IF YOU stand on Paddington Station, you will hear a train announced for a holy land: “Calling at Bodmin Road, St Austell, St Erth for St Ives, and Penzance.”
Bodmin: “the house by the sanctuary”. Penzance: “the holy headland”. St Austell, St Erth, and St Ives: three of the saintly places with which Cornwall is peppered — as are the other Celtic lands.
Driving through Cornwall brings up a new saint every two or three miles: St Agnes, St Breward, St Columb Major, St Day, St Endellion — one for almost every letter of the alphabet. Indeed there are more than you realise, because Morwenstow, Padstow, and Warbstow mean “the holy place” of Morwenna, Petroc, and Werburgh. And there are shy saints, who are in the names of places without proclaiming their titles, like Crantock, Gwennap, Madron, Sithney, and Zennor.
Go even to places that seem to have no links with saints, and you will find ones you have never heard of: Lallu at Menheniot, Manac at Lanreath, and Meubred at Cardinham. Landulph on the Tamar is a delectable small port whence pilgrims took the boat to Compostella. The name means, appropriately, “the church-site of Dilic” (in Latin, dilecta).
Not all the saints in Cornwall are Cornish, of course. There are church dedications to well-known figures such as St Mary at Truro Cathedral and St Michael at the Mount. Blisland on Bodmin Moor celebrates the Roman martyrs Protus and Hyacinth (a male partnership blessed by the Church). But these are far outnumbered by 185 churches or chapels that have venerated 140 different Brittonic saints, meaning men and women from the early culture of Brittany, Cornwall, and Wales. Seventy of these have been honoured at a single place in Cornwall, and nowhere else in the world.
WHO were these people? All we can truly say is that they gave their name to a place, perhaps originally a burial ground, but where a church or chapel was later built. They may have been nobility, or pioneering clergy.
Most were probably local folk, but in the course of time they came to be thought of as saints and travellers who came from elsewhere. They were adopted as the patrons of their churches, and venerated there with an image and a festival day every year.
We do not know when they lived, except that it was before about AD 900. Only one, Samson, may have a reliable date in the sixth century. A life of him was written, but not until more than 150 years later, by which time it was already a typical Life of a saint rather than a real biography.
The Lives of the other saints are separated from their subjects by far longer periods of hundreds of years; and they are inventions that tell us not about the saints, but about the beliefs of later worshippers and writers.
So little was known of the saints, even in the Middle Ages, that their gender was sometimes uncertain, or changed with the passage of time. Keri of Egloskerry was male in the twelfth century and female by the 15th. St Veep was so confusing — man or woman? — that people gave up on him (or her) and opted for St Cyricus instead.
Adwen of Advent was always a man in the Middle Ages, but is now often regarded as a woman, as is Gonand at Roche. I once wrote a letter to a Rector of Roche to try to correct the matter. “Dear Rector, your saint sends respects re misunderstanding of sex. I’m Gonand, a he, not Gomonda, a she. Please note, and amend all your texts.” I did not get a reply.
The Bible and historical records meant that accounts of the major saints like Peter or Martin kept at least roughly on an historical track. The devotees of the Cornish saints, without any signposts to guide them, could picture whatever they wished. Ia (the saint of St Ives) could travel to Cornwall from Ireland on a leaf. Gwinear could feast on a slaughtered cow and restore it to life again later. Neot could take a fish every day from his fishpond, and yet there were always three there. St Nectan, who was beheaded by robbers, could pick up his head and take it back to his house before he expired.
CORNWALL has wonderful coastal scenery — cliffs, sands, and islands — and also beautiful, and often deserted, countryside inland, especially around Bodmin Moor. But when you tire of the crowded beaches, or the surf subsides, there are always saints close by to be sought out in their churches and, sometimes, their holy wells.
You can sit in peace in the church if it rains (as it often does), or in the windy churchyard, and reflect that, if the Cornish saints have left a mark on time, we may do so, too, although we are just as obscure.
If you are visiting the north coast, there is a string of saints from Padstow in the south to Morwenstow in the north and, indeed, beyond, since Welcombe and Hartland in north Devon are both dedicated to Nectan. You can visit St Minver — whose saint threw her comb at the Devil, causing him to sink into the ground at Lundy Cove — or St Endellion, with its famous music festival. The walk from Morwenstow to Welcome is spectacular, and you will meet very few people.
Parking in the big car park at Boscastle, you can leave the crowds to their cream teas (served at all hours of the day) and go on a quiet hike of an hour or two up to St Juliot (where Hardy met his first wife), round to Lesnewth (St Michael, and a wholly unknown St Knett), and back via Minster (St Mertherian), where the probable top of the saint’s shrine lies upside down in the nave.
Or you can take the coast path from Boscastle to Tintagel, and call in at Forrabury (St Symphorian), Trevalga (St Petroc), and Tintagel (which honours Mertherian, too).
Round Bodmin Moor there is Blisland aforementioned, charmingly restored by F. C. Eden, with rood figures on the rood screen. There is lonely Michaelstow Beacon, where the stones of a vanished chapel are scattered among the gorse bushes: the chapel of an Italian saint this time, St Syth — the patron of servants, and finder of lost objects. And, perhaps best of all, St Neot, with its wonderful set of pre-Reformation stained-glass windows featuring episodes from his own legend as well as the figures of his saintly neighbours Lallu, Mabyn, and Petroc.
On the south coast there is Roseland, meaning “headland”, but rose-like in its best corners. Here you can visit St Just Church in its lovely churchyard by the waters of the Fal estuary; and, close by, St Anthony, which was once a priory of canons, and commemorates a local saint, Entennin, reinterpreted as Anthony of Egypt.
Not very far away, and quite unfrequented, are Lamorran (St Moren) and Ruan Lanihorne (St Rumon); while St Michael Penkevil, though lacking a Cornish saint, is a well-preserved example of a small 14th-century collegiate church.
If you are right down in the far west in Penwith, you can escape from St Ives and Penzance and discover the inland attractions of Madron and Sancreed. Each of these has the church of a Cornish saint, and each a holy well a little distance from the church, requiring a picturesque walk.
Both wells, when you reach them, are haunting places. Or you can try St Levan by the sea — the church of St Selevan (the Cornish form of Solomon) — with the saint’s fish on a bench-end in the nave. But if you try to drive there, be warned of steep, blind, twisting lanes; and be prepared to reverse uphill and round corners.
THE saints add much to the charm of Cornwall. To some, they speak of early times: the first gleams of light in the dark. To me, they conjure up the later Middle Ages, when the legends were written down, and people built the churches that we see today. Plain buildings, most of them, made of stones hewn out of granite: hard to carve, but meant to last and to do full honour to the saints, however little they were known elsewhere. Now only the granite remains; the liturgies and images have gone.
But there are still the legends, all of which possess two striking features. The saints were always held to have come to Cornwall from elsewhere. They might be obscure, people said, but they chose our parish to settle in rather than anywhere else in the world.
And they were all believed to have arrived from Brittany, Wales, or Ireland — never from England. The Cornish have long welcomed the English as visitors, but, with a few exceptions, they have never wanted them as their saints.
Professor Nicholas Orme has written several books on Cornish church history, including The Saints of Cornwall (OUP, 2000).