St Uny's Church,
Part 2, 1300-1600
© Maxwell Adams 2004
Version: 30 October 2006
You might wish to read the articles on Uny, The sands of printless foot, and Anta which tell some of the story of the church.
Most of this period is that of the Renaissance in Europe. There is no evidence that Lelant and St Uny's church were touched by that movement at the time - and no evidence that the later Enlightenment touched the church and village at the time either. In Lelant the sun still revolved round the Earth for many a day after Copernicus and Galileo and liberal values did not arrive here until long after Voltaire and Hume. In the middle of the nineteenth century WJ Phillpotts, briefly vicar of Lelant, wrote a riposte to Lyell and Darwin defending biblical literalness (Royal Cornwall Gazette and West Briton, both 10 June 1864). Of course I am writing only about the knowledge of Lelant that has come down to us: the mute, inglorious Miltons and village Hampdens have not reached us but I think that modernity seeped into Lelant slowly.
More parochially, the fourteenth century began well for Lelant. Just before, in 1296, king Edward I had agreed the establishment of a weekly market and two annual fairs here (Calendar of Charter Rolls ii 465). However, during the century Lelant, with a port and market, seems to have ceased developing and was slowly overtaken by St Ives as the main settlement on the bay. We should, by the way, see port and market in medieval village terms not as we think of them today.
The reason for Lelant's stasis was probably and chiefly the incursion of blown sand which seems to have become a problem around this time. The sand continued to encroach upon Lelant and eventually in the seventeenth century drove the priest from his vicarage and the village. There appears also to have been a silting of the River Hayle from the mines upstream.
We cannot be sure of the age of the present church building, whose earliest visible feature is Norman, or whether this is its original site. The present church is architecturally largely datable from the fifteenth century and so the most likely explanation is that a Norman church, which itself had probably replaced an earlier church, was rebuilt and expanded, a very few Norman features being retained, and on this present site. Any rebuild would presumably have been before the sand began to encroach seriously and this is a chronological difficulty. I cannot trace the origin of the claim that St Uny's church was (re)consecrated in 1424 and there seems to be no documentary evidence for it. Worcester, whose second-hand notes on Lelant date from the late fifteenth century, does nor mention a rebuilding of the church (Worcester 1478).
In the middle of the fourteenth century the black death plague reached Lelant and it is estimated that the parish, which included St Ives, lost forty percent of its population (Blewett 1973, 531). This must have tested the survivors and the gravediggers. Lelant churchyard, now a green haven overlooking the bay and the lighthouse, must have overflowed with death (assuming it is the same churchyard). So many deaths would have troubled the villagers greatly. I do not know whether in the secrecy of their minds it turned them to or from religion.
The church arrangements did not reflect the new economic and geographical realities of the late fourteenth century. St Uny's remained the chief church, the priest resided at Lelant, and the people of St Ives and Towednack remained dependent on St Uny's for ceremonies of baptism and death and churching. They had dependent outpost churches which offered limited services only.
In the early fifteenth century some of the people of St Ives and Towednack sought to have church arrangements based upon their needs rather than upon history. The vicar of Lelant resisted any changes. There are several accounts of this but the original details are in the registers of Edmund Stafford, the bishop of Exeter. These are most accessible in the edition of Hingston-Randolph.
In 1409 the Christians at St Ives and Towednack complained to the bishop of Exeter, Edmund Stafford, about the unsatisfactory arrangements. They explained that they had to go to St Uny's for the baptism of their children, for the burial of their dead, and for the purification of women after childbirth along difficult roads which in rainy winter weather were sometimes unusable. They had built Christian chapels and burial grounds at St Ives and Towednack and asked the bishop to consecrate them and said that they would pay for two priests to serve them. Popes Alexander V in 1409 and John XXIII in 1410 supported the request and bishop Stafford ordered that an inquiry be made into it and that the vicar of Lelant, John Clerk, be consulted. Clerk apparently resisted the changes and on 9 October 1411 all they got from the bishop while he was at Lelant was permission to hold a service of mass in their chapel. This shows the local priest with extraordinary powers but no doubt the distance between Lelant and Exeter and Rome strengthened his local arm.
St Ives began to build a church, dependent on St Uny's, and this was consecrated in 1432.
Eventually in 1542 John Veysey, the bishop of Exeter, gave the outposts partial independence (Register of bishop Veysey ii 109 cited by Oliver 1846, 439-440) and in 1576, when Robert Stowforde was vicar at Lelant, the arrangements were confirmed and the vicar of Lelant agreed to keep a curate at the two chapels. The dependent churches had to pay St Uny's an annual monetary tribute and Lelant of course still had to hand over money to its 'owners' at Crediton. In 1826 St Ives, and in 1906 Towednack, got their own priests and became full and separate parishes.
It is difficult to see anything defensible in the attitude of the fifteenth-century vicars of Lelant in this issue. There seems to have been no concern for the religious needs and wants of the people of St Ives and Towednack, or their practical difficulties and desires, but rather a stubborn resistance to changes that might diminish their power, authority, status, and revenue.
