University of Exeter logo

Cornwall's Maritime Churches

Toggle navigation Open menu

Remembering Saint Winwaloe

Lucy Whattley, a 17 year old researcher from Cornwall, undertakes a thoughtful study upon the history behind the name of Gunwalloe’s parish church, St Winwaloe.

Known for its beautiful landscapes, Cornwall never fails to gift the thousands of tourists flocking here every year with album-worthy images of sand, cliffs and the sea. But underneath the purely aesthetic wonder of the south westerly coast lies centuries of vitally important human history – history that is constantly under threat of being forgotten. Gunwalloe is one of these history-rich sites which does not get as much attention in the summer as places such as Praa Sands or Marazion, but unlike those popular beaches, Gunwalloe is home to one of the oldest churches in the whole of Cornwall.

St. Winwaloe’s Church at Church Cove at Gunwalloe has a rather deep and colourful history. It is named in dedication to a Celtic saint from the fifth century and it is this saint’s name which also gifted the church at Landewednack its name too. Due to the church’s name and its importance to the nearby community, the area where it is situated has links to the Saint, Winwaloe. Gun, or Goon, is Cornish for downs and we see this used in the names of other places in Cornwall, such as Goonhilly (hunting downs) or Gunwen (white downs). In the name Gunwalloe, we see the use of Gun and also Walloe, relating to the Celtic saint Winwaloe, all together meaning Winwaloe downs.

This place name is a crucially important piece of information since it suggests that there was a church at Gunwalloe during the fifth century and that Christianity was introduced to Cornwall by that time. This is particularly interesting when looking at the religious past of Cornwall since the church is physical evidence for how Christianity competed with indigenous Paganism as early as the fifth century.

The clash between Christianity and paganism at this time has also been suggested to be one of the reasons as to why the church was built on the beach and not somewhere more convenient. The church at Gunwalloe is certainly a rare occurrence since it is one of the only churches in Cornwall to have been built on the beach, a fact which has baffled historians for generations. As a result of this, many suggestions have been made to explain why anyone would build such an important structure in a place where it was at so much risk of being damaged.

One theory is that a man who had survived a shipwreck off the coast of Gunwalloe erected a church on the beach where he had washed up, as a way of thanking God for sparing his life. He supposedly positioned it there so that it would experience the force of the sea and storms, just as he had when he was shipwrecked. This would certainly explain the origin of the church’s nickname Church of the Storms – as it is still known today – suggesting that it is named as such by locals because of what it was built to represent. This tale also has another variation where it was actually two sisters who had survived a wreck and built the original church. While the story is fascinating, it lacks evidence and is purely speculation. However, it is not unheard of in Cornwall for churches to have been built in places of significance – for example – St Piran’s Oratory at Perranporth Beach.

Another possibility is that the church was simply built on the beach so that it could meet the needs of the fishing community, which is much more likely. Christian preachers and their followers realised that they needed a large population of people to follow their religion in order to gain further traction, so it is likely that they built a church on the beach to convenience the local communities, who could then practice religion close to their place of work. If this is true, it was a cunning idea from the small number of Cornish Christians in the fifth century and also means that the church represents the physical struggle that the two religions had when pitted against one another.

Asides from the many theories as to why St. Winwaloe’s was built on the beach, it is also interesting to delve into when the more recent structure of the church was built. This is because St. Winwaloe’s is built on the site where there was once a potentially older and more significant church, but the newer building is just as interesting.

The church, based on its three-hall design alone, was presumed to be from the fifteenth century, but certain artefacts have been found to suggest otherwise. One of these artefacts was a bowl embellished with the tree of life, dating back to the thirteenth century. Though this certainly helps historians to understand more about the current model of the church and its history (separate from any supposed church on the name ground in the fifth century), the past of the church is still so ambiguous because of its age and the numerous times over the years that it has been weathered and damaged by storms. Historians, who have studied the past of the church closely, believe that the church was reconstructed during the fifteenth century because of damage, giving it the famous three-hall design.  When considering the social and political turmoil that the English state endured during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, intentional damage or renovation to suit changing religious ideas is certainly a possibility. However, considering that St. Winwalloe’s Church is also one of the only churches in Cornwall to ever have been built on a beach, prolonged exposure to the sea and storms is just as likely to have caused enough damage to result in reconstruction and renovation.

It is also important to make note of the repairs and renovations made to the church during the nineteenth century. Due to the church’s position on the beach, as mentioned earlier, it is extremely susceptible to storm damage and weathering. There are many records of times in history where terrible weather has resulted in necessary repairs and renovations, the costliest of these occurring during the mid to late nineteenth century.

According to an article written in 1871, the church was re-opened in early June of that year, following extensive repairs, including the roof and the repaving of an aisle. Numerous other repairs were needed as well, since the storm had caused damage to windows and furniture within the church, including seats and the chancel. The cost of this particular renovation was a steep five hundred and thirty pounds, amounting to roughly sixty-two thousand, five hundred pounds in today’s money. Despite the amount needed for the renovations, it was all accounted for (bar twenty-one pounds) thanks to the support of local communities at the time. Raising money of this amount today would be quite the challenge, but due to the changing cultural and religious practices of the nineteenth century, donating to charity in Victorian England was commonplace, especially for those in the upper classes who had the money and power to do so more frequently. It has also been speculated that the church found money previously from the shipwrecks nearby washing up treasures onto Church Cove and surrounding beaches. Based on the number of wrecks around this area, it would not be completely out of the ordinary to have had this happen.

Despite being one of the most picturesque points on the Cornish coast, St. Winwaloe’s Church is a place brimming with historical significance and cultural importance, representing both a physical history of invasion and one of religious conflict. The church is also a very valuable asset due to the fact that it represents the charity and community of Cornish people, making it a symbol of morale, kindness and social-responsibility.

 

References

[1] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 10th June 1871, Truro, England, Issue 3542, British Library newspapers

[2] http://www.alanrichards.org/placenames.html, last accessed: 19/07/2019

[3] Discussion with Matt Blewett on 17/07/2019 relating to the conflict between Paganism and early Christianity.

“….1 in 1870 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £118.04 in 2019, a difference of £117.04 over 149 years.” £530 multiplied by 118.04 to give the value of this money today– (according to UK Inflation Calculator, In2013Dollars.com) last accessed: 19/07/2019

“A local tradition says that the screen was salvaged from the wreck of the Portuguese treasure ship The Saint Anthony, which ran aground at Gunwalloe on 19 January 1527. There is no evidence to confirm the tradition, and it is just as likely that wreck money was used to pay for the screen.” — BritainExpress.com last accessed 19/07/2019

[4] Charity – BBC.com: https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zmgxsbk/revision/5, last accessed: 19/07/2019

[5] Blight- Churches of West Cornwall; with notes on antiquities of thee district. Published 1885 by Oxford, Parker.

 

Lucy Whattley, Researcher


Back home