Cuthbert Mayne

The trial of Cuthbert Mayne began on September 23rd 1577. Mayne had trained as a Catholic priest and came to Cornwall in 1575. At Golden, near Probus, he found a place in the house of Francis Tregian. The Tregians were originally tin merchants and shipowners in Truro and had acquired the estate at Golden through marriage. Marriage links also forged an alliance with the influential Arundell family of Lanherne.

Both the Arundells and the Tregians were prominent Catholic families. The Arundells had kept their heads down during the 1549 rising and afterwards. On Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, the laws against those refusing to attend the Church of England, taking mass and generally being Catholics were re-imposed. But leniency was the name of the game and the Arundells and Tregians prospered. For a time.

However, in 1570 Pope Pius V decided to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. Cornish families like the Arundells and Tregians now faced a dilemma. Did they support their monarch and give up their religion or stick with their religion and follow the pope? The authorities began to monitor their activities more closely as tensions rose between England and Catholic Spain. Religious differences also provided an opportunity for their opponents. A.L. Rowse argued that Richard Grenville in particular, ‘hot-tempered, determined, energetic, harsh’, was out for revenge against Tregian for the latter’s role in curbing privateering and because of personal jealousy. In the summer of 1577 Grenville, now Sheriff, descended on Golden with other magistrates and up to 100 men. Cuthbert Mayne and Francis Tregian were taken.

Mayne was accused and found guilty of high treason for his loyalty to the pope. In November of 1577 he was executed at the marketplace in the centre of Launceston. As a traitor he was hanged, before being drawn and quartered. Some claimed that he was cut down from the gibbet before he was unconscious, his head striking the scaffold and losing an eye on the way down. The butchery complete, his head was stuck on the castle gate at Launceston. His quarters were dispatched to decorate the towns of Barnstaple, where he had been born, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Tregony, the town nearest to Tregian’s house at Golden.

Meanwhile, Tregian stubbornly refused to renounce his religious views and come into line. For his pains he was imprisoned at first in Launceston Castle in deplorable conditions with other criminals but then in relatively comfortable lodgings in London. It was 28 years before he was released.

Silas Hocking: a Cornish record-breaker

This week sees the anniversary of the death of Silas Hocking in 1935. Largely forgotten now, Silas was the first writer in the world to sell over a million copies of a novel. This was his second book, Her Benny, published in 1879. It was a sentimental tale of child poverty and rags to riches in Liverpool, an example of evangelical fiction aimed primarily at children. Silas, a United Methodist Free Church Minister, based this work on his experiences in the 1870s in Liverpool, where he had arrived from Cornwall, via south Wales and Lincolnshire.

Born in 1850 in the parish of St Stephen in Brannel, Silas went on to publish another 99 novels after Her Benny. This prodigious output was matched by his younger brother Joseph, who wrote an equal number of books, while his sister Salome added another nine to the family’s total.

Forget Jane Austen, Dickens or Hardy. In working class homes, the Hockings were the popular novelists of the Edwardian years. It was their books that were most likely to be found in Cornish homes in the early 1900s. Too overtly moralistic and sermonising for modern tastes, the siblings’ books rapidly fell out of fashion after the 1930s. While millions were printed, millions were later pulped.

For more on the lives of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking the book to read is Alan Kent’s Pulp Methodism (2002).

Billy Bray: Methodist folk hero

On this day in 1794 William Trewartha Bray was born in the hamlet of Twelveheads, tucked away at the bottom of the Poldice valley between Redruth and Penryn. His father died when he was young and the family then moved in with a grandfather. On his death in turn in 1811, William, by now known as Billy and a miner as his father had been, journeyed to the Tavistock district of Devon. There he worked for seven years, but in that time, according to his contemporary and biographer F.W.Bourne, Billy became a drunkard with a reputation as a bit of a tearaway.

On his return Billy, now married, became increasingly dissatisfied with life. Eventually, in 1823, he underwent the experience of conversion familiar by this time to the majority of Cornish Methodists. But this was no ordinary conversion – a few months of pious living followed by the inevitable backsliding and the relegation of religion in the everyday struggle to make ends meet.

Billy became an enthusiastic lay preacher for the Bible Christians, quickly appearing on their Local Plan (the programme of preaching) in 1824. Until his death in 1868, he then kept up an unremitting evangelical enthusiasm. When Billy was in the pulpit, the chapels rang with spontaneous shouts while he danced with joy. His was an exuberant religion, verging on what to our eyes might seem close to hysteria.

For all the excitement, Billy’s sermons were laced with practical metaphors and a sharp wit. All this, delivered in a Cornish accent, added to his growing popularity with the mining population in which he was firmly rooted.

