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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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St Gluvias’ Church, Penryn

Tucked away from the bustle of Penryn high street, the church of St Gluvias is positioned a little way up the hill on Church road.

Research provided by Lucy Geal, an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus.

Introducing St Gluvias church of Penryn

Located near the mouth of Penryn river, just up from Penryn Bridge, the church has a wealth of maritime history.

St Gluvias Church and its surrounding parish has an ancient and intriguing history. Its patron, Gluvias, was a sixth century missionary and the son of St Petroc, a Welsh prince turned saint whose namesake is used in several Cornish churches. Gluvias followed in his father’s footsteps as a missionary to the Brittonic Kingdom of Dumnomia; then consisting of modern Devon and Cornwall.

The Church takes Gluvias’ name as he is attributed as the missionary who settled along the Penryn river, gathering converts and Christianising the local population. It was during this time that various Celtic kingdoms throughout Britain, and especially the Kingdom of Dumnonia, were undergoing the Christianisation process. This is exemplified by the fact that both St Petroc and St Gluvias were of Welsh origin, traveling from South Wales which itself had recently converted to Christianity.

Interestingly, the close and easy involvement of Welsh missionaries in the conversion of the Cornish people suggests that there existed a close, linguistic and cultural tie between the two peoples who likely spoke regional variations of common Brythonic.

Little is known of the period, after St Gluvias’ return to Wales. However, it is clear that after the Saxon conquest of Cornwall by Athelstan in 916AD, St Gluvias church and other local parishes were integrated into the wider English clergy. This is attested by records of the Bishops of Exeter which show that upon the official founding of Penryn town in 1216, St Gluvias parish already existed and extended its bounds to include the townsfolk.

Where it all began…

It is also known that a new stone church was built at the site of St Gluvias in 1318, likely replacing an older church in the parish that had existed for centuries. This was dedicated on 25 July 1318, and is the date that locals celebrate as the official foundation of the church.

To construct the church at this time, they cut into the hill and reinforced it with stones. The area of the hill that was cut, forms a square in the same orientation as the tower, but not in the same orientation as the main hall, in congruence with the notion that the tower far pre-dates the main hall.

The church has been described during that period as “glowing with colour, its walls covered with paintings, roof and screen bright with scarlet, white and gold; rich hangings and richly coloured glass windows; niches in the east wall of the north aisle filled with gaily coloured images of the saints”.

A level of opulence and prestige common for Catholic Churches during the medieval period.

The present building was restored by J.P. St Auburn in 1883, although the tower is 15th century and characteristically Cornish in construction, with the stone and most other materials originating from local sources.

Further changes were made in the 1950’s by Sir Ninian Comper, who had the Victorian chancel lowered to its original Cornish proportions, the floor laid with slate headstones and the walls whitened. Further changes were made in following years to re-site the organ, move the pulpit and the font, take out the choir stalls from the front of the church and move some pews, until the church is, as it is seen today.

Maritime Roots

Due to its long history, much of early Penryn was founded near to the Church.

The oldest sections of the town were founded along the river and hill where the church is situated.

Before the construction of the modern harbour. It is reported that the river ran up closely beside the Church. Many local people, many of whom worked in maritime professions as fishing, sailing or in the harbour, relied on the church for both community and worship.

Consequently, Penryn’s importance as a trading port town with a natural harbour, where locally extracted metals were exported, made the town and the church of St Gluvias significant to maritime history.

Local Heritage

St Gluvias Church had close ties with the now destroyed Glasney Collegiate College, founded in 1266. When the college was founded, it is suggested that a large section of St Gluvias’ funds collected in tithe from local residents was used to support Glasney College. However, Glasney College did provide tremendous benefits to the local community, through education, charity and elevating Penryn to major significance both in Britain and throughout the known world as a centre for learning and trade.

 Glasney College was the epicentre of Cornish language plays and literature. This can be recognised in the grounds of St Gluvias Church an amphitheatre like structure, known as a “plen an gwari” or playing place, was used to host Cornish language plays and performances such as the Ordenalia.

Often these plays depicted biblical stories, integrating elements of Cornish culture and local tropes, which over the years caused tension with various clergymen who saw the plays as defying Church Canon and even constituting heresy.

Despite this, plays continued to be hosted well after the 15th century and even beyond the reformation. However, by the 19th and certainly 20th century, there is little to no evidence of the continued performance on these plays, as the Cornish language was lost by the Church’s parishioners, so too were the plays.

The Ennys Family

Linked to the town’s history, St Gluvias Church also had significant connections with the locally powerful Ennys family. A family who according to local residents would enter the Church through a special door along the side of the Church, rather than the main entrance. Additionally, the Ennys family had their own reserved seating, with small cupboard on the back of the seats in front of them that was used to store their personal Bibles. These Bibles are still in the church today under lock and key.

The long heritage of the Ennys family is recognised in this statement from The History of Cornwall, from the Earliest Records and Traditions to the Present Time (1824) which states;

“It is generally understood that Enys, [in the parish of St. Gluvias] which is now the seat of Francis Enys, Esq. has been in this family ever since the days of Edward I. ; for so high this family can be traced. In the Cornish play, brought into Oxford in 1450, and of which the manuscript is still preserved in the Bodleian Library, Enys and some other lands are given as a reward to the builder of the universe”.

As subjects of a play, this influential family are given their lands and power by the creator, demonstrating how cultural rituals, potentially from Glasney College, interacted with religious beliefs to justify the social status quo.

Myths and Legends

The Bohill Tragedy

Interviewing local parishioners revealed one local story still recounted today is that of the “Bohill Tragedy”; a story of a local inn owning family who find themselves in financial hardship and vow to rob and kill the next rich traveller who visits.

However, the traveller that they killed was their own son in disguise who had returned to his family to share his wealth. This story is particularly interesting as it is may be of a pre-christian, pagan origin – which can be proposed due to the stories’ clear similarity to various “God in disguise” myths which are near universal in Indo-European traditions.

Smuggling, Piracy and Deception

The church of St Gluvias served both Penryn and Falmouth until 1664 when the parish of Falmouth was created from the older parish of Budock. Up until this point Penryn had been a substantial port, arguably dominating the trade area. With its prime location for trade also came a prime location for smuggling.

The Church’s proximity from the coast has meant it has not escaped the tales of piracy and deception. There are rumours of a tunnel from the coast that leads to the basement under the vicarage of the church. This supposed tunnel likely being a relic of Cornwall’s smuggling and piracy ridden history. Illegal goods would routinely be smuggled into Cornwall’s numerous ports and coves to escape the English authorities. Local parishioners also shared reports of an additional tunnel that leads from underneath the church to the old nunnery in Penryn town.

Whilst this may simply be local hearsay, the parishioners were confident of the existence of both tunnels, if not today, at least at some point in the history of the church. The ongoing speculations, regardless of its foundations, plays into the wider narrative of Cornish churches and their maritime significance.

St Gluvias today

Still active today, the Church of St Gluvias portrays the heritage of the local people. An important site of Cornish identity, the tales and the history of the church act to impact local identity and community.