The Cornish Patrimony

March 5 is the feast of St. Piran, patron Saint of Cornwall, and so the Cornish National Day. Whereas Ss. Patrick, Andrew, and David are internationally known through the widespread presence of Irish, Scots, and Welsh throughout the Anglosphere, poor St. Piran and his little Celtic domain are not. This is unfortunate, given that Cornwall’s history, language, and culture are quite as fascinating, and she has made her own contributions to both the Catholic Church and Anglo-Catholicism that are well worth getting to know. Although constitutionally Cornwall is just another English county (with a Lord Lieutenant representing the Queen), the Prince of Wales is also Duke of Cornwall – his Duchy provides a great deal of the income that funds HRH’s innumerable charities.

As with Wales and Brittany, Cornwall was a last refuge for the Romano-Britons from the Anglo-Saxons. She shares with them a dead-but-reviving Celtic language, unique and fairy-ridden folklore, Arthurian legends (Tintagel Castle was the King’s reputed birthplace), and a host of monastic missionary Saints who evangelised her. In the Middle Ages, as a result, Cornwall was covered with a network of monasteries, pilgrimages, shrines, and holy wells – all of which came crashing down thanks to Henry VIII. Despite risings against the new religion in 1538 and 1549 (the latter called the “Prayer Book Rising,” as the non-English-speaking Cornish rejected the new rite), and martyrs such as St. Cuthbert Mayne, the Church was virtually pulverized over time, with only the Arundells of Lanherne and the Couches of Tolfrey House retaining it among the gentry; its last hurrah was Cornwall’s loyalty to the King during the Civil War and lingering Jacobitism. With the extirpation of the Faith went hand-in-hand that of the language; by 1767 there were believed to be only 56 Catholics in the County and fewer native-speakers of Cornish. Into the spiritual vacuum rushed John Wesley’s Methodism.

But as in the other Celtic lands, 19th century Romanticism brought some relief. Anglo-Catholicism came to Cornwall in the form of the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker, who did his best in his life and work to restore Cornish Catholicism (as he saw it) and culture. He was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed, leading to two biographies: one by Sabine Baring-Gould that attempted to minimise the wildly popular Hawker’s conversion as another of his eccentricities; and a second in response by the redoubtable F.G. Lee that endeavoured to set the record straight. Hawker’s late 19th century successor in both struggles was the layman Henry Jenner, who set about reviving Cornish, co-founding the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and the Cornish Gorsedh, collaborating in the Jacobite Order of the White Rose, and writing several articles for the Catholic Encyclopaedia. In 1876, Anglican Cornwall was separated from the Diocese of Exeter as the separate Diocese of Truro; its first bishop was future Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, who devised the first Service of Nine Lessons and Carols for Truro Cathedral, where it is yet performed. One of his younger sons was future Catholic priest, and novelist, Robert Hugh Benson, who in later days credited his family’s stay in Cornwall with the awakening of his imagination. In any case, Anglo-Catholicism became influential in the diocese, thanks to such as George Rundle Prynne; perhaps the crowning achievement of the movement in Cornwall was the elevation of Walter Frere, co-founder of the Community of the Resurrection to Bishop of Truro. In recent years, of course, Truro has gone the way of its sister dioceses. There is a movement underway to separate Truro into a disestablished “Church of Cornwall,” but as with the Church in Wales, orthodoxy has little to do with it.

As for Catholicism per se, in Cornwall, the Arundells of Lanherne left their mansion to the Carmelites, and in the 19th century it became the Centre of Catholicism in the Duchy, from whence Fr. William Young, the “Apostle of Cornwall,” established a number of parishes – mostly for Irish immigrants. Part of the new Diocese of Plymouth, the Cornish deanery was favoured by Sir Paul Molesworth, Bt. who converted with his wife in the mid-19th century and founded more parishes. In 1881, the Canons Regular of the Lateran returned to Bodmin, where prior to the Reformation they had staffed the largest monastery in England. The Canons Regular also went on to found numerous churches in the Duchy. Of course, even as the Church of England in Cornwall suffered their parent organisation’s decline, so too has the Catholic Church; in 1976 the Canons’ house at Bodmin was sold and turned in apartments.

But what has little Cornwall to do with the rest of the Anglosphere? Quite a bit, actually – and much more than just Cornish pasties, delicious though those stews-in-pastry are. Cornish emigration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and Mexico created little Cornwalls here and there, most notably in Grass Valley, CA. These tend to be characterised by choirs and so forth. As with the Welsh, any Ordinariate Community that finds itself near such might well consider celebrating St. Piran’s day by either attending such local events or inviting the local Cornish to present a programme at the church.

And what of the old Duchy herself? Well, the use of Cornish continues to grow, as does interest in the shrines and pilgrimages lost at the Protestant Revolt. The Marian shrine at Ladye Park is being reborn, and St. Cuthbert Mayne’s national shrine is gaining devotees. Just as Lanherne was the stronghold of the Faith during the Penal times, so, under its current tenants, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, it is a stronghold of the Latin Mass. Moreover, Cornwall boasts an active Ordinariate community of its own. May St. Piran obtain from God success in of their endeavours!

1 thought on “The Cornish Patrimony

  1. Thank you to Charles for wonderful information about St. Piran and Cornwall. I have a good bit of Cornish heritage in my background. A small point of clarification. St. Piran is more properly patron saint of Cornish tin miners and tinsmiths. St. Michael the Archangel is the “official” Patron of Cornwall.


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