St Levan

Grid Ref SW380222
Churchtown, St Levan, Penzance, TR19 6JT


(photo Lynn Batten)

The place name St Levan comes from Selevan or Salamon, the original patron saint of the church, chapel and holy well here.  Salamon is recorded as a 10thcentury Cornish dedication and may be the Breton king assassinated in 874 A.D (murdered kings often being sanctified after their death).  Whatever the case, by the 1750s if not earlier, the saint was regarded as a St Levan man.

The coastal parish of St Levan has an unusually complex religious history.  From the medieval period until 1864, it and Sennen were not parishes but chapelries of the deanery of St Buryan.  The arrangement financially benefitted St Buryan which received all tithes (a church tax of one tenth of all produce) and supplied only poorly paid curates in return.  When the deanery was abolished in 1864, the curate here was replaced by a rector.

The church at St Levan has plainer piers than many in Cornwall and an unfinished, and lop-sided, ground plan of chancel, nave, west tower, south aisle and north transept.  Such plans, commonly found in Cornwall, reflect more than 350 years of building activity which came to an abrupt end in the 1540s during the Reformation.

St Levan’s chancel and nave were built first c.1200.  The font and a blocked window opening in the chancel may be of this period.  Some time after 1300, transepts were added to create a cruciform plan.  Repairs are documented in 1421 here and at the chapel.  Finally, the south transept was replaced with a south aisle, and a two-stage west tower built.  Plain octagonal granite monolith piers of Penwith type were used for arches, with walls faced with granite ashlar.  William Cockes of Paul left 6s 8d in his will of 1522 probably towards this work.  Roofs, rood screen and benches were all added at this time.  A pillar, awkwardly planted in the middle of the north transept opening, may be the start of a 1540s aborted aisle with the chancel perhaps being shortened then.  William Alsa, a local priest, was hanged for taking part in the 1549 Prayer Book rebellion.


Bench end, (photo Lynn Batten)

By 1800 the church had a three decker pulpit, box pews, whitewashed walls, wooden sash windows, and slate floors, while the north transept was used as a dairy.  It was restored to a more medieval appearance in 1874 by J.D. Sedding.


c1530s screen base with monsters and thistle eating goat (carver as St Buryan?).

Original medieval paint on screen and wagon roof in south aisle.

Bench ends of St James the Great, two May Day fools, and St Levan’s two fish, complemented by two bench ends in memory of E.V.M Favell and two in memory of Dr R.V. Favell.  The fish image kept alive tales of Selevan who fed himself from the sea, choked his sister’s children, and trod a greener path than ordinary men.

Rowena Cade’s early 20th century gorse and heather altar super-frontal.

Split granite boulder in the churchyard, first noted in the 1750s, which continuesto excite speculation about the end of the world.

Further reading: Susan Hoyle, The Church of St Levan – A Guide and History (2007).  Jeffery C. Burr, A History of the Church of St Levan (1994).  Joanna Mattingly, Looking at Cornish Churches (2005).

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