Version 5 January 2008
© Maxwell Adams 2003-2008
Uny, after whom the church at Lelant is named, was a Christian who came to Lelant in the fifth or sixth century from Ireland or Wales. That is the traditional story. Is it true? Well, Uny, earlier spelt Euny, is a most elusive person but let me survey the evidence. There appears to be no biography. He is not mentioned in the earliest list there currently is of some saints of Cornwall, a list of the tenth century (Olson 1986 and 1989). John of Tynemouth compiled a national and comprehensive list of saints in the fourteenth century, and his work was used by later hagiographers. Uny disturbingly does not appear in any of these either.
The first and only early written account we have of him is from William Worcester writing in 1478 (page 98).
Worcester says three things about Uny: he was the brother of Erth and Ia (called Hergh and Hya in Worcester); he is buried in the parish church of St Uny in Lelant; and his feast day, the supposed date of his death, is 1st February (Worcester 1478, 98). Thus, with his relationship to Ia and Erth, he is placed among the Irish Christian misionaries supposed to have come to Cornwall in the fifth or sixth century. Worcester did not visit Lelant or St Uny's church on his brief tour of Cornwall but apparently got the story from an informant, possibly but not certainly Thomas Peperelle of Tavistock, whom he describes as a notary.
Worcester gives us a few bureaucratic details about Uny. And this is all we have about him. No anecdotes about Uny, presumably because there were none to relate. No miracles, no valorous deeds, no martyr's death. This thin Worcester account presents several difficulties. It comes late in the day, a thousand years after Uny's supposed presence here. Worcester's writing is notes rather than an orderly narrative and it might well be that what we have in the apparent ascription of the information to Peperelle is a disorderly reference in his notes; why would a Tavistock notary know about Lelant and these saints? (Doble 1960, 80).
Where Worcester, or his informant, got his information is unknown and thus we cannot assess it. There is no evidence of a biography now lost, and in any case we do not know how reliable any supposed lost biography was. As evidence Worcester's story is hearsay of uncertain reliability.
We must also consider Uny in the context of religion in medieval Europe, the rise of a strong culture of the veneration of saints, and the assumptions about the characteristics of saints. For example, people associated sexual virginity and saintliness. Therefore if Ia was a saint, she must have been a virgin. There also appears to have been a medieval fashion for ascribing Irish origins for saints, especially lesser known ones as Richard Sharpe points out (Sharpe 1991, 4-5). If the obscure Uny was a saint, he must have come from Ireland, the argument would run - or Wales, for those countries were, as Nicholas Orme has said, believed to be where many saints came from (Orme 1992, 29). I think people in the past constructed reality for themselves; as many of us do today.
In short, putting aside for a moment the hard question of whether Uny actually existed, we cannot say that Uny probably came from Ireland or Wales. Orme (2000, 119) wonders whether he came from Cornwall itself.
So did Uny actually exist? First, an interesting byway. Dexter has argued that Uny could well be a christianising myth, a saint invented from a previous nonchristian goddess (Dexter 1938, 88). He suggests that the name Uny comes from Uni, an Etruscan goddess, and Juno, a Roman goddess, who were probably identical. Uny's feast day is in February, and Dexter says that Uni and Juno were celebrated in that month too. I don't find this convincing: despite Roman influence, how likely is it that people in westernmost Cornwall would know of Uni and Juno? But Dexter has to be weighed alongside Worcester.
It is Dexter who points out that Leland in the sixteenth century appears to call the saint Unine, a female name (Dexter 88; Leland 1538, 75). We do not why this is. Perhaps Leland had access to a story now lost or was it simply a mistake? Interestingly, Tyacke, a Victorian vicar here, refers to Uny as female (Tyacke 1889, 110). Incidentally, the first reference around 1500 to Anta, Lelant's other Christian saint, suggests in the Latin grammar a male not a female (Orme 2000, 65).
Anta takes the story into another intriguing possibility. The first mention of the name Uny seems to be around 1170, six hundred years or so after his supposed arrival (Henderson 1923, 297). It is a reference to the church at Lelant not the person. We can therefore be sure that there was a built church here then and a belief in Uny as a Christian originator. We know that churches in Anglo-Saxon England were largely replaced with Norman ones after 1066. There was a general upsurge in rebuilding churches in much of Europe after 1000, the first millennium. The church at Lelant is architecturally fifteenth century with a very few Norman features. Recent study has looked at the shape of churchyards in Cornwall and place names with the Brythonic Cornish element lan or lann in them (Preston-Jones 1994). Lelant (earlier Lananta and so forth) might be made up of two elements, lann and anta. The rectilinear shape of Lelant churchyard suggests a late date, perhaps after the Norman Conquest; lann suggests a religious settlement of earlier date.
We can speculate from this study, and the settlement-name Lananta, that the first Christian settlement was named after Anta, and Uny was a name brought in later, perhaps when the church was rebuilt or a new Norman one established. However, we have no way of knowing unless we find more evidence. Interestingly, in medieval writing a common formula is 'St Uny close by Lananta.'
