St Breaca – A Saintly Conundrum.

Amidst the chaos of house building I have been researching early medieval Cornwall as the backdrop to the new Sarah Tremayne novel.  One question which arose was – exactly how Christian were the locals?  At what point did Christianity take a firm hold?  And how were those who did not adhere to the new religion treated?  As a result I have been investigating early medieval Christianity with a great deal of frustration…the following blog serves to highlight a few of the issues using one of the more obscure Saints as an example.

In the small parish of Germoe partway between the Penwith peninsula and the Lizard is the village of Breage. It is an easy village to miss, the main road skirts its edges and unless you have done your research any ordinary person might just drive on by. However, there are several good reasons to stop and visit. The church is the focal point of the village and it is here you will find a number of medieval scenes painted on the walls of the church, a Roman waymarker dedicated to the Emperor Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus dated to between 258-268AD. (see an earlier post ‘The Frescoes of Breage’)

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The Church in Breage.

There are also several interesting stone crosses within the walls of the churchyard. The earliest is situated near to the front door and is likely to date between the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Carved from red sandstone it would have been highly decorated when first erected. Today only a little of this elaborate carving can be seen furthermore it is not in its original position, the cross was found buried in the churchyard and placed where it currently stands. The use of sandstone is very unusual, as the majority of Cornish crosses are carved from local granite. The cross has been described as a “four holed wheel cross with Hiberno-Saxon decoration” (N. Pevsner 1951 The Buildings of England: Cornwall).

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The early sandstone cross.

The church yard is also of interest, it is easy to discern its round shape, a feature often regarded as an indication of antiquity. Early Celtic missions would construct an enclosure around their settlement and in Cornish the prefix “Lan” is often found in conjunction with such sites.
Meaning church enclosure, it normally described an Early Christian foundation of the Celtic Church within a round or oval earthwork, usually a re-used prehistoric site. Parish churches still occupy many of these sites…” (C. Weatherhill 1998 Cornish Placenames and Language).
The church you see today was dedicated to St Breaca on the 26th December 1456 completely replacing the earlier Norman church. The earliest mention of Breage in documents is just prior to 1066 when the village was called “Eglosbrek” or “Eglospenbro” (the latter refers to the farm of Penbro) and was part of the large manor of Winnianton. By 1264 the church was being referred to St Breaca’s.

St Breaca is one of the many saints’ names which litter the Cornish landscape, however very little is known about her. A hagiography written in the late fourteenth century and which is now lost, recorded the lives of many Cornish saints. John Leland during his itinerary of 1540 did record parts of this lost hagiography as was pertinent to his travels.
According to Leland Breaca was born in the region of Lagonia and Ultonia in Ireland and she became a nun at the oratory founded by St Brigid of Kildare. At around the 460AD she travelled to Cornwall with seven other Irish saints – Germoe, Senanus (Sithney), Mavuanus (Mawgan), Elwen, Crowan, Helena and Tecia. They settled at Revyar on the River Hayle but some were killed by the tyrant king Tewdwr Mawr of Penwith. Breaca then travelled onwards visiting Castle Pencaire and establishing a church at Chynoweth. When she died the church was moved to its present location and many miracles occurred at her tomb.

Hayle_Harbour_slipway_-_geograph.org.uk_-_179114
A view of the harbour at Hayle – one of only a few safe anchorages on the north coast of Cornwall. (from wikicommons -geograph.co.uk 179114)

On the face of it this is a good story but closer inspection reveals that a number of the story elements can be found elsewhere in other local saintly stories. Conflict with a local pagan tyrant, establishment of a hermitage in a remote part of the land, an Irish origin and connection with a more well known Saint. Simply read and compare the stories of St Ia or St Gwinear and you begin to get a feel for the standard hagiography, many of which were written some thousand years after the Saint concerned had lived and died. It is not surprising that the more obscure saints such at Breaca ended up with a mash up story for her life.

So is there any hope in finding out the real story behind St Breaca? Possibly. But first we need to look at the much wider picture.