Extrovert religion was accompanied by incredible energy. Juggling his work as a miner with tending his smallholding and regular preaching, Billy still found time to organise the building of three chapels. The first was at Cross Lanes, near Twelveheads, the second (and only survivor) at Kerley Downs, while the third was at Carharrack.

Perhaps his approach to life was best summed up by Reverend William Haslam, Vicar at Baldhu Church, describing the day, sometime in the 1850s, when he first met Billy. Hearing someone ‘praising the Lord’

I rose from the breakfast table and opened the door to see who my happy, unceremonious visitor could be; and then for the first time beheld this queer looking man. I asked him who he was. He replied, with a face beaming with joy –

“I am Billy Bray – be you the passon?

“Yes,” I answered.

Converted, be ye?”

“Yes, thank God” ….

After a time, Billy joined us again in the dining room, to take, by invitation, some breakfast; but before he sat down he approached me and suddenly put his arm around me, and took me up, and carried me around the table, and then, setting me down at my chair, rolled on the floor for joy, and said he was as “happy as he could live”.

Billy Bray’s chapel at Kerley Downs

All work and no play? A Bible Christian hymn for children

Below are some verses from the Child’s Hymn Book, circulating in the early 1830s in Cornwall. It urges the reader to work and study, holding out an unattractive alternative if little noses weren’t kept close to the grindstone. The book was published at Shebbear, in north Devon. It may have originated in the Bible Christians’ Prospect College, established in 1829 and later known as Shebbear College. The Bible Christians had been founded in 1815 and were a revivalist Methodist sect that gained its main following in rural areas in Cornwall and north Devon previously untouched by Wesleyan Methodism.

Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain
You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again,
As the door on its hinges, so he, on his bed
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.
A little more sleep and a little more slumber,
Thus he wastes half his days, and hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.
I passed by his garden, and saw the wild briar,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher,
The clothes that hung on him are turning to rags,
And his money still wastes, till he starves or he begs.
I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind,
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart “Here’s a lesson for me
This man’s put a picture of what I might be
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.
William O’Bryan, founder of the Bible Christians

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.

Why religious dissent didn't take off in 17th century Cornwall

On the 15th of March 1675, Hugh Acland of Truro reported ‘a great meeting of Quakers in a parish adjoining this town about seven last Friday evening where there were a great many others of young people that were not of their opinion but went out of curiosity. The room being full, one of the most eminent among them began to speak and told them that God’s children were quiet and peacable and advise all to walk in the ways of God, for they should all come to judgement before Him, and, as soon as he had spoken these words, before he could proceed any further, the planchion fell under them, and they all fell one on another, only some few, who were by the windows escaped the fall. In this fall divers children and others were much bruised but no other hurt’.

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, were clearly stirring up some interest in the area and Acland went on to state that they were planning to open a meeting house ’about a musket shot’ from Truro. Quakers were one of the dissenting churches that had broken away from the Church of England earlier in the century. These included Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians, all of whom received a boost during the civil wars of the 1640s and in the period of the Republic.

Although reliable data is scarce, it looks as if in 1676 the number of dissenters in Cornwall was not obviously much lower than in neighbouring Devon …

Yet, by the early 1700s it was being reported that there were very few dissenters in Cornwall. Numbers had fallen steeply and this has been cited as one of the reasons Wesleyan Methodism could take hold so quickly in Cornwall.

Why was this? Dissenters were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Government and its supporters on the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and as threats to the newly re-established order. Legislation was passed in the 1660s and 1670s excluding dissenters from positions of authority while dissenting congregations were subjected to persecution and harassment by local justices of the peace. It is likely that Cornwall’s Royalist and Tory landowning establishment was more hostile to dissent than their counterparts elsewhere, enthusiastically and successfully using the law to stamp it out in the later 1600s and early 1700s.

The lifestyle of the Celtic saints

Around 140 separate Celtic saints were venerated in Cornwall. Later, it was assumed most of them came from elsewhere, from Wales, Brittany or Ireland, even though many were in fact probably native to Cornwall. As time passed, saints became the object of local folklore. In imagining the histories of their saints, the Cornish revealed how they saw themselves. Nicholas Orme (in his Cornwall and the Cross, p.18) has written that ‘between about AD 900 and 1500 … people in Cornwall … saw their past as linked with Ireland and Wales, not with England or Rome’.

Various miraculous events were associated with Cornwall’s saints. Cuby and Piran could carry fire without being burnt. Petroc lived on an island in the Indian Ocean for seven years sustained by a single fish, while Carantoc possessed a magic perambulating altar. This sailed of its own volition across the Severn from Wales with the saint hot in pursuit. Once across the Severn Carantoc had to tame a serpent that was annoying the locals. The same district near Bristol seems to have been particularly infested with serpents as Keyne turned them to stone by her praying. Not all serpents and dragons were being slain by the score in what was becoming England. Samson had to deal with one on his way through Cornwall for example.

