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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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St Materiana, Tintagel

Standing on Glebe cliff between Trevena and Tintagel Castle, the Church of St Materiana holds an impressive location on the rocky Cornish headland.

Research provided by Shannon Rowe and Lucy Geal, undergraduate students at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, studying BA History.

Introducing St Materiana’s church

In close proximity to the cliffs and the sea, this long-standing site’s association with the coast plays a fundamental role in its history.


The dedication of this church, to St Materiana, is unique.

The devotion is generally considered to be in recognition of Madryn; a 5th century Princess of Gwent (in Wales) who preached in North Cornwall around 500 AD.

Prior to the construction of the current church, this location is thought to have been a Christian burial site between 500 to 700AD.

The stone church that stands today cannot be dated this far back. Nevertheless, according to Historic England, elements of this church date back to the 11th century, contributing to its Grade 1 Listed status.

Today, visitors enjoy exploring the church, its history and its decorative assets – much like 19th-century visitors.

Where it all began

The oldest element of this church is a Roman milestone. Dated to the reign of Emperor Licinius, who ruled from 265 to 325AD, this artefact was discovered in the graveyard in 1889 and moved into the church for preservation.

The church’s other assets of interest include a Tudor Bishop’s chair, a stone medieval bench and pre-Reformation altar. These treasures have long been appreciated and in 1897 the church was visited by the Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society.

The group reviewed their trip in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, commenting that the church had ‘many interesting features’ when detailing the pleasantness of their trip.

In Picturesque Excursions, St Materiana’s church was described as possessing ‘an ancient dovecot in the Vicarage garden’…

Maritime Roots

Alongside physical reminders of political and religious history, the church offers the opportunity to explore some local stories and misfortunes.

In the church yard there is a lifebuoy enscripted

‘IOTA – 1893 – Napoli / Cantanese Domenico – Age 14’

On the 20 December 1893 a storm led a sailing vessel, the Iota, to be driven against a cliff. Most of the crew managed to scramble onto Lye Rock where they were rescued by four local men. The only crew member not to survive was Domenico Cantanese, a 14-year-old cabin boy who perished at sea. With parishioners of the church involved in the rescue and compassionate for the loss of Domenico, the lifebuoy serves as a memorial to him.

Overlooking the bay, the church’s extraordinary location has made it vulnerable to volatile weather.

In 1899, The Morning Post in London reported on the damage sustained by St Materiana’s Church tower during a thunder and lightning storm.

Yet, its precarious position has inflicted much greater tragedies.

In 1931, John Cuthbert Ward lost his life at the church. Visiting the church with his father, a Vicar from Norfolk, the twenty-one-year-old was swept over the cliff on a walk after the service. The tragic incident reminds everyone of the care to be taken when venturing along the coast.

Yet there is more to the church and its maritime roots than meets the eye…

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Tintagel became part of a broader arena of ‘travel performance’ that urged British travellers to explore their heroic indigenous past. An abundance of informative, scripted travel literature followed.

By 1799, Thomas Gray’s Travelling Companion directed visitors to Tintagel’s nearby ‘Nathan’s Cave near Bossiney’ to experience the ‘inspiration of visceral natural beauty’.

The church was described as having to sell its bells to a London buyer who considered them those that had ‘tolled for King Arthur’.

By the turn of the century Tintagel was not only a legendary landmark, but offered artists and writers alike a quaint community and an idyllic setting to further exploit.

J.M.W. Turner also published a ‘highly fanciful engraving of the castle’ in 1819, and six years later is referenced in Thomas Hogg’s The fabulous history of the ancient Kingdom of Cornwall. 

The ruins of the ‘Dark Age’ castle were no longer acquainted with ‘Earl Richard’ but instead the magical King Arthur and suitably fit the Claude Lorraine-style landscapes so beautifully populating the route for the British Grand Tour.

Indeed it was during Lord Alfred Tennyson’s visit to Tintagel almost twenty years later that led to his famous works Morte D’Arthur and then Idylls of the King in 1859. Tennyson was tapping into the images conjured by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written circa 1135 to 38.

All of a sudden Tintagel was advertised as an ‘ancient attraction’ in Cornish, Scottish, Welsh and London newspapers.

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