Religion in Cornwall – A History of Struggle

Following last week’s post about the Diocese of Truro facing a funding crisis, I alluded to a history of struggle for religion in Cornwall. Several blog readers contacted me asking for a further explanation of this, and indeed why this struggle, at times, has become a physical one. Indeed, the ‘religion issue’ in Cornwall is indelibly linked to the whole notion of Cornish identity, in my belief. As this is such a complex issue, the space below doesn’t allow for the amount of detail that this topic deserves, but what follows is somewhat of a ‘potted history’ of the issue.

First, I want to address my assertion that the ‘religion issue’ in Cornwall is indelibly linked to the whole notion of Cornish identity – and the central component of this argument is the impact of the Prayer Book Rebellion. In January 1549, The Act of Uniformity was passed. This, essentially led to abolishing the wide range of religious practices that had taken place up until now. Linked to this was an establishment of a Book of Common Prayer – all services contained were in English, and must be henceforth delivered in that language. As Philip Payton says: “The English language was to be imposed upon a population that was only partly English-speaking and, which, in the west, still contained a great many monoglot Cornish-speakers” (Payton: 2004: p122). Not surprisingly, the consequence was uproar. The very future of the indigenous Cornish language was under direct threat. A petition was sent to the King, containing the words We, the Cornish men utterly refuse this new English.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the powers that be ignored the Cornish view, but the matter was certainly not left there. The Cornish, by now absolutely outraged at the threat to their language, (which, after all is the key identifying feature of any nationality) marched on Exeter. Rowse (1941) quotes the Devon historian John Hooker who commented on the scene of chaos: “The Cornishmen were very lusty and fresh and fully bent to fight out the matter (p275). It all ended in a slaughter of unimaginable brutality. Lord Grey arrived with a gang of mercenaries to take on the Cornish at Clyst St. Mary. Leaders were “left hanging on gibbets from Dunster to Bath”. The Cornishmen eventually were forced back to Launceston where Gray’s men captured them, and sent the men to Tyburn to be hung, drawn and quartered. Gray, commenting later on the battle, conceded “it was more had-fought than any other war he had known” (Payton: 2004: p124).

However, the Anglican church is but one part of the story. We now fast forward almost 200 years to July 1743 and the arrival in Cornwall on the Reverend Charles Wesley. The site of his first sermon was Morvah, near Land’s End. His preaching captured the locals and his audiences grew and grew, with sermons in several different locations on the same day. Not surprisingly, the attitude of the established church in Cornwall was less than welcoming. “Forseeing the ultimate loss of their authority and prestige if such practices were allowed to continue,(they) entered upon a campaign of deliberate persecution” (Hamilton-Jenkin: 1933: p163). Press-gangs were employed to arrest Wesley’s assistants. The coming of Methodism led to Gwennap Pit assuming iconic status in the Cornish religious world. The site, near Redruth, is a stunning amphitheatre where Wesley famously preached eighteen times. It is a truly spiritual place that has history seeping out of every pore.

The ‘Anglican-Methodist’ dichotomy doesn’t end there. Cornish Nationalist John Angarrack attacks the construction of the Anglican Truro Cathedral in the latter part of the 19th Century, asserting that  “This alien structure totally out of proportion to any existing demand, and purposely built on a colossal scale so as to overawe and infuse the impoverished Cornish in their simple (Methodist) chapels with a sense of inferiority and obligation” (Angarrack: 1999: p 155). One would be forgiven for thinking that Angarrack may view last week’s news from the Diocese of Truro as a case of what goes round comes around.

So, whereas religion is a contentious issue in many parts of the globe, it has been an integral part of the ontology of Cornish culture and identity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Angarrack, John (1999) ‘Breaking The Chains: Propaganda, Censorship, Deception and the Manipulation of Public Opinion in Cornwall’ Cornish Stannary Publications: Camborne

Hamilton-Jenkin, A.K. (1933) ‘Cornwall And The Cornish’ David & Charles: Newton Abbot

Payton, Philip (2004) ‘Cornwall: A History: Cornwall Editions: Fowey

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