11 October 2019
Saint Agnes Church,
a church with roots in
Cornish Celtic Christianity
I have been visiting a number of beautiful towns and villages in rural Cornwall this week, beginning with St Agnes on the north coast in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 13 km north-west of Truro, where I have been staying, and 16 km south-west of Newquay.
In summertime, picturesque St Agnes is a popular place for tourists, with its the rugged landscape, sheltered beach, shops, bars, restaurants old stone cottages that line the streets and are staggered down the steep hills.
This is Poldark country, and until the 1920s, St Agnes was a centre for mining tin, copper, and arsenic. The remains of the tin mines are now part of Cornwall’s Mining World Heritage area.
Some stories say St Agnes takes its name from the local legend of Bolster the Giant, who terrified villagers and ate small children. But he fell in love with a beautiful young Agnes and wanted to marry her.
Agnes asked Bolster to prove his love for her by filling a hole in the rocks by Chapel Porth with his blood. But he did not realise hole ran right down through the cliffs and into the sea. Bolster was tricked and died on the cliffs. St Agnes was hailed a heroine, and the village took her name.
However, the parish church says it is named the Roman martyr Saint Agnes, who refused to marry a son of Sempronius, a governor of Rome and member of the Sempronia family. She was martyred on 21 January 304, during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian.
The first church in Saint Agnes was believed to have been built as an early Celtic church, sometime between 410 and 1066. A second church was built before 1331, and there are records of a visit by the bishop that year, when the church is described as being ‘sadly neglected.’
The records of the Diocese of Exeter refer to a chapel of Saint Agnes in the parish of Perranzabuloe (Perranporth) in 1374. A second, or third, Church of Saint Agnes was built on the same site around 1482. However, nothing survives of that church, apart from the lower part of the bell tower.
A carved oak alms box against a pillar is believed to be Elizabethan and depicts a ‘hungry man.’ His hands are pressed against his stomach, and the inscription on the box over his head reads: ‘Remember the Pore’ – although this has been misread by some visitors as ‘Remember the Pope’!
The royal coat-of-arms of Charles II, dated 1660, just above the door of the bell tower, was probably given to the church in recognition of Cornwall’s loyalty to the royalist cause in the English Civil War. It was refurbished and hung over the door in 2009.
Saint Agnes became an autonomous part of the parish of Perranzabuloe in 1846, when it was given its own vicar. Two years later, church and two years later the church was rebuilt and restored by the Gothic Revival architect James Piers St Aubyn (1815-1895), a cousin of John St Aubyn, 1st Baron St Levan, of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.
St Aubyn’s work always included a foot-scraper outside the porches. The poet John Betjeman knew this and often failed to visit churches where these could be found. St Aubyn’s greatest professional disappointment was his failure to secure the commission to build Truro Cathedral, which he lost by one vote to John Loughborough Pearson. His most notable achievement was the restoration of St Michael’s Mount, which has been described as ‘among the greatest achievements of 19th-century architecture.’
Saint Agnes Church was rebuilt by St Aubyn in 1848-1851, and was dedicated on 29 May 1851, the eve of Ascension Day. The bells, six in number, were transferred from the old church.
The High Altar is made of granite from the old quay at Trevaunance Cove. The pier was built to allow coal from south Wales to be shipped to Saint Agnes, but it fell into disuse and disintegrated in the 1920s.
The rood beam above the chancel steps has a crucifix and figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. This is a memorial to Father Brown, Vicar of Saint Agnes (1922-1933), who changed the churchmanship from ‘middle of the road’ to ‘High Church.’
The chapel in the north aisle is dedicated as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and has a curtained tabernacle with the reserved sacrament. The chapel in the south aisle is the Lady Chapel.
The chapel of remembrance by the south porch door has an altar in Cornish granite.
The pulpit is carved with figures of Saint Agnes and the four Evangelists. The font probably predates the church built in 1484. The Stations of the Cross on the church walls were given in memory of residents of the parish or people with connections with St Agnes.
The organ was originally installed at floor level in 1881, but an organ loft was built in 1931, providing space for a sacristy underneath.
The spire was rebuilt in 1905, and the bell tower and the bells were restored and rededicated in 2001 on the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the church. Today, this is a Grade II listed building.
The old Cornish cross beside of the church probably dates from about the 8th century. A granite wayside cross by the churchyard gate is the remains of a mediaeval lych stone used for holding coffins.
There are other Anglican churches at Mount Hawke (Saint John the Baptist) and Mithian (Saint Peter’s Church), a Methodist church in St Agnes, and a Roman Catholic church (Our Lady, Star of the Sea). John Passmore Edwards in 1893 had built and donated the Miners and Mechanics Institute in the village.
From St Agnes, we made our way down Stippy Stappy and past the Driftwood Spars to Trevaunance Cove, the main beach and a well-known surfing spot. St Agnes Beacon, St Agnes Head, and the Wheal Coates engine house all came into view during the walk down to the cove and back up to St Agnes.
The Priest-in-Charge of the Atlantic Coast Cluster of Churches in the Diocese of Truro is the Revd Canon Anne Browne. Sunday services at Saint Agnes Church are normally at 8 a.m. and 9.30 a.m.