Cornwall’s Christianity – from Launceston’s Cuthbert Mayne to Liscard’s Ladye Park, from John Wesley’s Bodmin Cottage to Sclerder Abbeyto

There is nowhere in England that retains a more direct association with early Celtic Christianity than Cornwall. This is evident in the churches, the wayside crosses, the wells and memorials which mark the 30-mile Saints’ Way from Padstow to Fowey, and in the ruins of priories and friaries at places like Bodmin.

Many of the early Cornish Catholic saints whose names are retained in the parishes and villages of Cornwall had direct links with the church in Ireland, Wales and Brittany. Cornwall’s Celtic identity and its vibrant Christianity were re-enforced by its ancient British language. Cornish shares about 80% basic vocabulary with Breton, 75% with Welsh, 35% with Irish, and 35% with Scottish Gaelic. Cornish evolved from the ancient British language spoken throughout Britain south of the Firth of Forth during the Iron Age and in Roman times.

In 1549 as in attempting to consolidate the Reformation, Edward VI banned the Cornish tongue, imposing his English Book of Common Prayer. Hitherto, the Mass had been said in Latin but sermons and preaching was in Cornish. The destruction of the age-old forms of worship led to seething discontent, to the Prayer Book Rebellion, and to the inevitable demise of the native tongue. The leaders of the rebellion were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals. Cornwall’s traditional devotions – not least to Our Lady – its mystery plays, its celebration of saints’ days and festivals – died with the language.

The un-churching of thousands of ordinary people led to secret Catholic recusancy and where people could, especially in remote corners and parishes of the county, they held on to traces of the traditions which had been sacred to those who had gone before them.

For two hundred years, Cornwall was waiting for a religious revival which would speak again to its heart and soul. The decay of the established church in the eighteenth century provided the environment in which the remarkable Wesley brothers would be able to reignite Cornwall’s Christian faith. By 1851 32% of Cornwall was Methodist while the established church attracted only 13%.

The Wesley Cottage at Trewint was where, in 1743, John Wesley stayed on his first trip to Cornwall. It is a hospitable place, open to visitors, containing displays of Wesleyana and recalling the phenomenal impact of chapels built in every village and hamlet – touching the lives of agricultural workers, china clay and tin miners alike.

Many other places in Cornwall capture the tragedy and drama of those times – and also the hopefulness of these better days. In addition to walking the Saints’ Way, and connecting with the Christian communities who were building their churches 700 years ago, visitors to Cornwall should take time to absorb Cornwall’s Christian story.

In the ancient town of Launceston, whose motto, “Royale et Loyale” stems from its fierce support of the Royalist cause, the welcoming Catholic parish maintains the shrine of St.Cuthbert Mayne,canonised in 1970.

On June 8th 1577 Fr.Mayne was seized at Golden Manor, the Probus home of Francis Tregian after William Broadbridge, Bishop of Exeter, and Sir Richard Grenville, High Sheriff, began a systematic campaign to apprehend him. An incriminating Catholic devotional article, an Agnus Dei, was found around Fr.Mayne’s neck and he and Tregian were arrested. Tregian spent 26 years in prison.

On November 29th, 1577, Fr.Mayne was executed in Launceston’s marketplace (where a plaque marks the spot). He was offered his life if he renounced his Catholic faith and acknowledged the supremacy of the queen as head of the church. He responded by kissing a copy of the Bible and declaring that “the queen neither ever was, nor is, nor ever shall be, the head of the church of England”.

Refused the opportunity to address the crowd Fr.Mayne was allowed only to offer private prayer. Hung on a gibbet it is believed that he was cut down while alive but was unconscious as he was drawn and quartered.

Thirteen miles to the south of Launceston is the town of Liskeard – which was once a thriving centre of devotion to Our Lady. The shrine of Our Ladye of the Park – situated just outside the town – disappeared at the Reformation. But in 1955 Dr.Peggy Pollard, the great granddaughter of William Ewart Gladstone, and a gifted historian, linguist and Cornish Bard, recorded an apparition of the Virgin who told her “I want to come back to Liskeard.”

Dr.Pollard became convinced that she had a mission to restore the shrine and Claire Riche records the story in her book “The Lost Shrine of Liskeard – An Grerva Gellys a Lyskerrys” . Although it is in private ownership visitors to the location of Ladye Park will surely sense its sanctified atmosphere. In 2007 the owners allowed it to be used for an ecumenical pilgrimage. It is hard not to wonder whether, like Walsingham’s Slipper Chapel, this centre of traditional Christianity will one day once again become place of renewed pilgrimage. Certainly that was the hope of Dr.Pollard whose wrote a processional hymn for the shrine which includes the verse:
“Now returning, we will praise thee,
For the peril is long past.
Come again O Blessed Mother
And reclaim thy shrine at last…
And we praise thee, Blessed Mary,
Lady Mary of the Park”

From Liskeard, a good place to end a visit to Cornwall might be Sclerder Abbey, situated between the towns of Looe and Polpero. Mass is said daily for its Carmelite nuns. Founded in 1843 by the Dames de la Retraite, it became home to a community of Poor Clares – including Amy Elizabeth Imrie, one of the ten richest women in England. The heiress of the White Star Line she gave most of her money to Liverpool’s poor and funded the building of the city’s beautiful church of St.Mary of the Angels. Mother Clare Imrie died at Sclerder in 1944. Who knows, perhaps a contemporary Amy Imrie will one day be the benefactor who will bring about a restoration of Cornwall’s Ladye Park.


