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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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St Pol de Léon, Paul

A few miles outside Penzance, in a westward direction, down the secluded Mousehole Lane, the Church of St Pol de Leon towers over the surrounding countryside.

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

Introducing St Pol de Leon’s church, Paul

Just half mile from Mousehole, a coastal port, this church is intrinsically linked with the local maritime history.


It is suspected that a church has been based around this site circa 1000AD. Although it is difficult to trace before this date due to the lack of surviving structure and records.

On 2 May 1259 the Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Bronescombe, provided the first known record of the church in confirming the arrangements for a Vicar…

This mentions the church as ‘Eccelesiare Sancti Paulini’, with Paulini Latin for Paul.

The origins of the name are contested. Some tribute it to Paulinus of York, others to Paul Aurelian and even Apostle Paul.

Tucked away in the parish of Paul, this church and its members signify the interconnectedness of our communities and actions. Implicated with events and figures of local, national and international importance, the history of St Pol de Leon provides a small gateway to exploring the past, and its relevance to the present.

Where it all began

With no prior documentation, we rely upon the church for physical clues.

The stain glass window on the North Aisle depicts St. Paulinus of York baptising King Edwin of Northumberland and on the south aisle Paul Aurelian is referenced as ‘St. Paulinus of Leon’.

Now the church is commonly referred as ‘St. Pol de Leon’ – a title originally given to the site in a 1907 map.

The Celtic Revival

The revival, usually associated with Henry Jenner by the early 20th century,  essentially aimed to re-establish Cornwall with a sense of Celtic identity.

Paul’s church is of notable significance as the burial place of Dorothy Pentreath; reputed to be the last monoglot speaker of the Cornish language.

Dorothy Pentreath is estimated to have lived to the age of 85. She is recorded as having been baptised in 1692, yet at the time of her death in 1777 it was widely reported that she was 102 years old, as recorded in the Hampshire Chronicle.

In the churchyard wall there is a memorial to Dorothy, who died in 1777 at the age of 85. The memorial was erected in June 1860, funded by Prince Lucien Bonaparte who had a keen interest in languages and was nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. On the memorial, a bible quote (Exodus XX 12) is recorded in both English and Cornish.

Maritime Roots

During her lifetime Dorothy would likely have heard of Captain Stephen Hutchens.

Baptised in St Pol de Leon (then known as St Paul) in 1668, he joined the Navy in Plymouth in 1688, aged 20. England was at war with France and in 1704 Hutchens was appointed Captain of the Scarborough; tasked with escorting merchant ships to England and the Caribbean. In 1708 he became Captain to a bigger ship, the Portland.

Returning to Jamaica after an escorting journey in January 1709, Hutchens captured a French ship and received a £6,000 reward. In April 1709 the Portland was sent to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and Hutchens and his crew single-handedly captured two French ships. This resulted in a reward of £18,000.

However, in August of that year Captain Hutchens fell ill and died, not enjoying the fortune and reputation he had amassed. Nevertheless, he had bequeathed £100 to Paul Church and £600 to provide for six poor men and six poor women of the parish, resulting in Hutchens’ House which continues supporting people today.

The church commemorates Captain Hutchens with a plaque in both English and Cornish.

The maritime significance of the church and its members are further shown by the legacy of ‘The Three Johns’.

In 1850, Royal Navy Captain Allen Gardiner came to Mousehole to recruit experienced sailors to travel to Tierra del Fuego in South America in a missionary effort to help indigenous peoples exploited by Europeans.

John Badock, John Bryant and John Pearce signed up. After three months of sailing from Liverpool, they arrived. However, extreme weather, errors, native hostility, starvation and disease hampered their mission. Within a year of their departure all on board had died.

Their dedication and belief was represented in Gardiner’s diary which was found after he died; inspiring the formation of the South American Missionary Society which remains active today.

The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

The close ties between the church, local residents and the sea continues to the present day with the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster ingrained in living memory.

In December 1981, the crew on Solomon Browne were called out in hurricane force winds to aid the Union Star, which was being swept into the coast after an engine failure. The lifeboat crew retrieved four from the Union Star. A final rescue attempt to save the four left on board resulted in difficulties and radio contact was lost. All eight lifeboat crew, and eight on the Union Star were lost to sea.

A memorial stands in St Pol to remember those lost in the disaster, their courage and selfless humanity.

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

The church building has been rebuilt, restored and reorganised throughout the last millennium. The Norman Invasion in the 11th century had led to larger stone churches, around 135 were built in Cornwall alone.

St Pol was part of these developments and some elements of the early stone building survive today.

In July 1595 there was a Spanish invasion into Mousehole.

As recorded by Richard Carew in 1603, the raiders ‘burnd not only the houses as they went by but also the Parish Church of Paul – the force of the fire being such it utterly ruined all the great stone pillars thereof’.

A scorched 12th-century pillar still stands in St Pol de Leon as tangible evidence of the attack. Although, with the aid of an English traitor, Captain Burley, the Spaniards caused much damage to the villages and church before proceeding to attack Penzance, the tower from the early 15th century still stands.

Today, a depiction of the events are shown in the choir area and the church is comprised of what was salvaged and subsequent rebuilds.

St Pol de Leon today

More recently, the site has undergone restoration; most notably to the stain glass window in 2018.

The unique window is in memory of William Torquill MacLeod Bolitho who lost his life in the First World War. Depicting the second battle of Ypres on 24 May 1915, this window acts in tribute to all those that lost their life in the war. Designed by Robert Anning Bell, the Arts and Crafts movement artist, the window was installed in 1918. In 2018, in line with the centenary, extensive funds were raised to restore this window, and the tribute it represents.