Page Updated on:- Mon. 18/07/2011

Early Days

I
t is likely that there has been a place of worship at St. Keverne since around 600 A.D. At that time a Celtic monk - by name St. Piran or St. Kieran - built a small wooden church on the site of the present building. It is very possible this site was of some significance to pre-Christian worship, as these early Christian missionaries were encouraged to set up their places of worship on the site of pagan ceremonies. It is probable that St. Keverne Church is situated on a pre-Christian earthwork.

The first church building would have been an insubstantial structure of wood, but the Saxon church which followed it would have been more permanent; this was, however, destroyed some time before 1085. During the late Saxon period the church of St. Keverne was known as a Collegiate Church - a centre of learning, study and education inherited from the Celtic church's pattern of monastic study and pastoral work. The stones on the window ledges are thought to have come from the ruins of their monastery.

The new building put up in Norman times eventually became the parish church of one of the largest parochial areas in west Cornwall. It may have been cruciform in design with a central tower. In later alterations, the north and south transepts were suppressed and the corresponding aisles widened. As it stands the church is a largely 15th century building but some of the piers have been reused from an earlier church of possibly 13th century origin.

Much of the information on this page is taken from a guide to St. Keverne Church of which there is only one remaining copy.
Tower Porch
Tower Porch

The Cistercian influence

T
he Cistercians were a medieval monastic order which originated at Citeaux in Burgundy in 1098. They followed a movement for greater strictness within the older Benedictine tradition of western monasticism and as a result built their main centres away from the great towns. They built their own churches with plain architecture; it has been said that, 'In their austere routine of life meat was as rare as heat. In their churches there was little colour but much intensity of prayer.' The Cistercian community settled in many places in England, and one of the later houses put down roots at Beaulieu in Hampshire in 1204. This foundation owed much to King John, and in 1235 the church of St. Keverne was acquired by the monks of Beaulieu as a grant from Richard, Earl of Cornwall who was John's son.

There were disputes over this. In 1235 the rector of St. Keverne was Bartholomew de Boiata. He almost certainly was an absentee, as he is known to have been a nephew of a notary of the Pope. However, he was pensioned off at 20 marks a year when the monks took over. From that day to this, St. Keverne has had vicars rather than rectors, since the 'rector' now became the Cistercian community at Beaulieu who laid claim to the tithe income of the parish. They paid a 'vicar' (from the Latin which means 'in the place of) to look after the parish. As late as 1263 the monks were involved in expensive and acrimonious litigation about land in the parish, but we must remember that litigation was a way of life for medieval man - it did not have the faintly disreputable flavour that it has today.

Initially the vicar was paid 15 marks a year by the abbey, but in 1269 the vicar received a house and the tithes of peas and beans growing in the gardens of the parish (but not those in the fields!) Contrary to tradition, he had to maintain the chancel of the church and the liturgical books. This made his task more onerous, as this would normally be the responsibility of the abbey at Beaulieu but they did not take this responsibility because of the great distance involved.

On account of the local opposition monks were sent to St. Keverne two at a time in the 14th century; a third was added in 1336. The dangers of the journey always required royal protection for the collection of rents and tithes. Dom Frederick Hockey whose Beaulieu: King John's Abbey is an interesting source of material for this period says the monks '... lived almost as in a foreign country, not knowing even the language of its inhabitants'.

Certain colourful incidents are recorded. In 1405 William Bray, who had been outlawed, intruded himself into the parish as vicar on 23rd February. Apparently Bray had entered into the living of St. Keverne and taken possession of Tregonning Manor and '... had done great damage there by felling trees, damaging buildings, removing household furniture and linen...' and also removing items from the church.

In 1497 the collectors of a tax for an expedition against the Scots were the cause of resistance from the people of St. Keverne which was headed by a local blacksmith, Michael Joseph. An army marched to the east, reaching a point just south of London where they were defeated and Joseph was hung at Tyburn on 27th June. This event is commemorated on a stone plaque in Cornish and English on the wall of the churchyard, next to the Lytch Gate in the square.

The Reformation and After

J
ust before the final dissolution of the monasteries, the historian Leland writes in 1535: 'St. Keverines, 2 miles from Gilling creake and not a mile form the se. S. Keverine's longgid to Bewle Abbay in Hampshir, and had a sanctuarie privilegid at S.Keverine's. Also yn the west side of the poynt of hayleford haven, and withyn the land of Mencke or Menegland, is a paroch chirch of S.Keveryn otherwis Piranus; and ther is a sanctuary with x or xii dwelling howses, and therby was a sel of monks, but now goone home to their hed hows. The ruines of the monastery yet remenith.'

According to Lake's Parochial History of the County of Cornwall the lands of St. Keverne after the suppression of the monastic rights passed from Elizabeth I to Francis Earl of Bedford in 1560. Hockey states that three days later this man sold it to Justinian Talkarn, the Governor of St. Mawes; later it found its way to the Bogan family and then to the Vyvyans.

The middle years of the 16th century were times of great religious change. The change of service from the old latin to English was one of the causes of the 'Cornish Rebellion' of 1549. Apparently William Kilter, a local priest and others wanted the re-establishment of the 'Six Articles Act' of Henry VIII (1539) which stated that everyone refusing to acknowledge the king's supremacy over the church was adjuged to be hanged and everyone who disbelieved the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine was condemned and burnt alive. It is evident from this that there was active support for the old Catholic faith which had been replaced by Protestantism under Edward VI. There were also objections to the format of the new services which were said to be no more than a 'Christmas Game', the latter criticism probably arising from the offertory procession!

The Bogan (or Bogans) family who lived at Treleague in the parish was sued in 1603 for refusal to pay tithes. They claimed that they were exempt from payment as theirs were part of 'church-lands' which having been held by the Cistercians was exempt from payment. He produced witnesses who recalled 'divers old walls of houses standing in Tregonyn and that religiowse men which in tymes past dwelt in the Cell did till and manure the lands...'.

The list of incumbents given at the end of this guide shows the strong influence of important families of the neighbourhood in the nomination of clergy to St. Keverne. There was much abuse of this system, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when non-residence of clergy became a serious scandal. Many held their benefice 'in plurality', simply drawing the income from it and paying a curate to look after the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants. For instance, note that from 1839 to 1854 the vicar of St. Keverne was also vicar of Talland and numerous curates did duty for him. Note also the occurrence of the name 'James Pascoe' three times from 1789 to 1839; this is evidence of the not uncommon custom of presenting a son or relative to the benefice as successor.

No doubt there is much more that could be said from a perusal of the church archives in Truro but space does not permit.

St. Keverne has a thriving Local History Society with a very good web site giving much historical information about the area.
The UK & Ireland Genealogy web site also has a good deal of historical information on its St. Keverne web pages.