Caerhays, St Michael

Grid Ref (tba)
Caerhays, Gorran, St Austell PL26 6LY

St Michael, Caerhays

The little church at Caerhays was in 1259 re-dedicated by Bishop Bronescombe to St Michael and All Angels. From the eleventh century the parish was part of the manor of Brannel and until 1852 formed a united benefice with St Stephen in Brannel and St Dennis. From the sixteenth century successive rectors chose to live at Caerhays so that it was regarded as the mother church. It is now a joint benefice with its neighbour, Gorran.

St Michael, Caerhays

The earliest church building would have had a nave and a chancel, the north and south transepts being added probably in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, so that the church became cross-shaped.  These transepts would have been built by local families as burial places, and the tomb in the north transept has unusually survived. Little now remains of the Norman church except its north doorway, ornamented outside with a carving of the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God], and the font, which  is made of local Pentewan stone and is carved in a typical late Norman design.

Major alterations were carried out in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the tower was added, containing three bells, which survive, and which have been described as some of the finest pre-Reformation bells in Cornwall.  The south transept was enlarged into a Lady chapel by the Trevanions, who lived at Caerhays,  and contains memorials of several generations of this important Cornish family.

By the early nineteenth century the building was “in want of great repair”: by the 1850s it was being used as a social and smoking room by local fishermen. However, by 1865 ten new stained glass windows had been installed, a carved chancel screen and altar frontal fitted, with a tesselated reredos and commandment panels, all made by the rector, the Reverend William Willimott, a talented craftsman. An harmonium replaced the church ‘band’ [a clarinet and a bass viol].

Further restoration in the 1880s by J P St Aubyn saw the chancel screen moved to the tower arch, a new wooden floor in the Trevanion aisle,  while in 1892/3 three additional bells were installed.

In the twentieth century electricity was installed for lighting and heating, and the tower, then dangerously cracked, was reinforced first with a wooden buttress, and subsequently with a permanent support of stone.

Note especially:

o   The north door with its Agnus Dei: a rare survival;

o   The mediaeval tomb in the north transept;

o   The lovely slate floors in tower and porch;

o   The archway which once led to the rood stairs

o   The Trevanion aisle with impressive memorials;

o   Willimott’s amazing stained glass windows.

Further reading:

o   Church guidebook, 2011 [available in the church]

o   ‘Parson Willimott’s Cornish Sketchbook’, published by the PCC in 2010 [available either in the church or from the churchwardens]

o   ‘Caerhays Castle’ by Charles Williams and others, published 2011 [history of the estate formerly owned by the Trevanions and subsequently the Williams family]

All photographs © Charles Francis

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