawn of ancient Greek civilization; and still more, Christian antiquities made in granite may be expected to survive.

2. The people, until recent times, had a strong prejudice against injuring antiquities or ancient remains. Of course this was most intense with regard to Christian antiquities, but certainly the peasants have often preserved the secular remains of the “old men” for fear of being “ill-wished.” Hundreds of useful evidences of the past have therefore been handed down to us from this reason; and in church matters not only stone carving, but wood work and stained glass have been well preserved for our age. One chief advantage Cornwall has, is that Puritanism and iconoclasm were never very strong there. In the seventeenth century, there was not much harm done to ancient monuments or churches. Causes at work in other counties did not avail here.

First among the curious churches in Cornwall, we will consider St. Neot — five miles from Liskeard. It is a wonderful old-world place, where one can dream of the Middle Ages, and see the thoughts and feelings of the Merrie England of the Middle Ages, not in mere representation like the unreal Old London, or Old 23 Manchester of exhibitions, but in mediæval work, partly done by fifteenth century artists. The windows of St. Neot have few rivals of their kind in England, and were very fairly restored some time ago. They are fifteen in number, and represent: — 

1. The Life of St. George — the patron of England.

2. The Life of St. Neot, the local saint.

3. A group of Cornish saints in the Young Women’s window.

4. The Creation.

5. Some Old Testament scenes.

The work is rough and South Kensington might not quite approve of some of the drawing, but it is archaic, quaint, in parts devotional, and thoroughly mediæval in spirit. Each window has a name and a title, probably from its origin, and each window is a study in itself. In the St. George’s windows we have the wonderful adventures of the saint, e.g., his fighting, his killing the dragon, his being taken prisoner by the Gauls, his torments and martyrdom.

St. George held an important position in the popular life of English patrin in the past, and the war cry “St. George and Merrie England,” and 24 the cross of St. George, still inscribed in our Union Jack, and carried to every colony and over every sea, waving in every battlefield of English soldiers, and on every British ship, attests the power of the St. George legend (possibly a myth of the victory of Christianity over evil) in the England of the past. Here it stands, storied in quaint form, in rich colouring on the painted glass. The St. George legend was a living thing in popular life in Cornwall, as in other English counties. There, as in Dorset and Yorkshire, the drama of “St. George and the Turkish Knight” was performed even to our own times. I have seen it myself acted, not many miles from St. Neot at Christmas-tide, by the Cornish miners, but believe it has now (like many other harmless and picturesque customs) died out before Board Schools and Methodism (which looked on it as “carnal and popish.”)

The St. Neot legend is of less general, but more local interest. It contains some quaint animal legends, and brings us into contact with some of the strange ideas of our mediæval ancestors.

If the interior of St. Neot brings so vividly before us the home life and popular thought of 25 mediæval England, the exterior of St. Austell is only a little less instructive. In most of our old parish churches, the niches we have were fitted with figures, but iconoclasm has ruined them all. St. Austell seems in the old time to have been a place outside popular movements, and forgotten by Puritans and iconoclasts. Now it has become a centre of life, but the old statues in the niches, and especially the remarkable symbol of the Blessed Trinity on the tower shows us what scores of old English parish churches were like in the olden time.

If the windows of St. Neot are wonderful, the frescoes of Breage are almost as striking. They are only of recent discovery, i.e., in 1890. The most remarkable is a huge figure of our Blessed Saviour, whose precious blood is depicted as flowing over the various implements of industry, e.g., the reaping hook, scythe, shuttle, cart. This is supposed to imply the sanctification of human labour by the Incarnation — a most important doctrine. There is also a gigantic fresco of St. Christopher some 12 feet high, also of smaller ones of St. Coventin, St. Mylor, St. Germo (the patron of the adjacent parish), and St. Michael the Archangel. In every way Breage is a 26 charming old place with fine air and scenery. It is not, as yet, sufficiently known to tourists.

The legend of the patron is that she was an Irish princess, sister of King Germo, who was induced by St. Patrick to accept Christianity; full of enthusiasm, he gave up his kingdom, was consecrated a bishop, and then went as a missionary in West Cornwall, taking his sister, St. Breaca with him, who here seems to have founded a religious house. It is interesting to find that one of the best working guilds for women is at St. Breage, a continuation of the old religious house for women. St. Breaca is said to have acted as a midwife to her female converts, but St. Germo or Germochus, was revered as an ex-king by his people. St. Germo’s chair (probably of a far later date than his, i.e., 450) was probably a tradition of the stone throne on which the voluntarily exiled monarch sat. The whole legend is held by some critics to be suspiciously like that of Gautama Buddha in India, but is none the less interesting to folk-lorists on that ground. St. Germo is supposed to have lived before about 450, i.e., over a century before Augustine landed at Ebb’s fleet in Kent — in fact as far removed from his time as the age of George II. is from our day.


The westernmost and the southernmost churches in England, i.e., Sennen and Landewednack, in which parishes the Land’s End and Lizard are contained, both are curious churches worth seeing. Sennen has a quaint frescoe of New Jerusalem, a headless statue of St. John the Baptist, and a font with a date on it, not common in the Middle Ages. In Landewednack we have a church partly built of serpentine.

At Buryan, we have what is said to be a memorial church, reared by King Athelstan as a thanksgiving for his conquest of Cornwall, and a place from which he saw the Scilly Isles. Here is a grand screen, beautifully painted, of the early Renaissance period. What a wealth of beauty there must have been in those mediæval screens. In Devon and Cornwall, those we have make us wish that more had been preserved.

Gunwallo church is built near the sea, in a quaint position. It is said to have been vowed to God by a merchant in peril of the sea, and marks the first place of land he reached. In Gwennap, we have a campanile near the church. At Paul, we have a church on English soil burnt by the Spaniards in 1595, and famous as the only churchyard in Europe which marks the death 28 place of a language. The old Cornish language died out in this parish in the last century. The last person who professed to speak it fluently was Dolly Pentreath, of Mousehole, in the parish. A tomb was erected to her memory by Prince Lucien Bonaparte. The subject of how the language died out, and of whether Dolly Pentreath knew as much of the old tongue as she professed, has been much discussed. We cannot deal with the question here, but we believe it is without doubt that the last persons who spoke Cornish are buried in Paul churchyard, and that it is certainly the only death place of a language in England, and probably in Europe (as where and how the old Prussian and other extinct tongues died out is not quite certain). With this death place of a European tongue we leave the curious churches of Cornwall, advising our readers when they have the chance to see these old Cornish churches for themselves. They well repay a visit.