University of Exeter logo

Cornwall's Maritime Churches

Toggle navigation Open menu

PRESS RELEASE: 3-part documentary series

‘Exploring Maritime Churches in Cornwall’

Live streamed on YouTube, Fri 30 – Fri 21 May 2021. 7.30pm BST

 At the end of this week, a two-year cultural heritage project will come to an end with a live premiere of its three-part documentary series. Entitled ‘Exploring Cornwall’s Maritime Churches Project’, the series examines maritime history of Cornwall in an entirely new way, using ecclesiastical records and the fabric of churches located by the sea to tell unknown narratives.  

Cornwall is a fantastic location to delve into this undisturbed subject area. Located in the far west of Great Britain on a peninsula tumbling into the vast Atlantic Ocean, bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, to the south by the Channel, and to the east by the River Tamar. Victoria Jenner, an emerging historian of decorative art and architecture, uses different methods to travel across the duchy and perceive these maritime landmarks from the water, and in relation to their communities. Whether she is running in the ancient footsteps of pilgrims or jumping in a kayak, the church is for the first time positioned as an integral and central piece of the puzzle in Cornish maritime history.  

The first episode sets the scene, demonstrating the extent to which Cornwall is renowned for its folklore. Rather than discard stories that seem ‘nonsensical’, this episode attempts to unravel some of Cornwall’s magical places – such as St Nectan’s Glen, TintagelPadstow’s Doom Bar and Zennor. By recognising how far the sea and the church not only influences but often sits at the heart of famous myths and legendshistorians can decipher why mermaids, giants and chivalric knights have emerged from certain places. What’s more, an important characteristic of Cornish folklore is the fact that stories travelled by early Celtic traders and pilgrims and were retold by Cornish storytellers, otherwise known as droll tellers. To further celebrate this narrative, the film includea variety of folksingers from Cornwall today, from the well-known Harry Glasson to an allfemale acapella group ‘Figurehead’ and two Penzance-born sisters, Martha and Rosa Woods. 

The most important aspect of the first episode resides in its ending, which takes an alternative look into how many tales travelled the Atlantic as a result of Cornwall’s participation in the slave trade. Dr Richard Anderson, Lecturer in Colonial and Post-Colonial History, discusses at Penryn’s St Gluvias Church, how evidence such as graves and ecclesiastical records can reveal much about the African diaspora in Cornwallfrom as early as the Tudor periodThe research of Dr Charlotte Mackenzie is also particularly interesting here, who has made direct parallels between Sir Rose Price of Trengwainton Estate and Charlotte Brontë’s characters in her novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Undergraduate students such as Yaz Fosu and Natalie Wragg further discuss the notion of identity in Cornwall’s past and present and why it is imperative to not rose-tint these particular narratives of Cornwall’s past

This first episode is NOW LIVE on the Institute of Cornish Studies YouTube channel >  

The second episode takes a closer look at specifically how fishing, trade and ship building has contributed to Cornwall’s local distinctiveness and its sense of place – as well as their activities in smuggling. Victoria first follows in the footsteps of some post-war authors, William Sydney Graham and Daphne Du Maurier, in search of how work and the sea has inspired their writing. A number of different perspectives bring sea-trade to life. From former fisherman, Robert Williams at Porthleven who discusses traditional fishing practices, to Dr Helen Doe, historian and honourary research fellow for the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies, who discusses shipbuilding aPolruan’s Lanteglos church. Here is again another fascinating and unique link to Daphne’s Du Maurier’s novel The Loving Spirit, whose main characters were inspired by Helen’s boat-building ancestors. This episode is especially moving in places which delves into people’s personal connections to their local maritime churches, and how in turn, these churches reflect their stories – either through their architecture (like St Anthony of Roseland’s upturned ship roof) or their decorative arts (St Bartholomew’s rood screen and carved benches). At the core of this episode is ultimately the celebration of Cornwall’s distinctiveness and the revival of the Cornish language, discussed by Dolly Pentreath’s memorial outside St Pol de Léon’s church at Paul.  

