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A HISTORY OF THE RC PARISH of PENZANCE

THE GROWTH OF CHRISTIANITY IN CORNWALL

In Penzance, at the western tip of Cornwall and the far west of Britain, Christianity developed in a somewhat different manner and timing than in other parts of the county. It was influenced from both sides.

Christianity first came to Britain in Roman times, from the end of the 2nd century, when Pope Eleutherius sent missionaries in response to a request from a native chieftain. By the time the Romans left the province to its own devices in A.D.410, most of Britain had partially developed a fairly settled form of Christianity. It is impossible to discover how widespread this was and exactly where in our islands the Christian communities developed. With little Roman involvement in Cornwall, it is doubtful there would have been any so far west. This partial cover of Christianity in Britain would have continued for some years after the Romans withdrew, as it would hardly have evaporated over night.

It was the invasion of pagan Germanic tribes, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, pushing westwards from the 5th century that caused some of the original Roman Britons to flee to the western periphery of the British Isles, and Little Britain (Brittany) across the channel, taking their Christian (now referred to as Celtic) faith with them. What proportion of Britons came west is impossible to tell, as large numbers remained behind to become assimilated into Saxon England as workers or slaves of the invaders.

There was much contact in Celtic times between the various groupings in Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Many of the Celtic monks travelled freely from one place to another, and even beyond into Europe; and the cult of the early Celtic saints was equally "shared". Celtic Christianity was widespread in the Penzance district, with the naming of the villages and so many Celtic crosses and other remains. St. Buryan was established as one of the main centres with a "monastery" of Celtic monks.

Towards the end of Saxon and now Christian times in England, King Athlestan began extending his authority into the Celtic extremes of the island. Among other things, he founded a Cornish bishopric at St. Germans with Conan, the abbot-bishop of the Celtic monastery there, as its first bishop. On the foundations of Celtic monasteries he formed a number of colleges of canons on the pattern of the Saxon Church; St. Buryan was one of these. But later, in 1049 all the western bishoprics were centralised into the diocese of Exeter.

The Norman times and the Middle Ages, brought much building of churches and the parish system became well-established. The local parish church of St. Madern, at Madron, with its well, was the church for the area around Penzance. There was an old chapel on the Quay at Penzance dedicated to Saints Gabriel and Raphael, though it would appear to have been called more commonly St. Anthony's as in many fishing communities. The old chapel of St. Mary's came more recently; as in many places where the centre of population was shifting from an inland village to the port on the coast, the need grew for a church on the spot. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, St. Mary's became more important; when most of the chantries were being closed by King Edward's Commissioners, they were asked for its retention because it was "dystante from the parishe church ijmyles and halff".

created 29th October 2004 - last  revised 13th March, 2011 v1.02 -

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