Patron Saints

Cornwall's Patron Saints

Kernow Tassans

Where it all began

Cornwall has three saints, Michael, Petroc(k) and Piran (Perran) each often regarded as our "Patron". There is nothing wrong in this; other countries have had more than one patron, e.g. Scotland with Andrew and Columba, and Portugal with George, Vincent and Anthony.

The Truro Diocesan Calendar keeps "St. Michael, Protector of Cornwall," on its feast of special Cornish importance of May 8th, leaving on September 29th the more general "St. Michael and All Angels". March 5th is "St. Piran of Cornwall, Abbot"; June 4th is "St. Petroc of Cornwall, Abbot". St. Michael is associated with hilltops, especially in Celtic countries. May 8th celebrates his 'apparition' to fishermen at Monte Gargano in Italy in 492 he is patron of Helston and nine other Medieval parish churches, more than any other saint, and of many chapels. However he probably is 'patron' because Robert Count of Mortain, the leading landowner in Cornwall at Domesday Book (1086) fought under his banner at Hastings in 1066. Helston was one of Robert's manors. Michael's most famous shrine in Cornwall, a major place of pilgrimage, was of course, St. Michael's Mount.

St. Michael's Way is a twelve mile route from Lelant to St. Michael's Mount thought to have been used by pilgrims, missionaries and travellers, especially those from Ireland and Wales, to avoid crossing the treacherous waters around Land's End.

In England most parish churches are dedicated to saints from the scripture, or 'universal' ones like Nicholas. In Cornwall it is different the majority are named after saints found only in Celtic countries or nearby. In Cornwall most have only one or two parishes. However St. Petroc, sometimes called "Father of the Saints of Cornwall" has five churches. There are nine in Devon (though some of these may only date from the Middle Ages, and not be remaining Celtic dedications from before the English came), as well as some in Wales and Brittany.

Like all great men the Cornish saints gave rise to legends, so stories of Petroc's voyaging to Jerusalem or the Indian Ocean are probably exaggerations. However, he may have gone to Rome, and stories of his healing, his saving of a stag from hunters and removing a splinter from a dragon's eye may reflect the care of people and the love of all creation that the Celtic Church had.

It does seem clear that around 600AD Petroc came from South Wales of Royal Lineage (an uncle of St. Cadoc) and travelled to Padstow (Petroc's Stow or church) after landing at Trebetherick. Little Petherick and Egloshayle are also linked with him. At Padstow it is said that the hermit Gwethnoc moved for him. At Bodmin, Guron (Goran), whose well is by the church, did the same. It does seem that his bones and other relics were moved inland from Padstow to Bodmin at the end of the 10th century, possibly to escape the Danes who raided Padstow in 981.

The Saints' Way is a route of thirty miles which crosses the county coast to coast, from Padstow in the north to Fowey in the south. It joins a number of religious sites which have connections with Cornish Saints and Holy men and parts of the route are of very ancient origin. The Saints' Way, in historical context, should therefore be regarded as a route which may, in parts, have been used by the Saints, but which certainly offers the opportunity to appreciate the religious significance of the area.

In 1177 a monk of Bodmin stole the bones of St. Petroc and fled to St. Meen in Brittany. They were restored in the casket, now the object of another restoration saga. Piran, or Perran (not "Pie-Ran") was another saint who came to Cornwall from South Wales in the late fifth century. He landed near Perranporth where his churches have been buried by the sands. There are also Perran-ar-worthal, Perranuthnoe and a chapel near Tintagel.

Cornish Flag

Davies Gilbert writing in the early 19th century says that the ancient flag of Cornwall was his white cross on a black ground (doubtless an illusion to white tin coming from black ore... and giving the story of his discovering tin smelting!).

St. Piran was born in Ireland. After studying the scriptures in Rome he returned and was made a Bishop. In Ireland he was said to have performed many miracles, such as raising from the dead soldiers slain in battle. But the Kings of Ireland at the time were not impressed. It is reported that in the 5th Century St. Piran was flung into the sea in Ireland. He had a millstone around his neck but miraculously he floated across the water to Perran Beach in Perranporth. It was here that he built a small chapel. St. Piran built his oratory amongst the sand dunes. People would come from miles around to hear him preach there. St. Piran discovered tin too, but quite by accident. A black stone on his fire leaked a white liquid. He was patron of miners (as late as 18th century Breage Tinners had a holiday on his feast, hence the expression, "Drunk as a perraner"). According to legend St. Piran was fond of a tipple or two, despite his tipples, he is said to have lived to the age of 206.

St. Piran's oratory, near Perranporth was the site of a 6th century early Christian church established by St. Piran. It lies a few hundred yards west of the ancient cross that also bears his name, in the wide expanse of Penhale Sands. Because of constant erosion by wind and sand the remains of the building have been buried to protect it. The mound is now topped with a smallish granite stone and a plaque.

St. Piran's Day celebrations continue to grow in popularity. The annual St. Piran Play on Perran Sands being a highlight with hundreds of people making a pilgrimage to the site of the oratory and other landmarks.

St. Piran's flag has become more and more recognised. Forty years ago, or less, we had to always explain what it was. Now it is common. It is a sign of Cornwall, its increasing use is a sign of an increasing sense of Cornishness.

Cornwall's History       Cornish Folklore and Legend       Famous Cornish People       Cornwall's Churches       St. Piran's Day