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Tuesday 1 October 2013

St Petroc's in Bodmin, Cornwall: Deformed hands, magic trees, hidden beauty and a spire blown up by lightning

St Petroc's is the largest church in Cornwall apart from Truro cathedral.
Bodmin, the town in which this church stands, was the capital of Cornwall between 1835 and 1989. Originally a Welsh prince who studied Christianity in Ireland, St Petroc arrived here in about 530 AD and turned Bodmin into the religious centre of the West. He died in 564 AD.

Despite it's importance, Saint Petroc's doesn't have a lot of decorative carving on it's exterior. This is a feature that it shares with many other churches in the area. It makes sense when one considers that the storms in this area, exposed to weather coming straight in from the Atlantic Ocean, can be pretty fierce. The main local building materials around Bodmin are also granite and killas, both of which are very tough stones that are difficult and time-consuming to carve. 'Killas' is a Cornish term for sedimentary rocks that have been altered (metamorphosed) by heat and pressure from nearby igneous intrusions (hot molten rock forcing it's way upwards from deep inside the earth), an example being slate.

St Petroc took over running the Christian community in the area from St Guron, who had founded it in about 500 AD next to a holy well. The well is still there, covered by a small building which can be seen between the pillar and the church in the photo below. The actual spring is thought to rise underneath the church itself and to be carried to the 16th century wellhouse through conduit pipes:

The well flows out next to the road through these carved granite heads, with a plaque next to them saying 1545 AD

This would seem to be a good example of early Christian missionaries using pagan sacred places for their sites of worship. Many water sources were sacred to pagan people but also made handy spots for Christians to baptise converts, as well as allowing the special spiritual aura of these places to transfer to the new religion and make it easier for the local people to accept the new ideas..

Another example of the two religions mingling can be seen at the church in St Newlyn East, near Newquay in Cornwall. The church is dedicated to St Newlina. One story is that Newlina was a British princess of the 5th or 6th century AD. She is supposed to have come to Cornwall via Wales and Ireland to avoid an unwanted suitor. 

On reaching this spot, she put her staff into the ground and it magically sprouted into a fig tree, which still grows out of the church wall with no obvious means of sustenance. The tree is reputed to have magical powers:
"Upon it lays a dreadful curse,
Who plucks a leaf will need a hearse."

Another example of a magical sprouting staff is the Holy Thorn at Glastonbury in Somerset, supposed to have sprouted from a staff carried by Joseph of Arimathea. There is an obvious mix of Pagan tree worship and Christianity in these legends.

Eventually, the spurned suitor caught up with St Newlina and chopped her head off (she was obviously a good judge of character). A spring is supposed to have magically risen where the head fell; another example of the two religions meeting.

One of the most obvious treasures of St Petroc's is the incredible stone font. It is Norman in age, dating to the 12th century and somehow escaped the attention of both Henry VIII's forces during the Reformation and the Puritans. The font was recently moved to lie opposite the altar at the end of the pews along the main aisle, which is the position of the font at Crantock and where the one in St Newlyn's used to be.

The two angels heads with pupils carved into the eyes are said to represent good and evil. This font design seems to have been very popular in the area. All four churches that I visited on this trip had fonts from the same period that appeared to be influenced by the one at St Petroc's (which is the finest of all):

St Gomonda's in Roche

St Newlyn's in St Newlyn East. 
The legs and one of the angel's heads were replaced during restoration in 1883

St Crantoc's in Crantock
This has AD 1474 carved on it, probably to commemorate renovation work to the church in the 15th century

Mathy More

St Petroc's is remarkable, as it is one of very few churches from the time for which almost complete building records have survived. This gives some insight into the work of Mathy More, who was contracted to make and carve most of the wooden furniture for the new church in 1491. 

He imported the oak to be used from Wales, shipped here via the town of Wadebridge, and was paid £92 for the whole job. To give some idea of what that amounts to, building the entire church (on a separate contract) cost £196 7s 4d which in modern British money is about half a million pounds sterling.

Some of More's carving has survived, mainly incorporated as panels into newer structures such as the reredos screen behind the altar and also the pulpit. Here are some examples:

The reredos screen (you can see it in the last of the photos above, behind the altar, with some panels carved by Mathy More), hides the original one from the 19th century. The older screen is beautiful, with gilding and mosaics, but is hidden by the wooden screen as it needs some refurbishment. 

There are currently plans to renovate the nineteenth century reredos and move the wooden one to another part of the church.

St Petroc's contains one of the oddest lecterns that I've ever seen. It was pieced together from medieval misericords which don't look like the work of Mathy More. Perhaps they originally came from the Priory over the road?