Arthur figured in relation to several saints. Carantoc was assisted by Arthur when taming his dragon, while Kea returned to Cornwall from Brittany to broker a peace deal between Arthur and Modred. Endelient was the god daughter of Arthur, who had helped her when a local lord killed her cow. When she died, Endelient’s body was dragged in an ox-cart and the church built at the place the oxen stopped, something that also happened to Mylor.

Some saints were incredibly strong. Morwenna carried a stone for the font of her church on her head from the shore up the cliffs to the spot she chose. Selevan cracked a stone with a single blow of his fist. Menfre or Minver could fight off the devil merely by throwing her comb at him.

Saints seem to have had more than their fair share of bad luck. When a child, Mylor, son of a duke of Cornwall, had his hand and foot chopped off by an evil uncle. He received silver replacements that miraculously grew with him. Blaise was tortured with woolcombs but then very forgivingly became the patron saint of woolcombers. Selevan caught two fish with a single hook to feed the two children of his sister Breage. Unfortunately, the children choked on the bones. Gwinear was beheaded at the site of his church, massacred by the Cornish pagan King Teudar along with the rest of the company of 777 that he had brought with him from Ireland.

Sancred killed his father by accident and had to live as a swineherd in penance, later being revered for his ability to cure pigs. According to Nicholas Orme, in 1677 the too-clever vicar of Sancreed was prosecuted by his parishioners for unwisely saying that he was ‘the unhappiest of ministers, for that other ministers were patrons of their flocks but that he was but the herdsman of a company of swine’.

And finally, saints could make what look like quite odd decisions. God offered Sithney the chance to be the patron of young women, No, replied the misogynist, for they’ll always be pestering me asking for husbands and fine clothes. Instead he chose to be the patron of mad dogs. Much less trouble.

Cornish saints were sometimes replaced by international or English saints. At Redruth by 1960 Euny was sharing his church with St George

It’s Celtic saints’ month

With St David’s Day tomorrow, St Piran’s on Thursday and St Patrick’s in a couple of weeks’ time, this has to be the month of the Celtic saints. To the greater glory of St Euny, my local saint, I shall be forced to devote the next three blogs to the subject.

Stauined glass modern representation of
St Uny at Lelant church

Who were the Celtic saints? Saints were supposed to have been roaming around in the early middle ages causing all sorts of mayhem while confronting pagans and serpents alike. They were men and sometimes women, Christian missionaries, suffering for their faith, performing miracles and founding churches during their hectic voyaging up and down the seaways of Celtic Britain.

What truth can be gleaned from the scanty historical record is more prosaic. Some saints may well have taken to their boats (or millstones or leaves). The life of Samson, written in the late 600s, suggests he crossed Cornwall on his way from Wales to Brittany. However, most saints’ lives were written up much later, from the ninth century onwards, centuries after their subjects had died, and are much less credible. Although people liked to think that ‘their’ saint personally founded ‘their’ church, it’s more likely that the saint’s cult migrated, not the saints themselves.

The great age of the Celtic saints was the period between 500 and 700, a time when Christianity was spreading across the Celtic world. This was probably also the time cults began to spread, transferred from monasteries to daughter churches. Maybe a relic or two, the supposed teeth or a fragment of a saint’s bone for example, would accompany the cult, to be proudly displayed in a shrine in the church.

St Euny’s Well, at Sancreed

Saints often had their holy wells, to which people would head to seek healing. Certain saints had particular specialisms; for example, St Cadoc was good for intestinal worms. Meanwhile, if you had a sick pig, St Sancred was the chap to pray to. They would also have had their special days when services were held, feasts were prepared, relics were proudly paraded around the parish and sometimes the saint’s play was performed at the local plain an gwarry.

Who was Bishop Colenso?

Christian missionaries don’t get such a good press these days, often viewed as merely an arm of western colonialism, accompanying the trader and the soldier. But some missionaries broke the mould. One was John Colenso, born at St Austell on January 24th, 1814. The Colensos were actually a Penzance family. John’s father was a mine agent, a notoriously peripatetic calling. This seems to have left its mark on his children as John‘s brother, William, also became a well-known missionary in New Zealand.

After his father lost his tin stream in a flood, John was forced to scrimp to save enough money to take up a place at Cambridge University. There he excelled at maths, later in the early 1840s writing textbooks on algebra and arithmetic. After graduating, John followed a familiar route of teaching before being offered the rectorship of a parish in Norfolk in 1846. In the year he became a rector, John married and the prospect of a comfortable middle age bringing up his children, of whom there were five, lay in prospect. But it was not to be. At the end of 1853 he was invited to take up the post of Bishop of Natal, in the eastern part of present-day South Africa.

