Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen, sacred sites, symbolism, TOLL, travel

A Thousand Miles of History: Under one roof…

We had finally found breakfast in a little café that doubled as a bakery, gallery and bookstore… and there can be no better combination. Well fortified for the rest of the day, we strolled back into the misty little town of St Just. It would have been impolite not to visit the church while we were there. Silly too, as we could tell from the little bit of tower that peeps over the rooftops that it is an old one.

We were greeted in the churchyard by an ancient Celtic cross, bearing a simple carving of Christ with His arms wide open, more weathered, but not unlike the one at Kniveton, the little church that smiled. There is another eroded cross there too, and, we were to find, at least another one inside the church.


Above the entrance to the porch is yet another sundial. Many churches have lost their dials, or have only the face, minus the gnomon, and it was a delight to find so many still intact and bearing interesting designs and details. This one is incised with an angel and a rising sun and is inscribed with the name of Nicholas Reseigh and the Latin motto ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’… ‘Thus passes the glory of the world’.

As soon as you walk in through the south porch, you know this is going to be one those churches that has so much to offer that you would need a book to share everything. There are family histories tied up in the very stones of the place, symbols to decipher, wonderful details carved on the capitals of the arcade and treasures built into the walls.  Everywhere you look, there is something to see.

As we entered and started taking pictures, we were encouraged to explore and write about the church by one of the members of its community. There has been a place of worship here since before records remember. St Just itself is named, in Cornish, ‘Lan Uste’ and a ‘lan’ was an early religious enclosure.

There has, according to the local stories, been a church on the site since it was founded by St Just, also called Iestyn, a fifth century saint and a son of the Cornish King Gereint. Other sources describe St Just as being born a century later, the son of Gereint ap Erbin, King of Dumnonia… the old name for this part of the country… which would make Cador, Duke of Cornwall, one of his brothers. Duke Cador appears in a number of the Arthurian tales as a relative of the legendary King Arthur, thus giving us yet another link to the Matter of Britain.

A new church was built in 1334, and in 1478 William of Worcester records that relics of St Just were still enshrined in the little church. There were two medieval chapels close by and associated with the church… the chapel of St Helen at Cape Cornwall and that of St Michael at Chapel Carn Brae. Along with the windows depicting the dragon-taming archangel, that was enough to give us our link to the Michael line that we were ostensibly here to pursue.

The present church dates almost entirely to the 1400s, with only parts of the chancel remaining from the earlier church. It is, however, one of the loveliest churches we have seen and felt. Unfortunately, the slate roof has deteriorated badly and is in desperate need of replacing. The community is trying to raise funds to be able to qualify for a grant to replace the roof and protect the historic church for future generations. They have launched a Just Giving campaign, that I promised to mention when I wrote about our visit.

There is a lot to protect here. Just inside the porch is the font, a rather unusual hexagonal affair with scenes from the story of Noah’s Ark and the tetragrammaton in Hebrew, the four letters YHWH, the biblical name of God we know as Yahweh or Jehovah.

Beside it is another stone that looks like a small stoup or even smaller font. It came from the little chapel of St Helen, outside of the town near the sea, but as the chapel would not have been granted leave to perform baptisms or keep holy water, the true purpose of the stone is unknown.

The limestone pillars of the arcade are topped with intricate carvings, including one that shows a ‘lovers’ knot’… which is possibly a reference to the fishing industry in the area. There are vines, leaves and shields and, throughout the church, there are details that refer to local families, like the carved fifteenth century bench end, showing six swallows, three scallop shells and a crescent moon.

The stained glass is particularly good, with one window commemorating the eighteen-year old lighthouse-keeper, Owen Boyle, who was washed away by a wave at Longships Lighthouse in 1877. His was the fifth death in the first four years after the lighthouse was built.

Another marine legend is also commemorated here. The flag, the White Ensign, was given to the church for safekeeping by Captain Russell Grenfell. It last flew on HMS Revenge at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

A memorial window commemorates the local people who died in WWI and is unusual for showing an ordinary soldier, rather than an officer, at the foot of the Cross.

The elaborate tracery of the east window… the stone ‘frame’ that supports the stained glass… is fourteenth or fifteenth century and is an unusual design, looking like the branching leaves of a palm tree.

There are echoes of past times everywhere. On opposite walls of the church there are the narrow entrances and stairs that once led up to the loft above the carved wooden rood screen. These screens were ordered to be removed after the Reformation and many were lost. In St Just, the screen remains… recycled to make the altar rails and frontal for the Lady Chapel.

Recycled too is the Celtic stone cross shaft, over fifteen hundred years old, that was built into the wall of the church long, long ago.

Near the back of the church is another stone, the Selus Stone, that also dates back around fifteen hundred years. On the front it bears the Chi-rho symbol, and the side is  carved with a Latin inscription, ‘Selus Ic Iacet’…’ Selus made me’. This is thought to be a memorial to St Selevan, also known as Salomon of Cornwall, a warrior prince and possibly the brother of St Iestyn, the founder of the original church on the site. Which would make Selevan too a relative of the legendary Arthur.

And just when you think a church can offer you no more, there is more… much more. A memorial to Francis Oats, who died in 1918… he was nicknamed ‘Diamond Ring’ and, with Cecil Rhodes was part of the De Beers diamond company in South Africa. His three grandsons are also mentioned on the memorial, all of whom were killed in WWII, showing how little worth diamonds have against that of a human life. Another plaque from the eighteenth century tells how a mother mourned her child.

Behind the altar, carved in 1896 in alabaster carried from our more usual playground in Derbyshire, is a magnificent reredos showing fourteen Cornish saints and scenes from the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi.

And, to top the rest, there are medieval wall paintings, over five hundred years old. One shows Christ, dressed for work in no more than a loin cloth, blessing the tools of local tradesmen.

The other is a depiction of St George and the Dragon. Although I may have told a slightly different version of the tale in a poem a while ago, the traditional story tells that a dragon was terrorising the land and, to ward off the worst of its depredations, the people offered it first sheep, then men… and finally, even the children, whose fate was sealed by drawing lots.

The princess of the land drew the short straw and, although her father offered all he had to spare her, she was sent to the dragon. Enter St George, who found the princess, subdued the beast beneath the point of his blade, then bound it with the princess’ girdle. The dragon followed her like a lamb into the town… then the story goes on to say how it was slain.  Later interpretations Christianise and literalise the myth by saying that George slew the Devil… or all evil… instead of looking at a rather more mystical interpretation, which seems a more likely possibility…

You just would not believe that so much could be packed into such a small church… and I have only shared the highlights here.  We even had a parting gift of a hexagram that tied in with our Patterns in the Landscape weekend, two days before. You need to go there, feel the atmosphere, meet the people and see for yourself why this little church should be preserved. The loss of the traditional fishing and mining industries have cost St Just dearly over the past decades… it should not have to lose the heart of its church too.

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