A history of cornwall online - through its objects
Saints, Methodists and Bards
The Cornish Gorsedd exists to maintain the national celtic spirit of Cornwall through literature, music, history and language. These Gorsedd robes, which belonged to Mr R. Santo, were worn at the 1989 Gorsedd which celebrated the 800th anniversary of Lostwithiel.
Although the right arm is missing, this gilded figure of the crucified Jesus Christ, from the late 12th century, is an important example of medieval art and religion in Cornwall. It was found in a field near Lostwithiel in 1894 and then lost again until 1994, hidden in a desk.
May Day festivities in Padstow are one of Cornwall's most famous and enduring folk customs, celebrating the arrival of summer. There are now two horses or 'osses' in the celebrations, one red and one blue. This oss was used from 1948 until 1975.
John Wesley introduced Methodism to Cornwall in the 18th century and the Cornish took to Methodism more than any other county. This moveable font, dating from about 1880, was used in the chapel at Constantine for baptisms. The chapel now includes Constantine's Heritage Centre.
Edgcumbe Altar Frontal
This intricate textile piece was made for the Edgcumbe Family of Cotehele around 1500 and is a rare example of an altar frontal which survived the Reformation of the mid 16th century. It has been painstakingly hand stitched and shows Jesus and the twelve Apostles.
Folk Art Plaque
This painted panel, in the style of folk art, was made by Captain Willie Hopes of St Hilary. It shows Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd and probably dates from the 1920s when St Hilary was nationally known for its Christmas Bethlehem play, broadcast annually on BBC radio.
Tea Treat China
Chapel teas or 'tea treats' were one of the most anticipated days of the year in Cornwall in the 19th century. Everyone wore their best clothes and a high tea was served using the local Methodist chapel's own china. Games or sports usually followed, making for a grand social occasion.
Cornish religious and cultural customs are a mix of the ancient, traditional and revived.
Christianity probably came to Cornwall in the 3rd or 4th century during the Romano-British period. Inscribed stones of the 5th century provide the first evidence of Christianity in Cornwall. It is thought that missionaries, such as St Piran from Ireland spread the religion in Cornwall.
Much of the early Christian art of Cornwall was destroyed during the 16th-century Reformation but there are some survivals such as a 12th-century gilded figure of the crucified Christ from Lostwithiel, and a rare late 15th-century embroidered altar piece from Cothele.
Bible stories have formed the basis of many Cornish dramas. In 1924 a nativity play by Bernard Walke, performed in St Hilary, West Penwith, was broadcast nationally on radio at Christmas—the BBC’s first outside broadcast. It proved so popular with listeners it was repeated in later years.
Methodism, as a form of Christianity that emphasised social justice, held great appeal amongst the working classes of Cornwall. Its founder, John Wesley, preached regularly to the large mining communities of Redruth in the open-air amphitheatre of Gwennap Pit in 1762-89. Large chapels were built through the subscription of congregations and they became the centre of community events as well as places of worship. Chapel teas were occasions where people got together for socialising, sport and music.
The communities that grew up around large industries such as mining and china clay extraction developed other ways of socialising too, such as forming choirs and joining brass and silver bands.
However, there are also very many Cornish feasts and festivals that have origins long before Christianity. Amongst the oldest are May Day celebrations, the most famous of which is the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss (dialect for Hobby Horse) festival which is celebrated on 1 May.
Many other festivals have been revived since the mid-20th century as part of the growing movement to promote the Duchy’s distinctiveness and separate traditions. The Gorsedd Kernow is a celebration of music, poetry, heritage and literature which awards the title of Bard to people who have made an outstanding contribution to Cornish culture.