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.


Walking Cornwall’s Saints’ Way – Forth an Syns – Following The Footsteps of The Celtic Saints


The Universe

Encouragingly, the Angelus Bell was tolling at  St. Petroc’s, the parish church of  Padstow, as I and two companions set off to walk Cornwall’s Saints’ WayForth an Syns in the Cornish.     


   Stretching over a distance of 30 miles, the Saints’ Way takes the pilgrim from Padstow to Fowey, through some of Britain’s most beautiful and unspoiled countryside and traces the footsteps of traders and drovers, as well as pilgrims from Ireland and Wales, who took this route to avoid the treacherous and dangerous waters at Lands End.


   For the medieval pilgrim this was the beginning of an arduous journey to Rome, the Holy Land or to Santiago de Compostela – medieval journeys of a lifetime.


   The Saints’ Way is marked by a series of beautiful pre-Reformation churches, whose names  – St. Issey, St. Brevita, St. Winnow, St. Blaze, St. Sampson and the rest – capture something of the Celtic faith that has imbued this part of Britain since time immemorial. 


   Cornwall has three patron saints: St. Michael, St. Piran and St. Petroc. The distinctive black and white Cornish flag is St. Piran’s emblem and its white cross on a black background depicts pure Cornish tin against dark iron ore.


   St.Petroc, to whom the church at Padstow is dedicated, is also the patron saint of tinners. In the 6th century he landed his coracle at Padstow (Petroc’s Place). A Cornish or Welsh prince, Petroc went to Ireland, became a monk, returned to live a life of sanctity and asceticism –and died at Bodmin on June 4th – when his feast day is still celebrated.


   The first segment of the Saints’ Way, takes just over an hour and follows the creek from Padstow to Little Petherick, where there is a beautiful 14th century church, also dedicated to St.Petroc, and restored twice in the last 150 years.


   As at Padstow the Catholic origins of these Anglican churches are close to the surface. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Little Petherick came under the influence of the High Church Tractarian Movement. Their sense of beauty ensured that the beautiful oak Screen and the gilded reredos – which includes depictions of the Virgin, St.Petroc, St.Francis and St.Anthony of Padua  (who crops up again at Golant) – would be entirely in keeping with the church’s medieval origins.


   To the credit of local parishes and the Diocese of Truro, these first two churches – and others at Golant, Lanlivery  and Fowey – were open to pilgrims. Sadly, the 13th century church of St.Clement (the third Pope, the first of the Apostolic fathers, martyr and patron saint of seafarers) at Withiel, and the church at Lanivet (a church first built on the site of a pagan sacred grove) were locked and bolted.


   St.Clement’s dates from the thirteenth century but was rebuilt in 1523 by the Prior of Bodmin, Thomas Vyvyan – the last Prior before the Dissolution.  


   The little town of Lanivet marks the half way point of the route and can be reached in a day.


  Nearby is St.Benet’s guesthouse.  The cross of St. John of Jerusalem recalls the time when this was a hospice and lazar house in the care of the Knights Hospitaller a refuge for the sick and pilgrims alike.


     Taking up the trail again, across Helman Tor, the pilgrim is rewarded by a journey close to the River Fowey, through ancient woodlands, secluded valleys, nature reserves, and pretty villages such as Golant – whose church is dedicated to St.Sampson.


   In the 6th century Sampson arrived in Cornwall from Ireland – bringing sacred vessels and books, and performing miracles on the way. At Golant he established a monastery before embarking from Fowey to undertake powerful evangelistic work among the Bretons.  Alongside the church at Golant is St.Sampson’s Holy Well. From here the pilgrim finally heads to Fowey.


    Unless you are embarking for Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, or, like St.Finbar, another Irish saint from the 7th century, who came through Fowey en route to Rome, this marks the conclusion of the Saints’ Way.


  Fowey’s fourteenth century church bears St. Finbar’s name but when the original Celtic church was rebuilt, it was re-dedicated to St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Pilgrims.


   Ensuring that all the churches along the Saints’ Way are open from Easter until Michaelmas would be a wonderful ecumenical and evangelistic project for the Bishops of Truro and Plymouth.  They might also ask Cornwall County Council to ensure that the mainly excellent markers on the Saints’ Way are visible and replaced where broken.  A few sections have no clear signing and where the route takes the walker onto the A390 it should be moved into adjacent fields.


   Over 30 miles we saw a total of just five or six other pilgrims. If the Way was more widely promoted, and perhaps combined with during school holidays with a couple of family events along the route, it would encourage more people to discover this little gem.


   Heulyn and Ginny Lewis have published an excellent pack of illustrated laminated route cards – “The Saints’ Way” ), with a lot of fascinating detail.  But a small Catholic facility for retreat and reflection, and publications about the Faith, perhaps with a chapel of ease where the Blessed Sacrament could be reserved, would meet a real need.


  The 5th and 6th centuries – the Age of Saints – was a time of turbulence but the lives of men like St.Petroc and women like St.Issey – the child of the Welsh King Brychan and given the name “thirst” because of her unquenchable thirst for the waters of heavenly truth – connect directly with today’s turbulence and the search by so many Britons to find expression and meaning to their lives.


   It is impossible to walk the Saints’ Way without gaining powerful insights into our remarkable Christian heritage and narrative.   



   The footsore and weary pilgrim may now feel he has successfully completed his journey – but, as a rabbi once remarked, the man who thinks he is finished,  is finished. Pilgrim routes are just a beginning, not an end.…/saints-way-walking-route

The Lord’s Prayer in Cornish

Agan Tas-ny, us yn neft,
Benygys re bo dha Hanow,
Re dheffo dha wiacor,
Dha voth re bo gwres,
y’n nor kepar hag y’n nef;
Ro gaf dhyn agan camwyth,
Kepar del aven-nyny dhe’n
re-na us ow camwul er
agan pyn-ny;
Ha na wra agan gorra
yn temptasyon,
Mess delyrf ny dworth drok.
Rag dhyso-jy an walscor,
ha’n gallos, ha’n gordhyans
Bys vyken ha bynary.