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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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Tywardreath Church

St Andrew’s Church of Tywardreath stands a short distance east from St Austell on Cornwall’s south coast, overlooking a valley which was once entirely submerged in water that flowed all the way out to sea.

Research provided by Eleanor Frampton, an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus.

Introducing St Andrew’s Church of Tywardreath

The Cornish name “Tywardreath” means ‘House on the Strand’.

A book of the same name was written by Daphne du Maurier in 1969. It tells a strange and gripping story of the lives and lands around the church, and the priory which once accompanied it. The story’s main character, Richard Young, uses a strange chemical drug to perceive Tywardreath both in his own time and in the fourteenth century. For Richard, the line between past and present becomes increasingly hard to distinguish, but the history of St Andrew’s church reveals a great deal of change between its foundation and the modern day.

Since the church was first consecrated in 1347, the surrounding landscape has altered considerably. The estuary which once flowed almost up to its walls has slowly ebbed from view, leaving behind green fields and grey roads. Though a physical connection between church and sea no longer exists, the water is remembered in the church’s dedication to St Andrew, a fisherman who was named by Jesus as

‘a fisher of men’.

The architecture of St Andrew’s has changed from its original structure: a tower was added in 1480, and the church underwent a number of significant renovations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The churchyard appears to be slightly more recent than the church itself, with the oldest grave in dating back to 1636. From then, the memorials stretch to modern day, including a commonwealth war memorial.

Inside the church is a memorial of another kind: in the Lady Chapel there are two pieces of stone far older than the church itself. They are remnants of a trough and a gothic window tracery, believed to have belonged to the Benedictine priory that stood alongside the church. Accompanying these stones is a brief history of the priory, detailing its rise, fall, and rediscovery.

Where it all began

The Benedictine priory once stood just south of the current churchyard, dominating the town of Tywardreath. Before it was diminished by the Hundred Years War, the priory was the fourth richest religious house in Cornwall, with an annual income recorded in 1291 as £73 9s. 4d. For a time, the priory also had significant power in the surrounding area between St Austell, Fowey, and Lostwithiel. It possessed of a great amount of property and the prior held judicial power in Fowey, as well as control over the assizes of bread and ale.

Evidence of the priory’s extensive connections throughout Cornwall and beyond can be seen in its long list of benefactors in its obituary list, containing such illustrious names as Richard Earl of Cornwall and king of the Romans, and Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II.

The priory predates the original construction of St Andrew’s church by over two hundred years. Its origin is still somewhat murky, but it is thought to have been founded by the wealthiest landowner in Cornwall after the Norman Conquest, Richard fitz Turold, in the late 11th or early 12th century. The descendants of fitz Turold, known as the Cardinan family, remained patrons of the priory until the mid 13th century. This ended in 1268 when Isold, last of the Cardinans, married William de Ferrers and the properties were granted to Oliver Dinham, Lord of Hartland in Devon. The rights over the priory were then transferred by Dinham to Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

The Earl of Cornwall, later Duke of Cornwall, was thenceforth patron of the priory until 1402. It was also reliant on the Bishop of Exeter, who headed the diocese to which the priory belonged; and its mother Abbey, who until the Hundred Years War held the right to appoint its monks and bishops.

The demise of the priory…

In keeping with the Norman connection of its founders, the priory was under the jurisdiction of the Abbey of St Sergius and St Bacchus in Angers, or Anjou, of the duchy of Normandy in France.

Though situated in Cornwall, the priory was predominantly French, as were most of the monks who lived and worked there. This led to some tension, particularly during the Hundred Years War against France in the 14th century. As such, the priory was considered a foreign entity, and control was transferred to the crown in times of war. In these times the crown was responsible for appointing the prior and clergy associated with Tywardreath.

Subsequently, connection with the mother house in Angers began to weaken and was almost diminished entirely in 1378 when foreign monks were ordered to leave the country. This obliterated the number of monks at the priory; from seven in 1333 to four by 1374; all of whom were asked to leave England in 1378. Poll tax records from 1381 reveal that only a prior, a vicar, and three priests remained in Tywardreath priory.

Nevertheless, the priory remained standing and functional for nearly two more centuries, despite its depleted numbers and threats it endured from the sea.

Maritime roots

The priory’s once-close proximity to the sea was both a blessing and a curse. It provided a more direct link to the mother abbey in France, yet also left the priory open to attacks from the sea.

A petition to the Pope in 1513 from the prior reported damage by increasing attacks from “pirates of the sea with other men of the wars.”

Aside from the close proximity to the sea, this letter shows that, although the priory was considered foreign territory by the king in times of war, it was not considered allied territory by the king’s enemies either. Instead, the priory occupied a strange state of limbo during times of war, not recognised by any king or army as a friend, yet still not enough of an enemy to anyone to risk total annihilation.

The House on the Strand

In contrast to the uncertainty and danger created by the priory’s connection with the sea in history, du Maurier presents the sea as a somewhat grounding force in her novel The House on the Strand.

It is by the alternating presence or absence of the sea that her protagonist, Richard Young can distinguish between past and present. The story draws upon several characters, both historical and fictional, whose lives are entangled with the priory that once stood in the village.

The novel opens with Richard’s first experience of being able to see into the past, commenting on the differences in landscape:

‘before me the sea rolled into the bay, covering the whole stretch of sand as if a tidal wave had swept over the land, swallowing it in one rapacious draught.’

Richard’s observations illuminate the significant role of the sea to Tywardreath in the fourteenth century. Du Maurier herself emphasises this point, including a map with the story that shows the boundaries of the old estuary, in order to demonstrate visually the changes to the landscape where the priory once stood.

In addition to the changing landscape, The House on the Strand draws attention to the changes within the church architecture, from its time as part of the priory to modern day:

Nothing of what I observed bore any resemblance to the small church I had so lately seen, with the grille in the wall dividing it from the Priory chapel; nor, as I stood here now beside the vicar, could I reconstruct from memory anything of an older transept, an older aisle.

   “Everything’s changed,” I said.

   “Changed?” he repeated, puzzled. “Oh, no doubt. The church was largely restored in 1880, possibly not altogether successfully. Are you disappointed?”

Du Maurier’s vicar, a small cameo character in the story, is very knowledgeable about the history of the priory to which his church once belonged. Thus, he exposits to Richard, and therefore the reader, facts about the origins and dissolution of the priory.

Although an embellished work of historical fiction, The House on the Strand is nonetheless an interesting record of the priory’s history. Indeed, du Maurier consulted a number of historical sources in order to ground her work of historical and science fiction in a setting of reality. As the priory itself is now lost to us, the narrative of The House on the Strand allows us to creatively imagine what it may have looked like, and what life within it may have been.

Unfortunately, unlike Richard, we are unable to see the priory in its prime. The priory as a religious house was dissolved in 1536 under Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries act.

However, the past has been somewhat recovered by an amateur excavation of the priory site in 1822.  Just as in du Maurier’s novel, past and present are able to blend ever so slightly through the rediscovery of the priory location, revealing the approximate shape and size of its chapel, and the retrieval of some of its original stonework.

St Andrew’s Church of Tywardreath today

Though the building and the Benedictine community it once housed has been lost to the dissolution, the priory is not forgotten. It is immortalised in the fiction of Daphne du Maurier, and by the display of the priory stones within St Andrew’s church.

The church itself is still an active part of the Tywardreath community, ensuring that the site today is still a place of worship as it was in the time of William the Conqueror.