Cross Penzance Catholic Church  'The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady' part of 'The Holy Family' Parish  >  "History section index" | sitemap



Like the rest of England, Penzance was drawn into the nation-wide effects of the Reformation. Under Henry VIII, and then later Elizabeth, the local churches became a part of the established Church of England. But, down in the far west, it was not a smooth transition.

In the reign of King Henry VIII, as well as the better known Northern Rising against the religious "reforms" of the king, there was a plot in 1538, known as the St. Keverne Plot, which resulted in the death of Henry Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter. The ordinary Cornish people in this village on the Lizard were upset at the changes in religion, and rose under a banner of the five wounds of Christ.

This was merely a prelude for a far more serious rising during his son, Edward VI's reign - the Prayer Book or Western Rebellion of 1549. Disgusted by the "Christmas Games" and the English of the new Protestant Prayer Book, they gathered strength on their march through Cornwall and Devon. They reached the city of Exeter, to which they laid siege. It was ruthlessly put down by the Duke of Bedford, with terrible suffering and loss of life through the county.

The first martyrdom of a seminary priest returning from the English Colleges abroad in Douay, Rome and Valladolid was in Cornwall. St. Cuthbert Mayne was a man from Devon, ordained into the Anglican ministry, a convert while at Oxford, he studied and was ordained a Catholic priest at Douay. He came to bring the old Mass and the sacraments to the people of Cornwall. From his base with Francis Tregian at Golden Manor, near Tregony, he travelled far and wide to small groups who wanted to retain the "old religion". He was eventually caught up with at Golden and taken to Launceston Castle; after a long and uncertain trial he was found guilty of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in the market square at Launceston on November 30th 1577.

At the time of Cuthbert Mayne, the authorities rounded up many of the leading Catholics in the county. Among others were Francis Tregian, for 21 years in the Fleet Prison in London before being exiled to Lisbon where he was looked upon by the locals as a saint. His son, also Francis, followed him to the Fleet Prison; there he made good use of his time by copying out a collection of old-English music now highly valued as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Another Cornishman, Nicholas Roscarrock, was also imprisoned in the Fleet and then the Tower; he gathered together a catalogue of British saints, in particular the saints of Cornwall. The effect of this fierce persecution was to very nearly stamp out Catholicism for good.

In Cornwall there were very few recusants or Catholics during the penal times, as in some other counties like Lancashire. The old Arundell manor at Lanherne, even though many of the family had moved eastwards to Wardour and Chideock, was able to support a priest for the few brave people in that part of Cornwall. The Couche family at Tolfrey House, near Fowey, also were able to keep a priest during the 18th century. A List of Papists in 1767 reported that in the whole of Cornwall there were only 56 Catholics None of these was anywhere near Penzance and the west of the county.

We have no evidence at all that there were any Catholics in the Penzance area from the Reformation until we hear there were "in the year 1837 several Irish travellers and labourers in and around Penzance." Why were they there? Was it to work in the new attempt to open tip the Wherry tin mine in 1836 or some of the other tin mines of Penwith? There was a priest at Falmouth (since a mission had been started in 1805); but it was too far away for him to be of practical use in supplying the religious needs of this new grouping in Penzance. So, we read that "they induced the Rev. William Ivers to minister to them in their midst: but, after a few weeks, the failure of funds compelled him to abandon the attempt."

created 29th October 2004 - last  revised 3rd March, 2010 v1.01 -