One of the side panels (above) shows two figures that look like demons, with wings and animal-like back legs, turning away from something. Another panel shows a man with five fingers on his hand:

The church guide suggests that this could be a mistake by the carver or a record of his own affliction. I don't believe either myself; the hand is too obvious in the design to have been a mistake. In medieval times, an extra finger or toe was supposed to be the mark of a witch. Henry VIII's wife Anne Boleyn (whom he executed and who was unpopular at court) was popularly -and probably erroneously- said to have an extra finger. It's unlikely that the carver would advertise if he did have this problem.
The figure on the left looks like they are a member of the clergy or judiciary to me. The one on the right (with robes, cap and book), could be either another lawyer or a clergyman. I think that the panel was a dig at corrupt lawyers or clergy.

There are a couple of other interesting carvings in stone to be seen at St Petroc's. The tomb of Thomas Vyvian, penultimate Prior of Bodmin, is carved from Cataclewse stone which comes from Harlyn bay in North Cornwall.

The tomb had to be rescued at one point from the Priory duckpond, into which it had been thrown by Puritans during the Civil War.

The ceiling of the porch is a good example of a groin vault and is carved in Pentewan stone.

Groining is the term for the architectural feature made when two waggon (also known as cradle or barrel) roofs meet at right angles.. Waggon roofs are a feature of many Cornish churches. They are rounded over, like a wagon's cover. 

St Petroc's
Cornish churches often have the ceilings throughout at the same height (similar to 'hall churches', of which Bristol cathedral is an example). The pillars along the nave in St Petroc's and St Newlyn's are in the 'Cornish Perpendicular' style, which has relatively small capitals on the columns.

St Newlyn's.
Sometimes the ceilings are brightly painted, sometimes not.

St Petroc's

St Carantoc's
The roof of St Petroc's was largely demolished in 1699, when a bolt of lightning destroyed the 150-foot (45 m) tall spire. Only the roof in the Lady Chapel is original and has a carved boss showing the date of 1472.

There isn't really room here to write about other interesting things to be seen at St Petroc's; the reliquary casket, painted 16th century panels and carved stone memorials. It's very interesting to see the common features of Cornish church architecture in this area too.


  1. Hello! Have you seen the carved (wooden) mermaid in the church at Zennor, near St Ives? It's beautiful.

    1. You beat me to it! I didn't visit Zennor on this trip unfortunately, but was thinking of writing a bit about the carved bench ends in Cornish churches for the next post as there also were some very interesting ones in st newlyn east, including an unusual 'green dog' carving. It's true, those in Zennor are beautiful aren't they and it's a great story to go with the mermaid carving.

  2. On the subject of dogs, carved or sculpted, I wrote a comment on your Talbot dog project, but I think it got cleared (I never have any luck with comments on any level!!) and now I can't find your original post... Anyway, I was wondering at the time, if you'd heard of the heraldic Talbot dogs of Alton Towers House. They represented the Earls of Shrewsbury, a large Catholic family, later linked to the automobile industry with.... the Talbot car.

    1. I'm sorry that you can't find your previous comments. I did reply and I don't know why they wouldn't have gone through, here's the address for the post again for you:
      It's interesting how the Talbot name and image, through it's heraldic links with a few families, has survived. There are also at least a couple of pubs called 'The Talbot' on the Western side of Birmingham (on the road to Shrewsbury). Obviously, there isn't any kind of link between any of those families (or their religious beliefs!) and the figurehead subject for the Matthew though.
      My liking for the talbot as the subject for a figurehead for the Matthew was largely to do with the breed rescuing people and goods that had fallen into Bristol harbour. With the number of pubs in Bristol, they might have been busy at times! The breed's renowned ability to follow a scent must have appealed to superstitious sailors who would hope that the figurehead would 'scent' the ship back to it's home port.
      I hope that you can find the post okay now. Right, time to write a quick post about...the Matthew!

  3. Thanks for the link back... If you do get further down Cornwall, try visiting the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance. It has a lot of (genuine) figureheads and numerous maritime objects, furniture and panelling. It's incredible - and if you ask the present owner, he'll show you around. I say present owner, because apparently the pub is for sale. Then if you get one of the open-top double-decker buses to Porthcurno you'll see the Merry Maiden stone ring. Just brace yourself for the wind. Probably best to take the bus before a trip to the pub rather than after! Even the best-willed dog would not be able to offer much help in those conditions!

  4. We loved reading your description of St Petrocs! On our next visit to England we will make sure to visit this lovely church! Pam G (Canadian)

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Pam! Hope you have been able or will be able to see St Petroc's yourself one day and thanks for commenting

  6. Do visit Penryn next time. A wander round the town reveals relocated (blame Henry 8th) carvings from the wealthy monastic buildings . The charming little museum has details

    1. Thank you very much for the useful tip: I'll be sure to have a good look around next time I'm in the area.