There are difficulties. We have even less evidence for Anta than for Uny. Why would Anta be replaced by Uny? What psychological and cultural motives were at work in any replacement? Where was Uny and ideas about him in the preceding six hundred years? Or was Uny 'discovered' only centuries after an original Christian cult of Anta at Lelant? There are several places in west Cornwall named after Uny, all apparently late in the day. He looks like a popular, new saint.
There is a built church at Lelant, there have perhaps been others. But did in fact Uny the person exist, or indeed Anta? Oh dear, it is difficult to give a straight answer. I suppose possibly or possibly not is the most honest answer.
There is a major difficulty with such stories as Uny's. The tales of king Arthur and Robin Hood, which first appear in medieval times, might be sheer invention or might be fictionalised stories based on some true happenings and real people, but what is true and what is made up we cannot now altogether reliably distinguish. Walter Raleigh wrote a fantasied account of a trip up the Orinoco (Raleigh 1596). Raleigh, the Orinoco, and his going there are real but the account of the trip up the river was invented. Gulliver's travels was entirely invented. All these stories invite belief but they were written for a purpose and to an agenda. To test their reality we have to look at the nature of the stories and their provenance and context and purpose and the presence or lack of corroborative evidence.
One difficulty that we should not overlook is that it is not certain when the settlement of Lelant was founded. Lelant is not mentioned by name in the 1086 Doomsday Book of manors in England, a book of stupendous detail about life and individuals of that time which, in its contemporary entry for that year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mournfully says counted every ox, every cow, and every pig in the country. The area of what is now Lelant was presumably part of the manor of Ludgvan Leaze which is mentioned. And the Doomsday Book does not necessarily mention churches: it was concerned with manors. However, this unfortunately does not tell us one way or the other what was at 'Lelant.' A few houses and a built church; or nothing? There seems no way of knowing for sure.
And we do not know when Christianity came to Lelant, first competing with other religions and eventually suppressing them, though probably never entirely. It seems possible that knowledge of it, introduced into England by merchants and soldiers from the continent, reached west Cornwall before the supposed arrival of Uny.
The Lelant church named after Uny is not in itself conclusive evidence of his existence, nor the fact that several other places are named after him. There are places in England apparently named after dragons. The answer to the question of whom people thought they were naming the Cornish churches after is psychological as well as historical. We have to consider people's purposes in having models of religious heroism; the belief that saints could intercede to counter miraculously the natural course of events for living human beings; and the role of explanatory stories and allegory in religion. As I have said, reality can be a construct.
So we are left with impressive uncertainty. To all the central questions, Was there a person called Uny? Did Uny come here and set up a Christian settlement? Was there a here to come to? When did these occur? we have to answer, We don't know. However, although I think Uny is a possibility of sorts, there is little reason to believe in the historical reality of someone so tenuous or a story so unsubstantiated.
Let me here make an important point about ignorance. We do not know, but that does not mean that something never happened or that someone never lived - or that something or somebody did.
The uncertainty should please everyone with their competing views of what we mean by truth. Religious believers will not be disconcerted by the absence of conclusive evidence for theirs is at bottom a faith, certum est quia impossibile est (Tertullianus). Rationalists, people of evidential and provisional truth, will be confirmed in their view that Christianity is a house built on sand. The truth about Uny is elusive and we are adrift like Raleigh's sailors in the multitudinous delta of the Orinoco.
DEXTER TFG and DEXTER
Henry (1938) Cornish crosses: Christian and pagan Longmans Green,
DOBLE GH (1960) 'St Euny or Uny' in The saints of Cornwall (Part 1) Dean and Chapter of Truro Cathedral
HENDERSON Charles (1923-4) 'The ecclesiastical antiquities of one hundred and nine parishes of west Cornwall: Lelant' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1958
LELAND John (about 1538) Itinerary (as far as it concerns to Cornwall in Supplementary papers at the back of volume 4 of POLSUE Joseph (1872) Lake's parochial history of the county of Cornwall Lake, Truro)
OLSON Annette and PADEL OJ (1986) 'A tenth century list of Cornish parochial saints' in Cambridge medieval Celtic studies 12, 33-71. Also OLSON Annette (1989) Early monasteries in Cornwall
ORME Nicholas (1992) (ed) Nicholas Roscarrock's lives of the saints: Cornwall and Devon Devon and Cornwall Record Society, Exeter
ORME Nicholas (2000) The saints of Cornwall OUP
PRESTON-JONES Ann (1994) 'Decoding Cornish churchyards' in Cornish archeology 33, 71-95. Originally printed in EDWARDS Nancy and LANE Alan (editors) The early church in Wales and the west Oxbow Monographs 16, Oxford, pages 104-124
RALEIGH Walter (1596) The discoverie of...Guianna
SHARPE Richard (1991) Medieval Irish saints' lives: an introduction to 'Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae' Oxford; as cited in Orme 1992
TYACKE RF (1889) 'Excursions' in Reports and transactions 1889-90 Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society
WORCESTER William (1478) Itinerary (as far as it concerns Cornwall in Supplementary papers at the back of volume 4 of POLSUE Joseph (1872) Lake's parochial history of the county of Cornwall Lake, Truro)
TYNEMOUTH John of (died about 1349). His work was used by John CAPGRAVE (1393- 1464)
TERTULLIANUS QSF De carne Christi, chapter 5