Launceston, St Mary Magdelene’s
Church Street, Launceston, Cornwall, PL15 8AU
The Parish church of Launceston, a former county capital, is St Mary Magdalene. It lies below the Norman castle which guards the approach to Cornwall over the Tamar. St Mary Magdalene is famous for its carved granite facade (see left) which is unparalleled in England.
The church is attached by its vestry to a tower probably of very early 15th century date, which has a painted early Georgian clock face. This tower was originally attached to an earlier chapel, demolished when the present church was completed. A large space was left for a new tower that was planned, but never built.
The church was rebuilt from 1511 to the 1540s, one of the most ambitious and lengthy, and ultimately incomplete, of all Cornish building projects. Work began at the south porch, then appears to have gone anti-clockwise to the east end. The high altar was in use for worship in 1524 and the rest of the church remained a building site, with work on the north aisle and glazing continuing into the 1540s. The Reformation was by this time affecting parish churches and grandiose building schemes had to be abandoned.
Built out of moorland granite, the whole town would have paid for the new church though Henry Trecarrell of Trecarrell Manor, twice Mayor of Launceston, may well have been the instigator. It is said his son drowned in a bath, and in his grief Henry Trecarrell turned his attention to the church. Henry died in 1544, another reason why the tower-project may have been abandoned. The nearest parallel to Launceston, and the probable proto-type, is the south aisle of the church of St Mary’s in Truro (part of Truro Cathedral today). This was built a little earlier in 1504-18.
On the outside of the East wall at Launceston is a carved figure of Mary Magdalene (see left) with her ointment pot alongside. She is shown ‘creeping to the cross’, something sinners, including ex-prostitutes, were expected to do on Good Friday. A local tradition is to throw a small pebble over one’s shoulder which, if it stops on her back, will bring good luck. The south porch is covered with ornamentation, including St George and the Dragon and St Martin sharing his coat with a beggar which may refer to former church guilds.
The church, which is 103 feet long, is on the usual Cornish lines, with eight continuous bays. Its roof has carved angels. The Gothic chancel screen merits attention. Designed by Edmund Sedding, it was made by Violet Pinwill and her Plymouth-based team. The Pinwills also made the woodwork of the reredos.
The carved pew-ends and the choir-stalls are delightful and have marvellous carvings. They are ‘art nouveau’ representations of flowers, fishes and small animals. The pulpit is regarded as the best in the county, and is thought to be pre-Reformation. It is painted black but with gold details and red and green ribbed stems.
Against the North wall is an accomplished Georgian memorial. This is to two friends, Granville Piper and Richard Wise, who were both Mayors of Launceston.
John Betjeman wrote that “St Mary Magdalene’s church becomes a medieval triumph of Cornwall” and Simon Jenkins, in 1999 rated St Mary’s among the ‘top hundred of England’s Thousand Best Churches’ one of only two in Cornwall.