The following description is lifted directly from [Blight 1885] but note that the text was prepared for the Gentleman’s Magazine 1862-64 and is largely unaltered. It must be read in the context of that date. The drawings are by the author.

From the Rood Screen, St. Buryan

From the Rood Screen, St. Buryan.


IN the latter part of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century, a numerous company of Irish saints—bishops, abbots, and sons and daughters of kings and noblemen—“came into Cornewaul and landed at Pendinas, a peninsula and stony rok, wher now the toun of St. Iës (St. Ives) standeth a.” Hence they diffused themselves over the western part of the county, and at their several stations erected chapels and hermitages. Their object was to advance the Christian faith. In this they were successful, and so greatly were they reverenced, that whilst the memory of their holy lives still lingered in the minds of the people, churches were built on or near the sites of their chapels and oratories, and dedicated to Almighty God in their honour. Thus have their names been handed down to us. Few of them are mentioned in the calendars, or in the collections of the lives of saints, and what little is known of them has been chiefly derived from tradition. Dr. Whitaker believed that St. Burian, a king’s daughter, was among those who landed at St. Ives, and that she took up her abode at the spot which now bears her name. Leland says,—

“St. Buriana, an holy woman of Ireland, sumtyme dwellid in this place, and there made an oratory. King Ethelstan, founder of St. Burian’s College, and giver of the privileges and sanctuarie to it. King Ethelstan goyng hens, as it is said, on to Sylley, and returning, made, ex voto, a college where the oratorie was.”

Whitaker gives full credit to the truth of this tradition:—

“Athelstan advanced towards the Land’s End, in order to embark his army for the Sylley Isles. About four miles from it, but directly in the present road to it, as he was equally pious and brave, he went into an oratory, which had been erected there by an holy woman of the name of Burien, that came from Ireland, and was buried in her own chapel. Here he knelt down in prayer to God, full of his coming expedition against the Sylley Isles, and supplicating for success to it then in a strain of devoutness that is little thought of now, but was very natural to a mind like his, at once munificent and religious, he vowed, if God blessed his expedition with success, to erect a college of clergy where the oratory stood, and to endow it with a large income. So, at least, says the tradition of St. Burien’s itself no less than two centuries and a-half ago.”

Having subdued the Scilly Isles, Athelstan on his return founded and endowed a collegiate church in honour of St. Buriana, on the spot called after her, Eglos-Berrie, about five miles eastward of the Land’s End. “He gave lands and tithe of a considerable value for ever, himself becoming the first patron thereof, as his successors the Kings of England have been ever since.” Athelstan also gave to the church the privileges of a sanctuary. The date of foundation is supposed to have been about the year 930. In Domesday Book reference is made to a college of canons here. The establishment consisted of a dean and three prebendaries, who are said to have held it from the king by the service of saying a hundred masses and a hundred psalters for the souls of the king and his ancestors. Dr. Whitaker alludes to a rector for the ruling church. Dr. Oliver says the clergy who first served the church were probably seven in number. Hals states that—

“The church or college consisted of Canons Auguslines, or regular priests, and three prebendaries, who enjoyed the revenues thereof in common.” He says that “about the time of Edward III., one of the popes obtruded upon this church, the canons and prebendaries thereof, a dean to he an inspector over them. This encroachment of the pope being observed by Edward, this usurpation was taken away.”

From this statement it would be understood that the dean to whom reference is here made was the first who presided over the establishment, whereas we find it elsewhere recorded that this was the third dean, one John de Maunte, that he was objected to by the king on account of his being a foreigner, and that on this pretence Edward seized the establishment and kept it entirely in his own hands. It is also stated that, according to the foundation of Athelstan, the establishment was exempt from all inferior jurisdiction, there was no appeal from the local authorities but to the king himself. But Dr. Oliver, the highest authority on the subject, says “the foundation did not purport to confer any exemption from the jurisdiction of the ordinary, and, as far as documentary evidence can be traced, it is manifest that the diocesan exercised here the right of visitation as fully as in any other portion of the diocese.” In his Monasticon will be found a Vidimus of the original endowment of this collegiate church by King Athelstan, on the 6th of October, 943,—”a date,” says the Doctor, “evidently incorrect.”