The Prayer Book Rebellion was a response by the Cornish against the Crown’s decision to ban the use of the Cornish language in the liturgies.

The Catholic martyr Cuthbert Mayne was executed in the town square at Launceston – hanged drawn and quartered.


Hayl Maria
(The ‘Hail Mary’ in Cornish)

 Hayl Maria, leun a ras, yma’n Arloedh genes;

bennigys osta yn mysk benynes,

ha bennigys yw froeth dha vrys, Yesu.

Maria sans, Mamm Dyw,

pys ragon ni peghadoryon,

lemmyn hag yn eur agan mernans.


Thomas More, Edmund Campion and Westminster Hall

Much was written about the historic significance of Pope Benedict’s address to Members of Parliament in Westminster Hall – during the Pope’s visit last year. It was here, in July 1535 that the former Speaker and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession.
St.Thomas’ judges included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, along with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. The odds were stacked to make acquittal an impossibility.
Brilliant lawyer that he was, More believed he had to do all that was humanly possible to avoid prosecution and in the memorable words from Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1966 script of “A Man For All Seasons” he shrewdly says “Tell me the words” when asked to swear the King’s oath. He wants to assess whether they are words he can say while remaining true to his Faith. If there is any way to avoid direct confrontation and to live easily with his conscience then More will take it.
In the end Thomas More reluctantly concludes that the law is offering no way out and that no room is going to be given to accommodate his conscience. In the film’s exchange with his beloved daughter Meg, he explains the situation:

“If he suffers us to come to such a case
that there is no escaping…
…then we may stand to our tackle
as best we can.

And yes, Meg, then we can clamour
like champions, if we have the spittle for it.

But it’s God’s part, not our own,
to bring ourselves to such a pass.

Our natural business lies in escaping.”

After the corrupted legal process had run its course in Westminster Hall – and his betrayer, Richard Rich had received his reward of a Government post, as Attorney General for Wales – all escape routes were closed for More, and on June 22nd he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
More’s final testimony in Westminster Hall is contained in a still extant transcript. He told the Court that he was being tried for opposing Henry’s marriage to Ann Boleyn which he considered to be adulterous – not because of the Act of Supremacy: “you seek my blood as for that I would not condescend to the marriage”.
Pope Benedict reflected on these themes of religious liberty, the right to conscience and the place of marriage in contemporary Britain.
It was also a moment to dwell on courage and heroism – for Westminster Hall was the place of trial for many other notable Catholics.
In 1581, forty six years after the trial of More, Edmund Campion was brought to the Hall to face similar charges.
Having spent a year clandestinely celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to England’s Catholics, Campion had been arrested and brought before Queen Elizabeth – who asked him if he acknowledged her as the true Queen of England. After he replied in the affirmative she offered him wealth and preferment on the condition that he renounced his faith. His refusal led to incarceration in the Tower of London. He later pointed out that the Queen’s offer of a rich and comfortable life made nonsense of the charge that he was a traitor.
After being tortured on the rack, on September 1st, 18th, 23rd and 27th 1581, he faced public interrogation at the Tower and subsequent torture.
On November 14th Campion, along with his companions Frs. Sherwin, Kirby, Cottam, Johnson, Rishton and a layman, Orton, were arraigned at the Bar of Westminster Hall.
Campion responded “I protest before God and His holy angels, before Heaven and earth, before the world and this Bar whereat I stand, which is but a small resemblance of the terrible judgment of the next life, that I am not guilty of any part of the treason contained in the indictment, or of any other treason whatever.”
Ralph Sherwin added: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion and not treason.”
The following day a further seven Catholic priests were similarly arraigned at the Bar of the Hall. The trial took place on November 20th when his accusers described him as an agent of the Pope and the Holy See. He replied that his sole aim was to preach the Gospel.
In addressing the jury he told them “how dear the innocent is to God, and to what price he holdeth man’s blood.” He reminded them who his accusers were: “one hath confessed himself a murderer (Eliot), the other (Munday) a detestable atheist, a profane heathen, a destroyer of two men already. On your consciences would you believe them – they that have betrayed both God and man, nay, that have nothing left to swear by, neither religion nor honesty?”
Campion was convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor. With words that still resonate in 2010 he rebuked those who condemned him: “ The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
“God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”
As they were taken from Westminster Hall the condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. Campion spent the next eleven days in prayer, and then, on December 1st, with Fr.Sherwin and Fr.Briant he was taken to Tyburn – today’s Marble Arch – where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was aged 41.
No one has ever told Campion’s courageous story better than Evelyn Waugh. His 1935 book has been republished by Sophia Institute Press under the title “St.Edmund Campion –Priest and Martyr”, and includes the full text of “Campion’s Brag.”
The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason leveled against Campion and More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of Westminster Hall.
In their final agonies I doubt that either Campion or More would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice. As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”: “we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”