Bodmin is one of the oldest settlements in Cornwall and the only Cornish town of any size to be mentioned in the Domesday Book. This ancient settlement is said to have been founded by two saints. The first, St Guron built a hermit’s cell in the valley sometime in the early 6th century and then St Petroc took over the growing religious community in 530 AD. It was he that established a priory here at Cornwall’s heart and by the Middle Ages there were no less the thirteen churches in Bodmin. Today two buildings in the town stand testament to that sacred past, St Petroc’s Church and the enigmatic ruin of Berry Tower.
‘Bodmeneghy‘ is Bodmin’s original name and it too has religious connotations. It translates as ‘the monks abode’.
A place of Pilgrimage
When it was completed in the 15th century St Petroc’s Church was the largest church in Cornwall and it remained so for nearly 500 years, until Truro Cathedral was completed in 1910. The unusually complete church records illustrate the wealth of the town, as well as the building of St Petroc’s being truly a community effort, with money, goods and labour donated from some forty local trade guilds. These guilds were voluntary associations, often religious, established for commercial and social purposes. The total cost of the church’s construction was £196 7s 4d.
Fun(ish) Fact: In 1699 the spire of St Petroc’s was destroyed by lightning and the church had to be rebuilt.
Bodmin was an important religious centre in the region. It established itself as a place of pilgrimage and one of the wealthiest communities in Cornwall after the relics of St Petroc were deposited within the church. The faithful were drawn there from far and wide in search of a miracle and the visitors to his shrine became a lucrative income for the church and the town. There is record of a number of Canons visited the relics from France in around 1110, during their visit a blind girl named Kenehellis apparently regained her sight after touching St Petroc’s remains.
Astonishingly the saint’s relics are still on display in St Petroc’s Church today 1000 years later!
Fun Fact: In a bizarre episode these holy remains were actually stolen in 1177 by an Augustinian monk who whisked them away to St Mèen in Brittany. They were eventually recovered and returned to Bodmin in their ivory and metal casket with the help of King Henry II.
The Chapel of the Holy Rood
The biography of Saint Petroc the man, written in the 12th century, refers to two monasteries in Bodmin in the 6th century. One is thought to have stood where the parish church is today and the other was in an area of the town known as Berry. The name ‘Berry’ is thought to come from the Saxon word for settlement and the 16th century three of the town’s guilds decided to pay for the improvement of the small chapel that already stood on the site and the building of a new bell tower.
Work began on 12th September 1501. Stone was brought to Berry from Bodiniel Quarry a mile away on wagons pulled by oxen, while the granite for the windows as well as the battlements on the tower is thought to have been brought from Bodmin Moor. The whole construction project took around ten years.
The labourers only worked on Berry Tower during the summer months and documents dated from the time of its construction note that the tower grew at a seemingly glacial pace. It only rose about 6ft per year. During the winter months the tops of the walls were covered with straw to protect them from rain and then work would begin in the spring.
Berry Tower was eventually completed in 1510 at a cost of around £100, which converts to around £67,000 in today’s money. And it sounds like it was a fine building, the roof was covered with lead sheets, there were wooden floors inside at each of the three levels, its granite pinnacles were topped with brass weathervanes and iron crosses and the final touch, the all important bell to call the local people to prayer.
Unfortunately however the timing could not have been much worse, within 30 years of Berry Tower being completed Henry VIII began his ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. Bodmin’s Friary was dissolved and sold and the Chapel of the Holy Rood was forced to close. By the 18th century the chapel itself had completely vanished and all that remained was Berry Tower. Perhaps the steady care taken in its construction had saved it from collapse.
“Last week at Egloshayle a venerable old lady of 112 years died, who is reported to have been christened in the Old Berry Tower.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 8th march 1906
A Haunted Place?
For many years the site of the Chapel of the Holy Rood lay undisturbed, becoming more and more overgrown, surrounded by its ancient burial ground. In the early 19th century the tower was almost lost forever when the bishop gave the then vicar of Bodmin permission to take it down and use the stone to build himself a new vicarage! The granite pinnacles were removed and apparently turned into drains but fortunately the builder found removing the stone walls so difficult that he told the vicar he would rather bring new materials from the nearby quarry. Again those sturdy building methods saved Berry Tower!
The next chapter came in 1848 when it was decided that the churchyard at St Petroc’s Church was full and it was suggested that the old burial ground at Berry Tower should be reopened. However, apparently this caused a bit of a stir because local people believed that the site was haunted and no one wanted to be buried there.
“No one used Berry Tower [graveyard] as there was a strong prejudice against it and a belief that it was haunted due to some dim memory of ancient tragedy.”Miss Dorothy Wood, Cornish Guardian, 4th May 1961
Dorothy Wood went on to explain that her great-grandmother was the first to be buried at Berry tower graveyard for hundreds of years after her family had been contacted by the mayor, John Basset Collins. Collins asked them to agree to bury the old lady there to break the taboo and it worked. Berry Tower graveyard became the main burial ground until it too became overcrowded in 1858.
I often feel that Bodmin is overlooked as a place to visit in Cornwall. There are so many fascinating places full of history to visit about the town. And Bodmin and its people have certainly left their mark on Cornish history! Standing on a hill north of the town Berry Tower makes an interesting and peaceful place to visit. Another building hiding volumes of history within its silent walls.
I understand that in the past it was possible to climb the tower, a stone staircase wind up one corner, a wonderful experience I am sure, but recently safety concerns have meant that this is no longer possible. Maybe one day . . .