St Germans, Priory

PL12 5ND
Grid ref SX 359578

St-Germanssmall_3The Church of St Germanus, known as St Germans Priory is one of the finest, oldest and most historic parish churches in Cornwall. It is Grade 1 listed and of exceptional architectural, archaeological and historic significance.

The present Church is dedicated to St Germanus of Auxerre. He visited Britain twice in the mid-5th century and his relics, including bones, were venerated here by the mid-10th century. In the 930s King Athelstan confirmed St Germans as the seat of a bishop. He appointed Conan as its first recorded bishop and St Germans Church became the Cathedral of Cornwall. Conan was succeeded by other Bishops until 1050 when the Cornish see was united with Devon. The bishop of Exeter retained an estate and had a palace, and occasional residence, at Cuddenbeak, a quarter of a mile to the south-east of the church.

The Anglo-Saxon minster was refounded as an Augustinian Priory in the 12th Century. St Germans was then a busy port and pilgrim site with a borough, mill, laundry and infirmary. The monks lived in the adjacent house, now Port Eliot, and rebuilt the Church on a grand scale with two western towers, narrow north and south lean-to aisles, a clerestory and nave of 102 ft and a chancel of almost 50 feet which is no longer extant. This church was consecrated by Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter in 1261 on one of his visits to Cornwall.

Unusually, the parishioners of the town of St Germans were able to worship alongside the monks as the south aisle belonged to them. This aisle was rebuilt in two stages. First, a lofty chapel in the new Decorated style was built in the 1330s at the east end adjoining the nave. In 1358 this Lady Chapel housed a small arm bone of St German’s and part of his shroud. A tiny door in the south wall is thought to be the pilgrims entrance. Windows, piscina, sedilia and a tomb all in Decorated-style survive. This south chapel was extended a century later with an even wider aisle, which included the arms of Bishop Lacy. The whole assemblage was completed with an early 16th century stone-vaulted porch and a domestic style window of six lights in the Lady Chapel.

The Priory continued to function until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The Priory and its lands and revenues were soon leased by Henry VIII to John Champernown who held it until 1564 when it came into the possession of the Eliot Family who still own it today. The priory church became the parish church and lost a third of its length when part of the choir collapsed in 1592. A new wall was then built at the east end of the nave and it is possible that the original east window of the choir was reset here. In 1802, the 12th century north aisle was removed to make way for the Eliot family pew and vestry.

Today, apart from the Church itself , the chief relics that remain are the somewhat battered 13th century font and coffin (in the porch), a 15th century misericord seat with a carving of Dando and his hounds, and statue of St Anthony of Padua possibly from elsewhere. The west door is of exceptional size with few equals in England and part of a fine Romanesque west front. Two south-west arches and pillars are also of the 12th century. The twin towers are not a matching pair as the northern tower has an octagonal upper stage. The present East window is 35ft high with 5 lights and a magnificent crown in the centre of the tracery. It was designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and made by William Morris. Dedicated in 1896, it is a stunning piece of glasswork – a second such window can be seen in the south wall of the Lady Chapel.

For further information, please visit the Priory’s website at www.stgermanspriory.info

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