Cornwall during the Roman period appears to be semi autonomous and although the Romans were in complete control of trade, life in Cornwall went on much as it had during the Iron Age. The impact of the Roman Legions leaving Britain in 410AD would have had a minimal effect on Cornwall even if the repercussions in other parts of the country were felt keenly for several decades. Political manoeuvring (and warfare) in the mid fifth century resulted in Cornwall becoming part of the kingdom of Dumnonia which spread from the far west of Cornwall up into south Somerset. Into this seemingly unsettled time the Irish missionaries appear.

There is some conflict on how many Irish came to Cornwall, some accounts say few as seven others seven hundred and seventy seven. In 1899 Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about the Cornish saints, he believe that it was a much greater number which arrived on the Cornish shores but with a less than peaceful mission. For Baring-Gould this was an invasion, hence the bloody reaction from Tewdwr in slaughtering, thus martyring, a number of the Irish (St Ia being the most well known). Interestingly St Germoe who was said to be one of St Breaca’s companions was according to legend a king in Ireland – a claim not yet substantiated.

The invasion theory may sound a little far-fetched but given that the Cornish as a rule over the centuries were more than amicable with all their neighbours along the Atlantic seaboard an outright slaughter of a peaceful mission of Christians seems also far-fetched. Tewdwr is often portrayed as a pagan tyrant and this comes to us from a time when our pagan past was seen as a dark time, he becomes the demon which our Christian saints have to triumph over. Afterall, who triumphed in the end? Who wrote the hagiographies?

It is believed that later Tudor era writers used Tewdwr (who was not a king, more a local chief/lord) to lampoon and criticise Henry VII in the wake of his crushing defeat of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. If this is the case it is perhaps necessary to take much of what is said about the “tyrant” with a grain of salt.

Those who escaped the battle (irrespective of who started it) would have fled to remoter parts of Cornwall perhaps seeking protection from local and more sympathetic chiefs.
This may be where St Breaca’s story has a ring of truth about it. She is said to have visited Castle Pencaire before setting up home at Chynoweth on the lower slopes of Tregonning Hill. Castle Pencaire is situated on the summit of Tregonning Hill and was originally an Iron Age hillfort. Although there is no current evidence (much later mining works have almost completely destroyed the inside of the hillfort) for its reoccupation during St Breaca’s time it is strong possibility. Other Iron Age hillforts were temporarily reoccupied at this time, such as Chun Castle in West Penwith, and why would Breaca visit an ‘abandoned’ antiquity? If Breaca wished to establish a mission in the local area she would have realised the importance of asking permission from the local chieftain/lord, his goodwill would have been important to the success of her mission.

breage map
An ordnance survey map of the area around Breage (bottom right) from the late 1800s.  Tregonning Hill (Castle Pencaire) is the area of open moorland above and to the left of Breage.

The question does remain when did she arrive and was she actually Irish? The date of her arrival will never be satisfactorily agreed upon, it will have to be enough to say she arrived sometime in the late fifth but not later than the early sixth centuries AD. Was she with that first flux of Irish? This we will never know, the later successes of Irish saints would suggest there were several voyages to the Cornish coast.

The presence of the early cross with its “Hiberno-Saxon” decoration might point towards a later commemoration of an Irish saint, the use of sandstone rather than granite could be explained by one of two ways. Either the stone was carved elsewhere and then brought to Breage or the stonemason was not from Cornwall and did not have the skills needed to carve in granite.

Breaca is occasionally mentioned in writings from other parts of the county. In 1478 William Worcester refers to her feast day as being May 1st even though in later times her feast day is celebrated on June 4th and is appears to be quite an important festival. An idiom recorded in the village of Germoe in the 18th century refers to their patron saint – Germoe – as a king but Breaca was a midwife. The 19th century residents of St Leven believed Breaca to be the sister to the villages’ patron saint – Selevan or Salaman.
In all likelihood we will never know the truth of St Breaca but it has been fun trying to find out…

 

 

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