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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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Forgotten Saints and Chapels of Cornwall’s Forgotten Corner

Bob Keys reflects on the maritime church history of Cornwall’s South Eastern peninsula. Bob is president of the Rescorla Centre and former head of history at the University of St Mark and St John.

Cornwall’s Forgotten Corner is the apt phrase coined by local historian Tony Carne for this part of Cornwall and his local history is still the best introduction for the interested visitor to the area.

The religious heritage of the area is also somewhat neglected, although it includes the remains of a number of ancient chapels and the legends attached to saints associated with them.

The remains of the most ancient chapel in Cornwall still exist at Inswork/Innisworke, built on the twelfth-century Royal Manor of the same name, it was endowed in 1331 by Sir Richard Champernowne. After the Reformation it fell into disrepair and was used for some years as a barn rather like the remains of another medieval chapel at Shillingham Manor on the north bank of the River Lynher.  A similar fate befell the Chapel at Erth, perhaps dedicated originally to Saint Erth or the Irish Saint Erc at Erth Barton; although in a better state of repair it is still serving as a barn, despite the rare traces of medieval wall painting inside.

St John in Cornwall still has a small but very interesting parish church, but it once apparently was the site of a chapel dedicated to St Guron, with a well still to be seen on Church Lane hill. Some bumps in the Victorian Rectory garden are believed locally to be the remains of an earlier building, and a medieval fishpond is still to be found there, beside the brook that runs into St John Lake.

Perhaps the most interesting lost Saint and Chapel is one not normally associated with this part of Cornwall, known locally as St Winnol, the village is named after him, but it has no church. Elsewhere in Cornwall the saint is known as St Winwalloe.  Legend has it that the saint built a chapel on the heath at Eglaroose by Lantic on the cliffs above Portwrinkle. This overlooking Whitsand Bay, originally Seythin Bay, the point at which he arrived when he came over from Douarnez in Brittany.

The saint’s feast day is on the 3 March; hence the old rhyme:

First comes David, then comes Chad

Next comes Winnol, blowing like mad

Whether in white or whether in black

Or whether got up in old house ‘thack’

I would be grateful to anyone who knows what the last two lines mean! Should it be ‘weather’ rather than whether, as the saint is associated locally with the spring gales?

Some have pointed out that roof ‘thack’ may been thatch, which the gales frequently blew away. It remains a bit of a mystery and although there was definitely a chantry chapel somewhere here up until the Reformation, linked to St Germans Priory, or old Lanaled. This is of course much later than the time when St Winnol would have been here. In Brittany the saint is known as St Gwenole and is associated with swallows, birds known in both Cornwall and Cornuaille as ‘gwennolls’. The saint’s preaching was so seductive even the fishes rose up in the bay to listen. Perhaps because his chapel is lost the saint was also associated with Rame Head, which does of course still have a chapel, although now dedicated to the Archangel St Michael. Curiously the Breton saint is also associated with a headland Chapel at Penhors, while the old Cornish name for Rame is also Penhors/Penhorth, or Pendenhar.

The churches at Rame; St Germanus and Maker; St Mary & St Julian, are both fine examples of maritime religious sites and between Maker or old Macuir and Mount Edgcumbe House is the Holy Well and retreat of St Julian (the Hospitaler?), although this is probably a medieval name for an earlier Celtic saint, perhaps St Jullitta. Maker derives its name from ‘magor’ and seems to refer to a Roman or Romano-British villa or manse that once looked out over Plymouth Sound. It was known as Gereint’s Gift because of its association with the famous King Gereint of Dumnonia who gave his manor there to St Aldhelm of Sherborne Abbey in the eighth century before he died in a battle with King Ine of Wessex.

There is another an old Baptismal well; the Ladywell associated with another Church of St Mary: The Blessed Virgin at Sheviock, which has a number of fine recumbent carved figures of the local Courtney and Dawney families. The church is also connected to the ancient legend of Dando or the Dondu and his Wild Hunt.

Finally, perhaps the most ancient ‘religious’ monument in Cornwall has only recently been discovered by Nomansland, near Downderry, a prehistoric Cursus (not on any map) and only visible from the air as ‘crop-markings’.

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