John Colenso

Once there, with his customary energy he threw himself into organising the infrastructure of a self-respecting Anglican diocese overseas – churches, schools and mission stations duly springing up. Yet by the 1860s John was harbouring growing doubts about the literal truth of the Old Testament. Perhaps his mathematical inclination convinced him that the earth could not have been created in 4004 BC and Noah wasn’t 600 years old when he built the ark.

John was unwilling to teach this nonsense to the local Zulu people and in fact went further by publicly criticising the authenticity of the first five books of the Bible. Panicking at a time when Darwin’s theories were being widely circulated, in 1863 the church hierarchy in southern Africa attempted to haul him before them on charges of heresy. However, they were over-ruled from London and John kept his post.

He was hardly the typical colonialist of the time. Although believing in the separate origin of races, he was very sympathetic towards the native Africans, learning isiZulu, their language. He was perhaps fortunate in that the stress in isiZulu is on the penultimate syllable, something that would come naturally to any Cornish person. In 1855 he argued for the toleration of polygamy and in the 1870s championed Zulu leaders who were being persecuted and wrongly imprisoned. At a time of mounting tension, he defended Zulus against the Boer oppression and then British aggression that marked the years preceding the Zulu wars of 1879. In return in Natal he became known as Sobantu, or father of the people.

John Colenso died in 1883. A memorial window to him can be found in the south aisle of St Austell Church.

The fall of the Arundells of Lanherne

By the end of the fifteenth century the Arundell family of Lanherne at St Mawgan had climbed to the top of Cornwall’s pecking order. Yet, by the 1600s the family was declining fast. The reason was simple enough. Their stubborn commitment to Roman Catholicism after the Reformation of the 1540s made them suspect in the eyes of the Government. But the details of their fall can be confusing, not least because in the 1500s four heads of the family in a row were all called John.

The Arundells first emerged in the early 1200s, holding a single manor at Treloy, near present-day Newquay. Their rise came over the following two centuries, mainly as a result of a succession of lucrative marriages which added a score or so manors to their estate. During these years, the family seat was transferred from Treloy, via Trembleath in St Ervan to Lanherne, where the family was based by the 1370s.

The Arundells were Lancastrian supporters in the 1400s and remained loyal to Henry VII during the Cornish risings of 1497, being rewarded with yet another manor. By 1501 John Arundell was the wealthiest man in Cornwall and as receiver-general of the Duchy when Henry VIII became king, the most important as well.

Sir John #1

Sir John Arundell #1 (1475-1545) was content to administer the Duchy and remain in Cornwall. His eldest son Sir John #2 determined to keep his head down as his fellow landowners embraced Protestantism. Meanwhile, the Arundells clung to their traditional faith. The rising of 1549 brought the first problems, when Sir John failed to answer a call to serve against the ‘rebels’, who were led by his cousin. He was kept in custody in London and examined, pleading sickness had prevented his attendance. This didn’t wash and John was confined to the Tower from 1550 to 1552, before dying in 1557.

Nonetheless, the family’s position was restored during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58). Sir John #3 retained a powerful position in Cornish society as late as 1570. As A.L.Rowse wrote, in what is still the best account of these years, the Arundells ‘gave as little offence as possible’, although they were ‘aloof (and) increasingly isolated from the rest of (Cornwall)’.

Sir John #3

The breach finally occurred in 1577 when Cuthbert Mayne, a Roman Catholic missionary priest, was discovered at Golden, the house of Francis Tregian, another Catholic who had married an Arundell. Mayne was executed and Tregian imprisoned. John Arundell #3 was indicted for not attending church and restricted to London, spending periods of time in the Tower. His final stay there came with the Anglo-Spanish crisis of 1587 and the Armada invasion scare. He died shortly after.

It wasn’t the extended period away from Cornwall after 1577 or spells in prison that proved the final straw for the family but the financial pressures for being declared ‘recusants’, or non-attenders of the Church of England. John Arundell #4 was paying a fine of £260 a year by 1599 and the Crown had confiscated some of the family lands under a law of 1586.

Although John #4 was allowed to return to Cornwall in 1604, the family’s continuing refusal to recant and give up their Catholicism ate away at their wealth. The last male Arundell, another Sir John, died in1701, although the family line continued via marriage into a (by now much wealthier) cadet line of the Arundell family in Wiltshire. In the late 1700s most of the Cornish lands were sold and in 1794 Lanherne itself was given to Carmelite nuns fleeing the Low Countries. It remains a nunnery, offering few hints of its former status as the power-base of Cornwall’s leading family.

Lanherne in 1973