Cornwall is liberally endowed with villages recording the euphonious names of early Celtic saints – St Endellion, St Enodoc (“Blessed be St Enodoc, Blessed be the wave, Blessed be the springy turf, we pray, pray to you,” as Betjeman hymned him (or possibly her) in “Trebetherick”), St Ia, St Madron, St Morwenna, St Piran, St Tudy and St Veep, to name but a very few.
The most prominent of them all was the 5th/6th-century St Petroc, who became one of the patron saints of Cornwall. In the 9th century his remains were translated to Bodmin Priory which became the major shrine of Cornwall; from 1124 until its dissolution in 1539 it was under Augustinian rule.
The Cornish Catholics took considerable exception to the effects of the Reformation in 1549 and rose in the so-called Prayer Book Rebellion. This was violently suppressed by Lord Russell, whose 17th-century descendants were to become Dukes of Bedford. Catholicism in Cornwall never recovered and the county became notorious over time for its espousal of Protestant nonconformity, as is witnessed by the numerous Bethel, Ebenezer, Salem and Zion chapels which spread over the county.
The leader of the Prayer Book Rebellion was Sir Humphrey Arundell of Helland (executed in 1550). His was a junior branch of the ancient Arundell family of Lanherne in the county. The Arundells of Lanherne were the mainstay of Catholicism in the county from the 16th to the 18th century.
St Cuthbert Mayne (1544-1577) was originally an Anglican minister and became Chaplain of St John’s College, Oxford. Falling under Catholic influence, he crossed the seas and was ordained a Catholic priest at Douai in 1575. He thence came to Cornwall. Employed as a chaplain to Francis Tregian, the nephew of Sir John Arundell, he celebrated Mass at his house of Golden Manor near Probus, and at Lanherne. He was betrayed in 1577, being subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered at Launceston. His head remains to this day at Lanherne.
Cornwall was a royalist stronghold during the English Civil War under the command of Sir Ralph Hopton. The 2nd Lord Arundell of Wardour, owner of Lanherne, died at Oxford in 1643 of wounds received while fighting for the king.
Lanherne, near St Mawgan, had become the home of the Arundell family from the 13th century. The medieval and Tudor house was improved in 1708 by the addition of wings in an ordered and formalised French style. During the late 18th century the Arundells concentrated increasingly on their other great house of New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire. In 1794, the 8th Lord Arundell of Wardour handed over Lanherne to some 13 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters, fleeing from the French Revolution. The Carmelites remain there to this day, although with an intervening period of occupation after 2001 by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. The house (containing the enclosed convent) was handed over to the Diocese of Plymouth in 2015. The current chaplain is Father Scott Smith of the Institute of Christ the King.
The fabric of the chapel at Lanherne is little changed since it was set up in 1794. The 19th century provided a beautiful (unaltered) altar and reredos.
Cornwall – 100 miles or so long – was always a somewhat detached part of the Church of England, with the Bishop’s seat situated in distant Exeter on the eastern side of Devon. However the tsunami of the Oxford Movement sent its outlying waves to far-off Cornwall. Robert Stephen Hawker was vicar of the remote coastal parish of Morwenstow from 1835 to 1875, author of The Quest of the Sangraal and “The Song of the Western Men” (“And shall Trelawney die? Here’s 20,000 Cornishmen will know the reason why!”). Eccentricities attributed to him included dressing up as a mermaid, excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sunday, and keeping a pig as a pet. He was in fact a fairly saintly figure who fought against the “wrecking” of ships, and became a Catholic on his death bed in 1875.
The first post-Emancipation Catholic church in Cornwall is the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in Penzance. After the initial efforts of the Oblates of St Mary from 1841 failed, the Diocese of Plymouth purchased the building. In 1858, the convert John Rutherford Shortland became parish priest for 31 years. A man of substantial private means, he refurnished and expanded the church.
The architect of the church, which was built in a Perpendicular Gothic style, is unknown. It is a design of considerable sophistication in dressed Penrhyn stone, particularly the west front, which is a lively composition. The statue of Our Lady on the west front was added in 1892. The most noteworthy internal features are the fine timber roof and the serpentine and granite high altar of 1868 given by Sir Paul Molesworth, Bt, sometime Anglican rector of Tetcott. There was an unfortunate reordering of the sanctuary in 1982 when the baldacchino and altar rails were removed. The church is now in the sympathetic hands of another Anglican convert, Canon Philip Dyson, who has been responsible for much restoration including the new stained glass east window by Pugin, Hardman and Powell of Birmingham.
Canon Dyson is also now responsible for the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Ia in St Ives, built in 1908 by the firm of Scoles & Raymond in 13th-century French Gothic style. The now detached high altar and reredos are of note. US President Joe Biden was not refused communion on his visit to the church during the G7 in June 2020.
The grandest Catholic church in Cornwall is that of St Mary Immaculate in Falmouth. Opened in 1869, it was designed by Joseph Hansom in a successful fusion of French Gothic and Burgundian Romanesque styles. The powerful tower was added by his son JS Hansom in 1881. A post-Vatican II reordering has however left the interior looking rather bleak.
The former Anglican clergyman Charles Baskerville Langdon came to Launceston as Catholic parish priest in 1886. The stone Byzantine Romanesque church, designed by his brother Arthur, opened in 1911. It now contains the national shrine of St Cuthbert Mayne.
There are a number of more recent Catholic churches in the county, none of them of outstanding merit. Others have been acquired by purchase from declining nonconformist congregations.
The Oxford Movement also had an invigorating effect on Anglican Cornwall. The Diocese of Truro was founded in 1876 to cover the county and enjoyed a century of relative success. The splendid Truro Cathedral was built to the design of John Loughborough Pearson. Medieval churches were restored, most beautifully, for instance at Blisland by FC Eden and at Little Petherick by Sir Ninian Comper for Athelstan Riley. The first bishop from 1877 to 1883 was Edward White Benson, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, whose remarkable children included AC Benson, EF Benson and Monsignor RH Benson. The seventh bishop from 1923 to 1935 was Walter Frere of the Community of the Resurrection. From 1973 to 1981 the 11th bishop was (in due course, Monsignor) Graham Leonard; his chaplain Father David Skeoch (subsequently a priest of the Ordinariate) caused some degree of consternation by announcing on their departure: “Heads will roll when we arrive in London.” With Graham Leonard the glory of Cornish Anglicanism departed, to the subsequent advantage of the Catholic Church. The Anglican crises of 1992-95 and 2010-11 have led to the addition of a number of Catholic priests to the county.
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