The third and final episode devotes itself to examining how shipwrecks have been a serious reality for mariners and the Cornish people for hundreds of years, and how the church landmark has either stood as a helpful marker to save lives, or to facilitate illegal smuggling activities. The first scene however deals with how certain locations in Cornwall experienced shipwrecks more than others, just as certain districts have benefited from the harvest of wrecked goods. Victoria examines two particularly dangerous locations around the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, first walking along Gunwalloe’s Church Cove to discuss the sixteenth-century wreckage of St Anthony, a Portuguese merchant carrack that was the property of King John III of Portugal. An evocative tribute to the wreck and church is embodied through a poem, ‘Church of Storms’ written by 15-year-old Lucy Whatley last year on behalf of the heritage project. It is narrated by voice actor, Issy Inchbald, and brought to life with powerful music composed by Nerys GrivolasWhat’s more, today’s methods of exploring wreck sites are captured as Victoria takes a shot at freediving with Sam Gill, Founder of Behaviour Change Cornwall, a Looe-based company that engages in active methods of cleaning local waterways and protecting sea-life. Mark Milburn, Owner of Atlantic Scuba whose enthusiasm for underwater archaeology is also discussed, showing unseen footage of parts of the Schiedam’s carronades.  

The second part of the episode challenges why maritime churches have preserved the remains of broken up ships, questioning whether the display of these wrecked vessels is this a form of commemoration to the many lives lost. Lecturer and host of the On the Hill podcast, Dr Sherezade Garcia Rangel, importantly talks of how churches and cemeteries close to the sea become the focus for commemorating the loss of those in shipwrecks, and even rescue missions, before and after the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 came into being. The act meant that any unclaimed bodies of dead persons cast ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish and buried respectfully in consecrated ground – a result of the wreck of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Anson in Mount’s Bay in 1807. The psychology behind collecting pieces from wrecks is another strand that Victoria taps into, looking at two very different public collections at the Admiral Benbow Pub in Penzance and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Charlestown. The fact that the wrecker emerged as someone who was less than human – a ‘folk devil’ – through its representation in the press, the public pronouncements of the clergy and the didactic function of the novel, is a compelling case and ties together the overarching theme throughout the three episodes about cultural constructions of Cornwall.   

Watch the Trailer!

Footage was captured by local filmmaker, Kyle Richardson, founder and owner of Down South Media in Penzance. Kyle is known for his short drama ‘The Smugglers of Mousehole’ and is videographer skills in the performing arts world and is now branching out into more documentary film making. 

Vikki Jenner History TV

The films were written, produced and presented by Victoria Jenner, who has recently graduated from a Master’s in Historic Decorative Arts and presents for the National Trust podcast and History Hit TV.

All footage was captured in between lockdown restrictions in the UK, with interviews being recorded safely and in line with safety measures to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. 


The films will be hosted on YouTube LIVE. 



The film series was produced on behalf of the Institute of Cornish Studies, a department in the University of Exeter that brings together academic research in and about Cornwall. We want to understand better the histories that make up this place, what Cornwall is like right now, and what kind of futures we can move towards. In 2018, the Institute and its principal youth partner, the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ History Society was awarded £40,000 of Young Roots funding by the National Heritage Lottery for the ‘Cornwall’s Maritime Churches Project’.

As you can see from our website, we have brought together our research into four themes. Culture, Heritage and Society; Politics and Government; Economy and Business; Environment and Health. What we present you with is a selection of the research that has been happening across the University of Exeter’s campuses in Truro and Penryn to share with the wider community in Cornwall and elsewhere and provoke discussion. Whether you are a member of the public, work in local or national government, have business interests in Cornwall, or work in the charity/voluntary sector, we hope that you can find something that is of interest to you. 

More at  

IMAGE CAPTIONS © Institute of Cornish Studies 

For more information, please contact Victoria Jenner,, 07894515818 

Back home