A Beginners' Guide to Identifying a ‘Maritime Church’

The key to understanding whether a church is a ‘maritime church’ is entirely determined by its relationship with its community. Whether it is located by a waterway, the coast or embedded within the headland - if it has been historically utilised to celebrate and embody some form of maritime identity – it can indeed be defined as a ‘maritime church’. The church has often provided a centre for its community and thus historically in Britain was placed at the heart of a village or town (and usually in close proximity to a quintessentially British pub or public house!). Therefore, the first step in identifying whether a church possesses a connection to the sea and sea-faring narratives, is by physically exploring its interior and outer fabric. To provide an idea of the ‘tell-tale’ signs to look for when exploring your own maritime churches, I’ll provide examples from Cornwall in the UK. It is a duchy, located in the far west of Great Britain on a peninsula tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean and bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, to the south by the English Channel, and to the east by the River Tamar. Cornwall is subsequently a fantastic location to delve into this undisturbed subject area.

Fig. 1 As you wander around the churchyard of St. Keverne in Cornwall, UK, you will come across other graves and mementoes from long past wrecks, like a carronade from H.M.S. Primrose, and a memorial plaque to John Smith, a radio telegraphist, who lost his life in the Titanic.

In the case of St. Keverne (fig. 1) along the east coast of Cornwall in the UK, many church-town men bore shipwrecked bodies to the graveyard where they would have Christian burials, laid to rest under the shadow of the old Church. Exactly how many ships have come to grief on the ragged ‘Manacles’ is not known, however just by looking around the graveyard at St. Keverne, we can determine many hundreds of people have been drowned upon those treacherous rocks. Thanks to the discoveries made by divers, the tragedies attached to shipwrecks have leapt the void of history and are once again ‘real’. This link with the past is one of the great fascinations of wreck diving, and sheds light on why so many memorials are scattered in churches all along the Cornish coast. Collections of shipwreck remnants can also shed light on these sad happenings – from the Treasure Museum in Charlestown to an informal display at the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance. Churches such as St Winwaloe’s at Gunwalloe also tap into this ‘wrecking’ and ‘looting’ narrative, displaying panels as a door, which were supposedly salvaged from a sixteenth-century Portuguese merchant carrack, known as St Anthony, and lost to the treacherous waters around the south coast.  

Exploring interiors of churches is thus the next step to determining how far local craftspeople were engaged in maritime trades. Fishing, trade and shipbuilding has prominently contributed to Cornwall’s local distinctiveness and the decorative art, furniture and architecture of its churches. For instance, Porthleven’s local church, St Bartholomew’s, was built between 1839 and 1842 and was at one time, dependent largely upon a successful pilchard season. Not only does it sit near the harbour and has many graves of mariners, fishermen and sailors but possesses highly decorative interiors that symbolise a fishing identity. The rood screen forms an anchor, an oak pew has a carving representing fishing and farming interests as well as a wrought-iron pulpit which has brass stencils of fish, starfish and anchors.

Certain churches also contain upturned ships as their core infrastructure, such as St Anthony of the Roseland Peninsula and Lanteglos Church of Polruan. Rather interestingly, the restoration of both these churches’ roofs stem from the reign of King Henry VIII who was committed to defending Britain from foreign invaders by building a line of castle forts across the Cornish coastline. According to 1950s poet Edward Hart, Henry VIII patronised the restoration of St Anthony’s as a gesture towards its landowner, Admiral Spry, who thwarted French naval attempts to invade via Falmouth. Then if you look at the local shipyard in Polruan today, you are witnessing a site that has built and repaired ships and boats for centuries. Modern day craftsmen follow a lengthy line of skilled shipwrights, whose ancestors in Fowey and Polruan were working alongside men from Devon and Yorkshire on the ‘Henry Grace A Dieu’, around 1516 when the Royal Navy began to take shape.

St Senara’s Church in Zennor (fig. 2) is then a player in a famous fisherman’s folktale and possesses a historic wooden pew with a beautifully carved mermaid at its bench-end. You can see images of it here.

Fig. 2  St Senara’s Church, Zennor, c. 15th century.

Rather than discard stories that seem ‘nonsensical’, it is important to work out how folktales and myths evolved through maritime communities. For instance, St Senara’s mermaid myth was most probably conjured by fisherman to rationalise a poor pilchard season, or the high volume of deaths caused by the treacherous surrounding coastline. Cornish droll tellers were key to transforming stories from around the globe to make them relevant to Cornwall in particular. Moving from place to place is consequently embedded within the duchy’s mythology and reminds us that stories were told by pilgrims and passing travellers. It is important to take note of any stories or local tales that surround the church, as they would be the result of an oral tradition that has perhaps travelled centuries and represents the trade and distinct identity of former settlers.

Ultimately, I would recommend venturing out to experience coastal landscapes in as many ways as you are able. From walking coastal trails, to kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming or sailing, it is important to engage with the landscape and its landmarks as people have before us. Once you recognise the church as a geographical way-marker from the perspective of the sea, it is easier to perceive the church building as something more than a religious site. Instead, it is a place of security and sanctuary that has either offered guidance, a sense of direction or a consecrated burial place for many a lost mariner at sea, who has succumbed to tempestuous conditions and poor visibility.  

Victoria has produced a 3-part documentary from her research with maritime communities and churches across Cornwall in the UK. You can watch the first episode below. Watch the second episode live this Friday (21 May) here.

About the writer:

My name is Victoria Jenner and I have been steering a cultural heritage project in Cornwall, UK, entitled ‘Cornwall’s Maritime Churches Project’. My undergraduate thesis was concerned with how Victorian travel literature generated picturesque ideas around Tintagel (a historic maritime town and tourist hotspot located on the Northwest coastline of Cornwall) and how these fictional renditions were encouraging its link with Arthurian Celtic legend. I then compared these romantic ideas with modern day perceptions – from both national and local people - and in turn, I became very familiar with the local inhabitants and those in the parish community of St Materiana’s Maritime Church.  

Whilst exploring the interior and outer fabric of this church, I was aware of its immediate landscape upon the ragged cliffs overlooking Earl Richard’s ruinous castle surrounded by the Celtic Sea – and realised there was more to say about this church’s role in Tintagel’s maritime identity. Not only do we have an abundance of literature and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, propelling forward notions that Tintagel was a legendary Arthurian landmark that very much fits into its image today, but we have physical reminders that this beautiful church has witnessed shipwreck and participated in fishing, slate mining and a long history of trade and interaction with passing travelers and pilgrims, facilitated by its unique position.  

Image Credits:

Header Image: Three Turns Tavern, Edward Wearne and a young Marjorie, taken 1896-1920, Image Credit: Historic England Archive

fig. 1 St Keverne Village Square, near to St Keverne, Cornwall, Great Britain, 8 April 2010, Tony Atkin / St Keverne Village Square / CC BY-SA 2.0/ [link]

fig. 2 St Senara's Church, Zennor The parish of Zennor is named after Saint Senara to whom the church is dedicated25 April 2008, Pauline Eccles. [link]

Note: All views and opinions expressed are the author's own. If you feel there is missing information or wish to discuss any of the works please contact me.