In the quiet, narrow streets of Penryn – further upriver from Falmouth, and the settlement with the longer record of habitation – discoveries of medieval marvels are around every corner. A tiny museum sits at the bifurcation of the main street, housed in the old prison building, but this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of discoveries to be made. A wonderful booklet ‘Penryn Heritage Trail’ is available to purchase here: I can recommend that you do so!
Six hundred years ago, Penryn – a prosperous settlement on the River Fal – was the site of one of the most important buildings in Cornwall: Glasney College was a religious institution which was the administrative centre for the Diocsese of Exeter here in Cornwall. Archeological evidence indicates that the church was two-thirds the size of Exeter Cathedral, so it would have been an imposing sight on the approach to the town from either the inland route or from the river.
Today, the location of the church is marked in a playing field at the edge of town, its perimeter identified after archaeological excavations before and after the millennium. The elegant arched entrance to the field sets the scene, and the locations of some of the walls are indicated on the ground. The only existing fragment of the building still in place above-ground is a fragment of wall at the east side of the field, which was once part of the wall of the chantry chapel: most appropriate, as the chantry was the area of the church dedicated to reciting prayers to promote the passage of a deceased person to heaven. Now, this section of wall – stabilised and preserved in 2014 – aids our sense of a long-ago time, and its composition of many small fragments of slate and irregular blocks of granite perhaps mirror the history of this place, with little shards of evidence welded together by imagination.
Beyond the confines of the field, scattered parts of Glasney college are in evidence through the town: door and window frames recycled in to newer cottages; cap-stones at the edge of a wall, and decorative features, such as a ram’s head, built in to the wall of a house at Bohill. The visibility and enjoyment of these features in the community is wonderful to see and brings a sense of history to the everyday.
Yet some of the more delicate artefacts fund here, and the more intricately carved stonework, is perhaps best kept in Penryn Musuem; only there can you see the beautiful Glasney cross, found secreted in a wall just to the south of the College site in the 1970s, and displayed in the Museum since 2008. The French style of the cross is testimony to the filial connections that must have once existed between the Celtic southwest and the nearest-neighbour across the sea: as Alistair Moffat comments in his invigorating investigation of Celtic Britain, the Celts were not divided by the sea, but brought together by it.
A sense of fellowship with those from other Celtic lands sat harmoniously alongside a strong sense of local identity; there is some speculation that the location of Glasney was chosen to allow the church to make inroads to the Cornish-speaking population in the west of the county. In a time where only a small minority of people were literate, and printing-presses had yet to begin their work of disseminating written work at a reasonable price, stories of the gospel were spread orally and it is thought to be here at Glasney where the ‘Passion plays’ were written and performed, to pass on moral guidance from the Bible in a memorable and popular way to the local Cornish-speaking community.
Two plays depicting the life of the saints St Meriadoc (celebrated in the dedication of Camborne’s parish church) and St Kea (the parish of which is about 9 miles to the north east of Penryn, just south of Truro) and three plays enacting important parts of the Bible (Creation; Passion of Christ and The Resurrection) – together known as The Ordinalia – are thought to have been penned here between 1400-1500. Some of these manuscripts are brought together for the first time in centuries at an exhibition at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, between 22 June and 22 September…one for the diary!
Many streets in Penryn still retain a sinuous form, and the variety of building styles that line them seem to make the long and varied history here still tractable. A morning here, at the Museum and following some parts of the trail, is a rewarding way to step back in time.
The Sea Kingdoms – the story of Celtic Britain and Ireland: Alistair Moffat (Harper Collins, 2001)
Glasney College archaeological assessment and evaluation trenching: Historic Environment Service Report
The history of Glasney College – James Whetter