It appears that the establishment was well maintained for some time after the Conquest, but was subsequently much neglected from the non-residence of the deans. Leland wrote, “Their longeth to St. Buryens a deane and a few prebendarys, that almost be nether ther.”

Much unpleasant feeling seems to have existed between the bishops of the diocese and the Crown respecting the control of this peculiar. Dr. Oliver tells us, that—

“On the death of Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, King Edward I. claiming St. Burian as a royal free chapel, gave Sir William de Hameldon, his chancellor, dean of York, and a great pluralist, this deanery of St. Burian. But the neglect of residence was properly objected to by Bishop Thomas Bitton, and a suit in the king’s court was the consequence, which was not decided at the death of that prelate in 1307. His successor, Bishop Stapeldon, offered equal opposition when Queen Isabella appointed her chaplain, John Maunte, a foreigner, to this deanery.”

Bishop Grandisson afterwards excommunicated this dean for “neglect of duty” and “disregard of his monitions.” The dean’s supporters within the parish of St. Burian were excommunicated with him:—

“On the 4th of November (1328), being at St. Michael’s Mount, he (Bishop Grandisson) excommunicated with all form the principal delinquents, especially Richard Vivian, the most obnoxious of all. At his public visitation, on July 12, 1336, the bishop found the parishioners returned to a sense of duty, and truly repentant for their contumacy and at their earnest supplication he absolved them from their censures, and preached to them from the text, 1 Peter ii. 25, ‘Ye were as sheep going astray, but are now returned unto the shepherd and bishop of your souls.’ To add to the Bishop’s satisfaction, the dean, John de Maunte, on Aug. 16, 1336, waited upon him at Bishop’s Court, Clyst, promised amendment in future, and took the oath of obedience to him and his successors in the see of Exeter.

“But the contest did not end here; within fifteen years King Edward III. revived the claim of exemption. But eventually the contest was terminated in favour of the stronger party, and to this day the dean receives institution from the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall as his ordinary, though the patronage has often been exercised by the sovereign, vacante ducatu b.”

The “church-town” of St. Burian stands on a high position, and the lofty tower is a very conspicuous object from the surrounding district. The spot commands extensive views, terminated on the south and west by the distant horizon of the Atlantic.

The church is a large building, consisting of a nave and north and south aisles, with a tower ninety feet in height at the west end. The dimensions of the building are about ninety feet by forty-seven. Not a vestige of the original church or college remains, for the present edifice was erected on the site of the older church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is curious to observe that, though Polwhele in his History of Cornwall correctly refers this building to the fifteenth century, Dr. Whitaker in the supplement to the same work should be so mistaken as to describe it as the veritable church of Athelstan, erected more than eight centuries previously:—

“The inside,” he says, ‘‘is still disposed nearly as Athelstan left it.” And “its fresh appearance results merely from the frequent washings to which its high position on a bill and its pointed exposure to the rains from the Atlantic continually subject it.”

Dr. Oliver gives in his Monasticon the act of the dedication of St. Burian’s Church on the 26th of August, 1238, by Bishop Brewer of Exeter. But few relics even of the church of that period remain: the font may have stood there at that time, it is of Ludgvan granite c, and has on the bowl three angels (not four as Dr. Oliver says) supporting shields; on a fourth shield is carved a plain Latin cross on two steps. On the opposite side there is a small Maltese cross between two of the angels. The height of the font is 2 ft. 11 in. It has been cleaned of the lime-wash which at one time covered it.

