In the early hours of Sunday morning, 12th January 1890, Lewannick church caught fire. The alarm was raised at one o’clock and pretty soon the whole village was awake, crowding in the narrow roads around the building, wondering what to do. The Launceston fire crew was sent for but it was already too late. The flames ripped through the roof, taking hold in the belfry tower. As the parishioners stood watching in horror the six church bells, cast in 1767, fell, crashing to the floor with a dreadful, jarring cacophony. The interior of the building was completely destroyed, finely carved 350 year old benches were turned to blacken ash and the 16th century columns crumbled. The heat was so intense that it cracked the Norman font. But one object survived, an ancient stone known as the Cresset Stone was pulled from the wreckage.
The Church of St Martin at Lewannick was eventually rebuilt, despite being uninsured at the time of the fire, and the cresset stone was returned to its place inside the walls. The fire however had ignited interest in this rare object and various enthusiasts wrote to the newspapers hypothesising about its possible use and importance.
So, what exactly is the Cresset Stone?
“The most curious of the curiosities”
There has been a church in Lewannick since the 13th century, around c1230. The present church stands on that ancient site, an green island of raised ground in the middle of the village which makes the building seem all the more imposing as you approach. Despite its unfortunate past this is still a beautiful church, much of the ornamental work, particularly the tower, was built using stone from the nearby Polyphant quarry and some Norman architectural elements do survive. There is a Roman inscribed stone in the graveyard and a rare ogham stone leans up against one wall – but that’s another story . . .
FUN FACT: According to Charles Henderson in his book on Cornish churches in 1430 the vicar of Lewannick was committed to Launceston Gaol for an unknown felony.
The Cresset Stone is an unassuming piece of polished granite that sits on a matching octagonal base. The circular top stone is roughly half a metre (1.5ft) across and has seven ‘cups’ carved into it, which are between two and three inches deep. You can find it tucked away beside a pillar and when I visited it was being used as a stand for a flower arrangement. But despite its somewhat insignificant appearance this carved stone is medieval in origin, making it at least 500 years old, probably more a lot more.
There are several other examples of cresset stones in England, one in Wales and a handful in Scandinavia but most of these are rectangular with the recesses in rows of parallel lines. None, that I have been able to find, look like the one at Lewannick.
In 1905 Mr. G. A. G. Langdon reported that he had discovered other examples of cresset stones in Cornwall, though I haven’t been able to verify this. Langdon claimed to have found one in the wall of a house ten miles from Launceston and another at Marhamchurch. Where they are now is unclear so this one at Lewannick may be the only surviving example in Cornwall.
The Stool of Penitence
“What this mysterious object represents is a question which seems to have baffled the researches of the most cunning in antiquarian lore.”Cornish and Devon Post, 5th April 1890
Before we discuss the ‘real’ purpose of this unusual stone it is worth noting some of the other uses that have been proposed for it over the years.
I have read that the stone was used to hold holy water, like some strange mini font with seven finger-sized receptacles, or that it was used to hold sacred, exotic herbs and spices which were used in religious ceremonies or that the cups were once filled with ‘a resinous wood’ which was burnt to purify the air.
But perhaps the most interesting, if uncomfortable use, was described by Henry Philip Burke Downing. He was the author of An Architectural Journey Through Cornwall published in 1888, an expert in churches and sported a most excellent moustache. Burke Downing, who visited Lewannick church before the fire, wrote:
“There is an ancient stone stool of penitence, now at the west end of the nave but which originally stood I believe under the pulpit. It has seven circular holes about three inches deep cut into the top of the stone and representing the seven deadly sins. These were filled with thorns and thistles and the penitent was required to stand with bare feet upon them facing the congregation throughout the whole of the service.”
Forms of public shaming for perceived ‘sins’ were at one time common in our communities, the village stocks being another example of this. Something known as ‘the stool of repentance‘ was found in Scotland up to the early 19th century. This was an raised seat (the naughty chair) in a church which was used for the public penance of anyone who was thought to have committed an offence against the moralities of the time, often through ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery’. At the end of the service the offender had to go and stand on the stool while they were rebuked by the minister in front of the congregation.
Burke Downing seems to be suggesting that Lewannick’s cresset stone is another version of this and his ideas were reported in the papers after the fire, but it is unclear where he got this information from or if it is an idea of his own creation.
The Lamp Light
In 1548 a charity roll of King Edward VI, a document recording donations to the church, noted that a yearly rent of sixteen pence had been given to “the churchwardens of Lawanok [sic] for a lamp light in the church”. The assumption is that this donation relates to the cresset stone because most other similar stones around the country are considered to be an early form of medieval lighting. The holes were filled with oil or wax and a wick was dropped in, this was then lit by the monks to provide them with a source of light during very early or late services.
The word ‘cresset’ is derived from the old French ‘craicet’ or ‘craisset’ meaning a cup of metal or other material fastened to a pole to form a portable lantern. The video below shows the cresset stone in Brecon Cathedral alight.
In the 16th century, The Rites of Durham, that is an account of the traditions of Durham Cathedral, was written. It describes the use of their cresset stone.
“At each end of the dorter [dormitory] was a square stone, wherein was a dozen of cressets wrought in each stone, being fill’d and supply’d by the cooks, as they needed, to afford light to the monks and novices on their arising to their matins at midnight, and for their other necessary uses.
So according to most modern thinking the cresset stone in Lewannick was once used to illuminate the church, perhaps even one of the churches that stood on the site before St Martin’s . . .
I admit this stone is a simple object, crude even, but by learning about its history, the stories attached to it, this lump of granite takes on a whole new meaning for me. The passage of time it has witnessed, the numerous hands that have smoothed its once coarse surface, the dents of forgotten incidents, all give me pause and for a moment bring a distant past to life.
We should never overlook these small relics, they are often the most intriguing.