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Bodmin

Dedication : St Petroc     Simon Jenkins: **                                                  Principal Features : St Petroc’s Casket; Norman Font

St Petroc was the son of a Welsh king who sailed to Ireland to attend a monastery there. He landed in Trebetherick in Cornwall in around AD518. St Enodoc Church in Trebetherick is elsewhere on the website and unsurprisingly its original dedication was to St Petroc. He promptly carried out a miracle by causing water to flow from a rock he struck with his staff. His first foundation was at Padstow but he subsequently travelled widely in our islands and beyond. His cult spread beyond Padstow to other parts of Cornwall including Bodmin. Bodmin became the religious centre of this part of the West Country with a priory. Petroc died in Padstow in 564 and his remains were moved to Bodmin presumably to be safer from the marauding Danes.

We know from the Domesday Book that there was an early church on this site. Only the base of the bell tower remains. When an Augustinian Priory was built nearby this church became the parish church, and the inhabitants had the foresight to “liberate” the income-generating shrine and bones of St Petroc!

The bones were stolen in 1177 by a feckless monk who took them to the Abbey of St Meen at Laon in France. The theft was only discovered because of the “miracles” that were attributed to the stolen bones; only then was the shrine found to be empty. Walter de Coutances, the King’s Chancellor, bought the casket we now see from a passing one-armed man. Miraculously (!), the bones fitted perfectly...They have now, of course, crumbled to dust. 

The casket is made of painted ivory, bound with bronze and sates from 1170. The panels are painted with birds and spiral motifs. It is believed to have been made by Norman craftsmen in Sicily which by then the Normans had conquered. It was hidden away at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, lost, rediscovered by accident, in 1831, displayed in 1957, stolen again and recovered near Sheffield. Amongst all the “miracles” associated with Petroc, perhaps the biggest is that we still have his casket!

The church today - the biggest in Cornwall - dates from 1469-72. It has the usual Cornish wagon roof with some decent bosses. Otherwise, in truth, it is pleasant but unremarkable. The Norman font, however, is outstanding. On the bottom are some really “nice” monsters entwined with foliage. At each corner are the faces of angels. Altarnun has similar corner faces, but theirs are grotesque, There is plenty of gorgeous scroll decoration in between. It is outstandingly well-preserved.

Pictures 476a Pictures 479a

Left: Looking towards the east. The arcade is typical Cornish perpendicular with very plain capitals. The wagon roofs to chancel, nave and aisles - also typically Cornish - give a pleasing symmetry. Right: The chancel. It was re-designed in 1931.

Left: St Petroc’s casket within its glass case. Right: The fine tomb of Thomas Vyvian who died in 1533. He was the penultimate Prior of Bodmin before the Dissolution and his tomb was moved here from the priory. The stone is Cataclewse from Harlyn Bay on the north coast of Cornwall.

The Norman font is simply delightful and was carved to a very high standard. It is quite an unusual structure: a square profile around the top with a bowl shape below. The corners are supported by fine round pillars and there is a stumpy fifth pillar in the middle. The font has angels at each corner where we are much more used to seeing human or grotesque heads. The decoration as a whole, however, is concerned with the struggle between good and evil. Around the bowl of the font we see monsters and beasts.

Pictures 470a Pictures 473a

Two of the angels at the corners of the font.

Pictures 484b

A close up of one side of the font. The plaited stem pattern towards the top is very finely carved. Below that a tree - a Tree of Life? -  is below that, with beasts snarling on each side of it. It is an outstanding piece of carving: artistically one of the five best in England for my money. What makes it special is that the bowl has been carved away to leave the design in clear and very high relief. For all the world you could believe that the decorations have been stuck on.

Left and Above: This lectern is made from mediaeval miesericords!

Left: This building covers the Well of St Guron. It was he who established the first Christian cell her in AD500. Right: The porch with three empty niches, the statues probably removed during the Reformation or during Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Many churches have little “mysteries” - well at least to non-experts like myself. Here’s my one for Bodmin: what looks like a filled-in Romanesque arch above the existing window. Why?