In the early part of the present century this church was particularly rich in carved oak benches, and possessed a magnificent roodscreen and loft. In the year 1814 the building underwent repairs, when the benches and screen were barbarously destroyed. The plea for taking down the latter was, that it deadened the preacher’s voice; a portion yet remains. About two-thirds of the curiously carved cornice has been placed in its original position, extending across south aisle and nave, and some of the beautiful arcade-work is preserved in a large chest within the church. The workmanship, as the accompanying cuts will shew, was exceedingly rich; the whole was gilded and painted, chiefly in red and blue, and each compartment was of a different design in the tracery. The screen extended the whole breadth of the church, and must have had a very fine effect. It was put together with wooden pins, no nails being used. The vandals who took it down do not appear to have had the least regard for it, for if they had no reverence for the holy things of the sanctuary, it would be thought that they would have taken some care to preserve the several portions merely for the sake of the beauty of the designs. Such, however, was not the case, for their saws were ruthlessly passed through the most elaborate tracery. It is said that some figures of saints belonging to this work were to be seen as chimney ornaments in the houses of the parishioners, and some of the bench-ends and panels were used as ordinary wood about farm out-houses.

On the upper part of the cornice is carved a vine pattern, beneath which are very curious scenes of hunting, warfare between animals and birds, and grinning heads: the workmanship is somewhat rude, but the effect is good. Some of the lower panels remain in situ, but no part of the connecting frame-work is to be found. The outer part of the screen was gilded and painted with different colours, red and blue predominating, but the inside, facing the altar, was entirely red. The spiral staircase, in the wall of the south aisle, which led to the rood-loft, has not been destroyed.

Adjoining the screen, within the chancel, are four oak miserere stalls, placed two on either side of the entrance from the nave to the chancel. Dr. Oliver says they were “destined for the dean, for the prebendary of Respernell, for the prebendary of Trithing, and for the holder of the ‘Prebenda Parva.’ Fortunately they have escaped destruction from the hands of the Puritans, and the no less mischievous pew-builders of more recent date.” It has been suggested that when there was a choir at St. Burian‘s one of the stalls might have been for the precentor. Each stall has a moveable seat; when turned up, a rounded ledge is brought forward which served as a sort of occasional rest for the monks. The engraving shews one seat raised and the other down.

Misereres, St. Buryan

Misereres, St. Buryan.

The chancel end of the church appears to have undergone alteration in modern times. The large east window, which has a pointed arch, does not retain its original tracery. A smaller square-headed window on the south side has been recently re-opened. On the north side there was an unusual arrangement, which can now only be seen from the outside. Here we find that a large archway has been built up, and in connection with it immediately under the window of the north aisle there were three stone steps, evidently constructed with the original wall. These steps were to be seen about twenty or thirty years ago, and though now removed, their position may be traced.

There are no remains of a piscina either in the chancel or in the east end of the north or south aisle, for the church probably had three altars.

The aisles are connected with the nave by six pointed arches. The piers have a simple ogee moulding; the capitals, though of a plain character, have a bold effect. The aisles are each lighted by five square-headed windows, with hood-mouldings, divided into three lights, which are rounded at the top, and were inserted late in the sixteenth century.

The tower-arch is lofty, and its mouldings are bold and effective. Over the tower doorway, on the outside, is a shield bearing the sacred monogram I.H.S. The Perpendicular window above this is much superior to those at the east end of the church, and evidently of earlier date.

Within the tower, on the pavement, is an ancient tomb which, when Whitaker visited the church about sixty years ago, was “lying near the altar-rails, but on the floor in the northern access to it.” According to Hals it was discovered about the year 1665, buried four feet in the ground, by the sexton while digging a grave. The inscription, he says, “was difficult to be read,” but the “curious” found it to be “Jane, the wife of Geffery de Bolait, lies here: whosoever shall pray for her soul shall have five days pardon, M.L.X.IX.” Another writer says, that “not only the year, but even the month and day of the month are both inserted,” and he supposed it to mean “March 16, 1101.” He then gives an incorrect reading of the inscription. At present there is no appearance of any date on the stone. The county histories vary in the wording of this inscription, owing probably to their authors inaccurately copying what had been previously published, and not taking the trouble to examine the monument for themselves.

