mouldings. Compared with some of the riotously-decorated doors we see elsewhere this is a little disappointing perhaps, but there is no disputing that the overall effect of this doorway is simply magnificent. The width of the door itself is perhaps a third of the overall width of the doorway: this was a grand architectural statement indeed. There is a large gable over the doorway and surmounting this is an original Norman cross.
Within the church, the visitor is struck by the magnificence of the south aisle arcade. The bays are perfect examples of Transitional architecture: massive square capitals adorned with simple scallop mouldings supporting Gothic-style pointed arches. The aisle itself is very much in the Cornish style in that it is as in height, length and width as the nave and chancel. This, however, is not the original configuration that was completed in 1261. Originally there was a narrow aisle on either side of the nave. There was a clerestory above the nave, the windows surrounded by zig-zag moulding of which outlines can still be seen.
At that time too, the nave and both those original aisles would have been much longer, extending as far as today’s altar. After 1261 the priors occupied themselves with building the other priory buildings and did not return their attentions to the church until a century later. Then they built a chapel to hold some sacred relics secured from St Germain’s Convent in Auxerre in France in 1358. Such relics would be vital for ensuring income from the profitable “pilgrim” industry of the time. This occupies the three easternmost bays of the south aisle. Because the aisle of the time was narrower than today’s this chapel would have projected beyond it southwards. In the first half of c15 the original aisle was demolished and replaced by one of a width to match the chapel itself. Thus, the chapel and the east end of today’s south aisle is in Decorated style, whereas the rest is Perpendicular.
The Reformation, of course, saw the dissolution of the Priory. The Prior’s choir fell into disrepair and was used as a brewery! A new east wall was then built to separate it off, and that is the east end we see today with a late perpendicular east window that is claimed to be the finest in Cornwall. This window, however, is believed to have been moved to this position from either the original east window of the abandoned choir or from the original east end of the lady chapel.
The travails of St Germans did not end there. Removal of flying buttresses during the reconstruction of the south aisle and general neglect after the Dissolution led to a collapse of a large part of the chancel. Elizabethan reformers hacked away at the south chapel, despising - with some justification, you might feel - the cult of relics. A rather gross monument to Edward Eliot MP was installed in the chapel in 1797, thankfully now relegated to the base of the north tower. The strange configuation of three Decorated windows in today’s south chapel is the result of the uppermost one being placed there in the c18 by the same Lord Eliot commemorated by the memorial, re-using tracery from a window that had been discarded previously. Finally, at the beginning of the c19 another Lord Eliot had the dilapidated north aisle demolished.
All in all, St German’s has had a chequered history, seemingly buffeted around by the vicissitudes of our history more than most. That it has survived at all is something of a miracle, but its fall from grace from Cathedral of Cornwall to Parish Church on the brink of closure (see footnote) is sobering yet fascinating. It is something of an ecclesiastical mongrel but amongst all this it has many virtues. That west front is still one of the most authentic Norman west fronts in the country. Despite the loss of much of its fabric it is still a large and lofty church and there is much of interest here. Visit it if only for that west front and for its remarkable history.