Petroc is the most celebrated of the patron saints of Cornwall. Yet, since he lived in the sixth century, and the earliest surviving account of his life dates from the 12th century, very little is known about him with any certainty.
Many stories, however, are attached to his name, and the eye of faith may countenance what it will.
Petroc is said to have been born in south Wales, the son of a king, and to have given up his inheritance in order to become a monk. Apparently he studied in Ireland and numbered St Kevin among his pupils.
More certainly, he is associated with Padstow in Cornwall, where he founded a monastery. The name Padstow is a conflation of Petroc’s Stow, meaning Petroc’s Place.
Some 30 years later he founded another monastery at Little Petherick, near Wadebridge. He is also credited with having undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, and with having lived as a hermit on an island in the Indian Ocean.
Latterly, though, Petroc lived on Bodmin Moor, where he built a cell for himself by a stream, and established a monastery in Bodmin for the 12 disciples who followed him. His death, at Treravel, occurred while he was on the way to re-visit his first monastery in Padstow. He was buried in that town.
Beyond Cornwall there are some 17 church dedications to Petroc in Devon, and another at Timberscombe just over the border in Somerset. His name was also invoked in Brittany and Wales.
Like other hermit saints, Petroc was associated with wild animals. Indeed, the stag became his emblem, on account of his having protected a deer from its hunters.
At some stage after 850 Petroc’s shrine and relics were moved to Bodmin, which replaced Padstow as the centre of his cult. The church at Bodmin became rich through the offerings of pilgrims. In 1177, however, one of the canons stole the relics and took them to Saint-Méen in Brittany.
This outrage eventually reached the ears of King Henry II who personally intervened to ensure that Petroc’s remains, with the exception of a rib, were returned to Bodmin.
Petroc’s cult remained strong throughout the Middle Ages and established itself not merely in the Sarum calendar but even in formularies as far afield as Italy.
When Henry II ordered the return of his relics to Bodmin Walter of Coutances, a powerful figure on both sides of the Channel, provided a magnificent ivory casket of Sicilian and Islamic workmanship as a reliquary for the saint’s head.
Hidden at the Reformation above the porch at Bodmin, the reliquary was rediscovered in the 19th century. In 1994 thieves broke into the church and stole it. After a national outcry, however, the treasure was found in a field in Yorkshire.
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