The long dispute about local church arrangements was settled but other worldly disputes erupted. In 1432 Richard Tresaghere, the vicar of Lelant, successfully established that mortuary fees, that is fees paid to him on a person's death, were still payable to him by St Ives (Dunstan 1971, iv 310-311) and again in 1513 the vicar of Lelant sued some parishioners for mortuary fees (Henderson 1958, 235). Again in 1516 there was a dispute about mortuary fees, this time involving Stephen Gunwyn and the vicar, James Gentell (Consistory Court Deposition Book 1508-1516). Throughout, parishioners tried to avoid paying the priest fees and tithes and he in turn tried to make them: as we shall see there was a large dispute about this in 1680-1681 and again in the early nineteenth century. Money and goods mattered.
There was another financial dispute about tithes, settled on 28 September 1433. This settlement gave the tithe of fish caught by Lelanters off what are now Hayle sands to the priests at Crediton, who were the 'owners' of St Uny's church, and not to the priest at Phillack (Polsue 1870, 100; Dunstan 1963, i 259; Dunstan 1966, ii 134-139).
Church courts, called consistory courts, judged the morals of the people and we have glimpses into everyday life in Lelant which at this distance are entertaining. In the sixteenth century several incidents in Lelant are recorded. The most graphic is about Agnes Davy. In 1572 she accused Cecily James of slandering her. The pair had come quarrelling into St Uny's church in the middle of a service and in St Uny's Cecily had called Agnes a whore and whore bitch. William Hawyshe, a tinner of Lelant, said that the abuse had been in English not in Cornish, which suggests that the usual language of Lelanters at the time was Cornish (Consistory Court Deposition Book 1569-1572). Agnes also accused Margaret Edwards of defaming her (Consistory Court Deposition Book 1566-1569).
There is some piety among the worldliness. William Velour left money to St Uny's church in 1435-36; Henderson (1958, 297-304) notes that in 1504 Stephen Pesworth of Wareham in Dorset left all his goods and lands to the church of St Uny's, presumably the Lelant one; and that in 1503 John Mowla also left money to the church. As explained in the article on Anta, around 1500 several Lelant men, with the agreement of John Carew, the vicar, set up a chapel of St Anta on the point at the mouth of the river, a shining example of religion and practicality as it probably had a light for boats approaching the river mouth. The chapel was still there towards the end of the sixteenth century and we do not know when it fell into disuse and disappeared.
The religious disputes that tore Christianity in Tudor times affected Lelant too. The changes in church government under Henry VIII would not have seemed much in the village and the vicar, James Gentell, agreed, willingly or unwillingly, to the king's supremacy; but the Protestant reforms of Edward VI would have brought noticeable changes, including the very appearance of the inside of St Uny's church. The colourful decorations and statues of the Catholic church went and the more austere look that we have today came. The church's silver objects, three chalices and patens and a pix, were taken (Snell 1955, 38, 63).
What the worshippers made of these ideological and physical changes, and later ones, we do not know. The vicar of Lelant, Gabriel Morton, did not like them and joined the Catholic rebellion in 1549 against the new prayer book which set out Protestant beliefs and arrangements for worship. Perhaps some Lelanters went with him, perhaps they kept their heads down. The rebellion failed and Morton was handed over to Anthony Kingston, the provost marshall, who was hunting the rebels in Cornwall (Rose-Troup 1913, 499 citing Chancery proceedings). Kingston did not hang Morton but gave all the church tithes to a layman, an act which presumably impoverished Morton and must have felt like a death. The tithes were given back to the vicar during Mary I's Catholic reign (Matthews 1892, 132) as were the church's silver objects.
With Elizabeth I's accession came more changes, this time to a moderate Anglican Protestantism that lasted. The Catholic fires of Mary and the Protestant tortures of Elizabeth did not reach Lelant and the claimed peccadillos of Agnes Davy and Cecily James seem a civilised interlude amid the barbarism and volatility of the Tudor Christians.
Sources for part 2
BLEWETT Richard R (spring 1973) 'The Black Death in west and mid Cornwall 1349' Old Cornwall Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
Calendar of Charter Rolls, Volume ii, 1257-1300, page 465, HMSO 1906
DRO (Devon Record Office) Consistory Court Deposition Books, various dates; Registers of the bishops of Exeter
DUNSTAN GR (ed) (1963-72) The
register of Edmund Lacy, bishop of Exeter Devon and Cornwall
Record Society, Exeter (five volumes published at different dates)
See 1963, i 259 and 1966, ii 134-139 (1433 fish tithes); 1971, iv 260-267 (1429 agreement between St Ives and the vicar of Lelant)
HENDERSON Charles (1958) [1923-4] 'The ecclesiastical antiquities of one hundred and nine parishes of west Cornwall' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro
HINGSTON-RANDOLPH FC (1886) The
register of Edmund Stafford, bishop of Exeter George Bell,
London (two volumes)
See i 135 (1411 licence); ii 232 (1409 Stafford order for an inquiry); ii 239 (1409 request from St Ives and Towednack)
MATTHEWS JH (1892) A history of the parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack, and Zennor Elliott Stock, London
OLIVER George (1846) Monasticon dioecesis Exoniensis PA Hannaford, Exeter and Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. Includes supplements.
ROSE-TROUP Frances (1913) The Western Rebellion of 1549 Smith, Elder, London
SNELL Lawrence S (1955?) The Edwardian inventories of church goods for Cornwall
WORCESTER William (1478) Itinerary. The Cornish section is printed in Supplementary Papers in volume iv of Joseph POLSUE (1870) Parochial history of the county of Cornwall W Lake, Truro
St Uny's church, part 1
St Uny's church, part 3 Home
St Uny's church, part 3