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

What to see in Cornish churches: 1

My religious correspondent has sent me this description of two Cornish churches which both have medieval art worth taking a look at.


The most striking thing about Breage church is its wall paintings. The two largest are opposite the main door. On the left is St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, greeting you as you arrive and looking after you as you leave.  He is shown knee-deep in water, carrying Jesus safely on his shoulder. On the right is the figure of Jesus surrounded by various tools. Opinion is divided as to whether he is blessing the trades for which these tools were used or whether it is a warning to those who worked with them on a Sunday: working on a Sunday was forbidden. These figures would have been painted around the same time as the church was built, about 1470-1500. They give a good idea of just how colourful our churches were and, in an era when few people could read, they are powerful messages.

The wall paintings at Breage

In addition, in the north-west corner of this church is a tall stone, found near the church in 1924. It has a Latin inscription which translates as ‘To the Emperor Caesar Marcus Cassianus Postumus’ who reigned from about 260-268 AD. The stone is often referred to as a Roman milestone, but it is really a road marker, showing visiting troops that they were on the right road.

St Kew

If you like old, beautiful interesting things, head for St. Kew. At the end of the north aisle is a stained glass window depicting the last few days of Jesus’ life. It is at least 550 years old and was brought here from Bodmin in 1469. When you think how fragile stained glass is, how far it had to travel and by what means, it’s a real miracle that it’s in such great condition.

The scenes begin with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and end with a scene of him being laid in his tomb. There are a couple of sections filled with broken glass, but the other scenes are vivid. The scene of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and the disciples are all asleep, shows a group of Roman soldiers creeping up, hiding behind their shields. A few panels later we see Jesus before Pontius Pilate, who is literally washing his hands of the responsibility of sentencing Jesus to death. Take a pair of binoculars with you and you’ll be able to see details like the fur on the donkey, the drops of water when Jesus washes Peter’s feet and so on.

Lizzie Lander