The medieval monasteries of Cornwall

It’s Easter Sunday. It seems appropriate therefore to write about something religious.

The original Cornish monasteries were part of the Celtic church, but by the Norman period these were just memories, if that. Then, from 1100 to the mid-1200s, a great wave of monastic foundations burst across the British Isles. Cornwall received its share of this, although it had no great, independent monasteries. This was because the wealthy magnates and the rich merchants who could endow monasteries with land and money were thin on the ground.

The first wave of monasteries was Benedictine. Small cells of this order were established in Cornwall, offshoots of abbeys in England and France. Between 1100 and 1150 five had been founded, the largest at Tywardreath. The others were at Tresco on Scilly, Minster near Boscastle, St Michael’s Mount and Lamanna (Looe Island), although the last two of these were closed and sold well before the Reformation.

A reconstruction of Launceston Priory

There were no examples of the reforming, more austere (at first) Cistercian order of monasteries in Cornwall. Instead, the biggest religious establishments were Augustinian priories. These were houses of priests rather than monks. Unlike the latter, they could go out into the world, although living together and without personal possessions. A small priory at Tregony had been shut as early as 1287. However, the biggest were at Bodmin and Launceston, both established in the 1120s. A third at St Germans joined them in the 1180s.

In the 1200s fashion turned from monastic institutions to the support of friaries. Unlike the residential orders, friars prioritised preaching to the people and, at least initially, the virtues of poverty, surviving on charity rather than land and endowments. Both the major orders of friars established houses in Cornwall in the mid-1200s, the Franciscans at Bodmin and the Dominicans at Truro.

Launceston Priory site now

Monastic cells, priories and friaries were then a feature of Cornish life into the 1500s. At times squabbling with the townsfolk (as at Bodmin), or arguing viciously among themselves (as at Launceston) or accused of laxity and drunkenness (as at Tywardreath), these institutions, in the pithy words of A.L.Rowse, ‘never produced anybody of importance’.  In March 1539 the final monastic institution in Cornwall – St Germans Priory – was closed down by the Government. This followed the dissolution of smaller monasteries in 1536 and friaries in 1538.

2 thoughts on “The medieval monasteries of Cornwall

  1. Surely the pithy words of AL Rowse shortchange generations upon generations of good, decent, quiet believers in God. There would have been bad pennies, yes, and perhaps a generation or two could have become corrupt. But it is absolutely intrinsic to the calling to want to be anonymous and not to seek glory or renown. Jesus said, “Let your left hand not know what your right hand is doing.” We do not have to be religious in order to respect people who attempted (and still attempt) to live lives of goodness and kindness. I really think it is a great pity to write off hundreds and hundreds of people who would have wanted to do good things in their lives, and especially today of all days.

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  2. Dear Sir
    Do you have a historical reference when you indicate that benedictine monastories had been founded in Cornwall between 1100 and 1150, notably concerning Minster (in fact St Mertherian) near Boscastle ?
    It seems (but not sure) that :
    – the date of arrival of the Benedictines from Angers in Cornwall to the church of Minster (St. Mertheriana) is 1154
    – the date 1154 is the death of William Boterel I (One) (xxx-1154)
    – a gift is performed, at his death in 1154, by William Boterel I to the Benedictines of Angers, of the church of Minster (St. Mertheriana) by a chart of 1134. The chart is performed before his death in 1134, not in 1154.
    – William Boterel was Constable of Wallingford from c. 1150 until his death in 1154
    – The Treaty of Wallingford, also known as the Treaty of Winchester or the Treaty of Westminster, was an agreement reached in England in the summer of 1153.
    From France.
    Best regards

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