12 October 2019
Saint Ia, the Irish patron of
St Ives, and the church in
Cornwall that tells her story
I spent much of Thursday in the Cornish coastal village of St Ives, visiting its churches, beaches and galleries. This is probably the best-known coastal resort in Cornwall, and for over a century it has been a haunt of many of England’s greatest artists – both painters and sculptors.
But I wonder how many visitors to St Ives know that this former fishing village claims to take its name from an Irish saint, Saint Ia, who made her way here in the fifth or sixth century.
Legend tells of how Saint Ia sailed into the Bay of St Ives on a leaf and preached on an island now occupied by Saint Nicholas Chapel.
Very little is known about Saint Ia, whose name is also spelled Eia. But it is said she was an Irish princess and the that she came to Cornwall as a missionary, following her siblings, Saint Uny, Saint Anta and Saint Erca, also known as Saint Erth.
Saint Ia settled in the area around St Ives, preaching the Gospel. It is said she was persecuted because of her faith and was put to death by King Tewdar of of Penwith, near the estuary of the River Hayle.
The Church of Saint Ia, the parish church in St Ives and a Grade I listed building, is dedicated to Saint Ia, with secondary dedications to Saint Andrew and Saint Peter.
The present church dates from the reign of King Henry V, when it replaced an earlier oratory. The foundation stone was laid in 1410, and the church was consecrated in 1434 as a chapel of ease in the Parish of Lelant.
The church is built in a style associated with Devon rather than Cornwall. But Cornish stonemasons and carpenters were employed, using local materials to build the church. It is built of Cornish granite, almost on the harbourside of this picturesque town.
The church has a nave, north aisle, south aisle and a west tower. The outer south aisle, added ca 1500 by the Trenwith family, was once known as the Trenwith Chapel, is now the Lady Chapel.
The rood screen at the entrance to the choir was destroyed by the Puritans in 1647. Access was by the small door high in the wall and the turret staircase previously called the Organ Tower (now closed) in the Lady Chapel. The rood, or crucifix, was placed over the screen which divided the chancel from the nave.
The present rood beam was put in place in 1932 and shows the Virgin Mary and Saint John standing on each side of the Crucified Christ.
The High Altar and the reredos date from 1897. The altar is made of granite and is decorated with alabaster carvings. The reredos features six alabaster figures (from left): Saint Uny; Moses and the Burning Bush; Saint Nicholas, Saint Ia; the Transfiguration; and Saint Leonard.
The East Window above the High Altar, which replaced a window blown out in a storm in 1752, was then blown out by an explosion at Hayle dynamite works in 1904 and was replaced in 1905.
The restored window by Charles Eamer Kempe (1839-1907) shows Christ enthroned as King among the saints, from left to right: Sat Nicholas with the child and Saint Peter with the keys of the Kingdom; Christ the King with the angels; Saint Ia and Saint Andrew with his X-shaped cross.
The three red chancel lamps were given by past Sunday School teachers and are reminders of both the threefold Trinity and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
The 15th century panels of the choir stalls may have been part of the original Rood Screen. Some of the carved panels – the man in the cocked hat, the woman in her coif and the blacksmith’s tools – are said to be the work of the village blacksmith, Ralph Clies.
The nave has seven bays and the aisles are the same length. There are arcades of four-centred-arches, the capitals at the south arcades are carved with grapes and vine-leaves.
The nave has four important decorative features: the pew ends, the pillars, the ceiling and the pulpit.
The pew ends, restored in the 1940s, are typical of Cornish carving with its deep cutting.
The pillars are made are not of granite as in most Cornish churches but of sandstone, probably from Godrevy, across St Ives bay. This stone allowed for the attractive carvings of the capitals. The piers lean outwards, perhaps caused by subsidence, the weight of the roof or, it was traditionally thought, to symbolise the sides of a boat.
The ceiling of the nave is carved with diagonal mouldings, bases, vine patterns and the figures of apostles (north side), Celtic saints (south side) and angels (the chancel).
The pulpit is made from ancient bench ends.
The north aisle is also known as the Fishermen’s Aisle. The granite font was moved here in 1956 when the Baptistery was relocated and designed by Stephen Dykes-Bower, then the ‘Surveyor for the Fabric’ at Westminster Abbey.
The font is earlier than the church and dates from the 14th or the 15th century. It has circular bowl and is carved with four angels at the corners holding shields.
The present organ was installed by Hele of Plymouth in 1907, and was restored by Lance Foy of Truro, with David Briggs as consultant, in 1993. It is encased in fumed oak, carved by Violet Pinwell of Plymouth, and there is a small fish swimming in and out of the carving.
The 14 Stations of the Cross in the north aisle and south aisle were carved in 1978 by Wharton Lang of St Ives.
The stained-glass windows in the south aisle include one of three Cornish saints, showing Saint Ia with a lily, her brother Saint Sennen and Saint Leven, believed to have been a fisherman. These three saints have given to their name to parishes in this area.
A second window depicts allegories of Faith (left), Hope (right) and Charity or Love (centre), each portrayed as a woman who can be identified by her attributes.
A third window, at the west end of the south aisle, in memory of Canon Marsh, a former Vicar of St Ives (1901-1935), depicts two of Saint Ia’s brothers, Saint Uny and Saint Ercus or Saint Erth.
The Lady Chapel is divided from the south aisle by a parclose screen carved by Pinwell of Plymouth and given to the church by Shallat Dale, a local artist, in 1931.
The Lady Chapel has a statue of the Madonna and Christ Child, carved by Dame Barbara Hepworth in memory of her son Paul, who was killed on active service with the RAF in 1953.
The west window in the tower is known as the Dorcas window and tells the story of Saint Dorcas or Tabitha (see Acts 9: 36-43).
The tower is one of the tallest of the Cornish churches, standing over 80 ft high, like a shepherd watching over his flock on land and sea. The tower is built of granite and four stages, buttresses set away from corners and pinnacles projected on corbels.
In the churchyard, there is a late medieval lantern cross, 10.5 ft high on an octagonal shaft and recalls Cornish crosses in the Celtic tradition
Saint Ia’s Church became a parish church in 1826. In 2010, the church celebrated the 600th anniversary of the laying of its foundation stone.
Saint Ia’s Church is open daily. The priest is Father Nicholas Widdows, who runs both Saint Ives and Saint John in the Fields Church. He is supported by a team of clergy including the Revd Malcolm Uren and the Revd Keiren Marwood.