As will be seen from the engraving on the next page [here], the inscription, which is in Norman-French, is cut in letters of the thirteenth century, and runs as follows:—+ Clarice : la : femme : cheffrei : de : bolleit : git : ici : dev : de : lalme : eit : merce : ke : pvr : lealme : pvnt (priunt) : di : ior : de: pardvn : avervnd—”+ Clarice the wife of Geoffry de Bolleit lies here, God of her soul have mercy: who pray for her soul shall have ten days pardon.” The stone is seven feet long, and has a floriated cross on three steps carved in relief on the upper part. The family of Bolleit resided on an estate of the same name in this parish.

The tower, which is constructed entirely of wrought granite, is divided into four stages, and has double buttresses at each angle. The newel staircase is contained in an octagonal turret which rises picturesquely above the parapets at the south-east corner.

The bells are three in number. The largest has this legend, “Virginis egregiæ vocor campana Mariæ,” i.e. “I am called the Bell of the glorious Virgin Mary;“ and the date 1738. It is singular to find such a legend on a post-Reformation bell; probably, however, it was in that year recast and the original legend reproduced. The bell has a flaw or crack running through it, for which the following tradition accounts. The bell was cast in the village of St. Burian, and before it had hardened, a man jumped from a hedge near the mould, which being disturbed by the shake, rendered the bell imperfect. Its diameter is 3 ft. 9 in., an unusually large size for Cornish bells. The next bell has for its legend, “Vocem ego do vobis: vos date verba Deo,” i.e. “I give to you a voice; give ye words to God.” Date 1638, diameter 3 ft. 6 in. The third bell has the names of the Churchwardens,—” Mr. Richard Davies, Sampson Hutchens—wardens, 1681.” Diameter 3 ft.

The porch is surmounted with battlements, has double buttresses at the angles finished with crocketed pinnacles, and a bold stringcourse. Within are stone benches on either side, and a mutilated stoup. Over the church door is a bracket, on which may have been placed an image of the Blessed Virgin, or of St. Burian, the patron saint of the church. When Bishop Stapeldon visited St. Burian, in 1314, he took the following inventory of the church property:—

“Three suits entire of vestments with tunics and dalmatics; two copes for the choir; two chalices; one good missal, and another inferior; one antiphonar, with a middling good psaltery (psalterium in medio bonurn); two grails in excellent condition; a trophar ; a legend, and one old antiphonar; a veil for Lent; nine towels; a nuptial veil; a pall for the dead; three pair of corporals; and three surplices d.”

Near the porch, on the right hand side of the path, is an ancient cross on a flight of five steps. Another cross stands without the churchyard, and there is a tradition that the churchyard at one time surrounded it. This, however, is not probable.

About a mile south-east of St. Burian, on the estate of Bosliven, are some remains of an ancient building, to this day called “the sanctuary.” It has been considered as the original “sanctuary” of Athelstan, but the title and privileges of sanctuary pertained to the church, the churchyard, and sometimes a limited space beyond. C. S. Gilbert says of these ruins that they appear to be the remains of the chapel attached to the Deanery-house. Dr. Oliver mentions a “capella Sancti Silvani” as having existed in this parish. The building at Bosliven appears to have been much larger than the other ancient chapels of which remains are found throughout Cornwall. But whatever it may have been, sanctuary, chapel, or oratory, it seems to have incited the rage of the Puritans; for it was almost totally destroyed by Shrubsall, one of Cromwell’s miserable instruments of sacrilege. This fact alone is sufficient proof that at that time it was a sacred edifice of some note.

The adjacent parishes of St. Levan and St. Sennen form part of the deanery of St. Burian.

(a) Leland.

(b)b Oliver’s Monasticon.

(c) The granite from Ludgvan parish is a better material for fine sculptured work than other granite found in the district.

(d) Oliver’s Monasticon.

[The book continues with St. Levan. The following sketches occur later in the book.]

Tower, St. Buryan

Tower, St. Buryan.

Porch, St. Buryan

Porch, St. Buryan.

St. Burian Church

St. Burian Church.

Roodscreen, St. Burian

Roodscreen, St. Burian.

More about St. Buryan