In 2021 we met at Creed Church for an illuminating talk by Nigel Saul on Cornish Churches in the Perpendicular Period.
He writes: Cornish parish churches come across to us today as overwhelmingly the architectural products of the Perpendicular period, even though many of them incorporate work from earlier periods. Estimating building dates is often difficult in the absence of documentary evidence. The most active periods, however, appear to have been the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In some churches, building went on right up to the Reformation, and furnishing them, for example with seating, went on into Elizabeth’s reign.
Cornish churches present a very different aspect to the eye from Perpendicular churches in other parts of the country where much building was undertaken in this period. Unlike in Kent, for example, they do not make use of corner stair turrets on towers; and unlike in Gloucestershire and East Anglia they do not employ clerestories to illuminate the nave. The omission of clerestories is probably to be explained by the intractability of granite, which made both building upwards and carving window tracery especially difficult. Without a clerestory there could be no chancel arch and so the task of separating the chancel from the nave was done by a wooden screen across the church, as at Altarnun. Cornish churches are low, even tunnel-like inside, but where there are side aisles they can also appear wide, as at Probus.
In some parts of England, for example the East Midlands, Herefordshire and the northern Border counties, there was very little Perpendicular building, because the economic conditions of the time did not allow it. The shortage of labour that followed the Black Death, combined with the rising wages linked to this, put an end to much large scale construction. In Cornwall, however, the wealth brought by the flourishing tin trade, which in the late Middle Ages was especially strong in the east and centre of the country, brought levels of wealth that were lacking in those parts of the country where a cereal economy was dominant. It is no coincidence that perhaps the finest Perpendicular church in the county, that at St Neot, served a parish that embraced the heart of the tin-streaming country on the southern flanks of Bodmin Moor.
A window into the world of those who built Cornwall’s Perpendicular churches is opened by the surviving building accounts for St Petroc’s, Bodmin, for the years 1469 to 1472, which supply us with the name of the master mason, or architect as we would say now – Richard Richowe – and furnish a wealth of information about the other contractors involved, the building practices of the time, and the sources of stone used.
As for the patrons, the people who commissioned the churches, many were drawn from the country gentry class, notable among them Sir John Arundel, who paid for parts of St Columb Major and St Mawgan in Pydar, and Sir John Colshull, who was responsible for the magnificent chantry chapel at Duloe. At Liskeard we know that the town council, acting for the parishioners, commissioned extensions to both the north and south sides of the chancel. In both town and country, confraternities – otherwise known as guilds – provided the structures through which the middling and the less well-off of the parish could find a way of involving themselves in the building and fitting out of churches, as seems to have been the case at both Creed and St Neot.