THE PATRON SAINT
In, this respect St. Neot would seem to be Saxon rather than Celtic, and one wonders if this fact has been partly responsible for the well-established belief that the patron saint of the parish was Neot, the relative and friend of King Alfred and the patron, also, of St. Neots in Huntingdonshire. It is more than possible, however, that two different Saints, a Celtic and a Saxon saint, have been confused. In "The Life of King Alfred" by his contemporary, Bishop Asser, it is recounted that Alfred when on a hunting expedition in Cornwall prayed at the shrine of a certain Saint Gueryr, where he was healed of his sickness. We do not know where this shrine was and there is no record of Saint Gueryr in Cornwall or, indeed anywhere else. In the account as we now have it the words "and now also St. Neot lies there" have been added. This phrase is almost without doubt a later interpolation for which Bishop Asser was not responsible. On this doubtful and slender evidence the association of the Cornish Neot with King Alfred became well established. It was believed that the bones of the saint were removed to Huntingdonshire during the tenth century and a splendid piece of doggerel verse preserved on a board in the church firmly identifies itself with the Saxon legend. Against this it is impossible to cite clear evidence, but the stories that have grown up around St. Neot, many of which are pictured in a glorious strip cartoon in one of the church windows are essentially Celtic in character, not Saxon. Moreover, we know that in the eleventh century the village was called St. Anietus, not St. Neot, and that it contained a small house of monks. When we add to this the existence of a holy well and the finest of all Cornish Celtic crosses in the churchyard it seems clear that the Cornish Neot had nothing to do with the royal house of Wessex.
THE PARISH CHURCH
The nave and south aisle of the church date from the fifteenth century, the tower from a little earlier. The list of vicars is complete from 1266 but there are no traces of an earlier building. The church is magnificently sited and was so designed that it showed its best side to the south. Here the south aisle is embattled and the porch with its upper storey is incorporated in the scheme. The date of this is approximately 1425. The north aisle, which was built about a hundred years later and which faces into the sharply rising hillside, is of much plainer proportions.
THE CHURCH WINDOWS
The glory of the church is its stained glass, most of which dates from the early sixteenth century. It was a good deal restored and renewed by John Hedgeland in 1830 but in twelve of the windows half the glass is original.
It would seem that the original intention to provide in these windows a conspectus of Old Testament history had to be abandoned for lack of funds. The promotor of the scheme (probably Parson Tubbe who was vicar from 1508 to 1544) had to turn to the principal families in the parish for help, and they were more interested in representations of their favourite saints and indeed, of themselves. So the next window in the south aisle was given by the Borlase family and shows a very fine St. Christopher with the Christchild on his shoulder, St. Neot, St. Leonard and St. Catherine with the Borlase family depicted beneath. This is followed by the Martyn Window in which is portrayed the Virgin and Child, the crucified Christ, St. John the Evangelist and St. Stephen. This window was formerly at the east end of the north aisle which explains why the members of the donor family are shown kneeling inwards, facing the centre.
The three remaining windows on the south side were presented by the Motton, Callaway and Tubbe families. The Motton Window shows the four Evangelists, the Callaway Window presents St. Stephen on the right with St. John, St. German and an unknown saint whom Hedgeland thought to be St. Callaway but is, in fact, St. Lalluwy, patron of Menheniot some ten miles away and probably chosen because his name so closely resembles that of the donor family. The kneeling priest at the bottom of the window is Robert Tubbe who was related to the Callaways. Certainly he deserves his memorial in a place to which he has given such great beauty. The Tubbe Window next to the south door of the church shows St. Paul, St. Peter, Christ the King and St. James with the arms of the Callaway and Tubbe families beneath. The last of the family windows is in the north aisle, just to the west of the screen. This presents St. John, St. Gregory, St. Leonard and St. Andrew with the Harys family, the donors, below.
It would seem that this exhausted the supply of well-to-do families and it became necessary to rely on public subscription again. Next to the Harys Window is one presented by wives of the western part of the parish. Two of the saints depicted here are of local interest. St. Mabena is the patron of the nearby parish of St. Mabyn and St. Maubred of Cardinham. The remaining figures portray Our Lady of Pity and the Risen Christ. Kneeling figures representing the donors of the window are shown beneath as they are in the next window to the west which was given by the young women of the parish. This depicts St. Patrick-not the patron saint of Ireland but an obscure hermit who lived on Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound-St. Clarus, patron of St. Cleer, St. Manacus of Lanreath and another figure whom Hedgeland identified as St. Brechan, a Welsh saint, with his numerous progeny, but which is more likely to be God with souls in His lap.
The remaining window on the north side is the most famous of all, the St. Neot Window which was given by the young men of the parish. This presents with a charming simplicity a series of incidents from the life of the saints. The west window of the north aisle is the St. George Window.
The east window over the high alter is entirely Hedgeland's work and so are the two in the organ chamber. The Armorial Window to the left of the south door was also designed by him. No major work has been carried out on the windows since Hedgeland's restoration. Some small repairs were executed in the 1930's and again in 1970 when the windows were expertly cleaned.
The stained glass, as we have said, is the glory of the church. St. Neot was fortunate; the windows came just in time before the Reformation laid its mark of bleak austerity on so many of our parish churches. They came towards the end of a period of tremendous building activity in this county, an age that gave us Bodmin Parish Church, the magnificent south face of St. Mary's, Launceston, and Cotehele House. The people of St. Neot and the many visitors can well be thankful for the piety and generosity of these sixteenth century donors, known and unknown, who have given to this remote place such a legacy of beauty.
At the west end of the north aisle is a very fine early seventeenth century slate tomb chest on which the kneeling figure of William Bere and his wife are carved in bold relief. Beneath the Latin inscription with its grim reminder, "Sum quod eris" (I am what you will be) is carved a very competent piece of rhyming verse. It begins, as is typical of the period, with the punning phrase:
"Here Iyeth Bere whom Angells to heaven beare", and then eulogises the deceased:
"Faithful he was to friends, skilfull in lawe of man:
Practis'd in law of god"-and then, after reminding the reader of the certainty of death, it concludes on a happier note:
"So when thou diest thy death no death shall be
But passage unto life, the god of lyfe to see".
Slate is an excellent medium for the carver's art, and there are a number of good examples in Cornwall, some sixty-four in forty-seven parish churches. The St. Neot monument carved in black slate from a local quarry is in almost perfect condition.
High on the north wall at the east end of the church is a copy of the letter written by King Charles from "his camp at Sudeley Castle, the 10th September, 1643", to the inhabitants of the county of Cornwall-"that as we cannot be forgetful of so great desert so we cannot but
desire to publish it to all the world, and perpetuate to all time the memory of their merits, and of our acceptance of the same; and to that end we do hereby render our royal thanks to that our county in the most public and lasting manner we can devise, commanding copies hereof to be printed and published, and one of then to be read in every church and chapel therein, and to be kept for ever as a record in the same". St. Neot, like many other Comish churches, has a copy of this letter painted on board.
St. Neot, despite its remote position, felt the effects of the Civil War. The engagement at Braddock Down in January, 1643, was fought only four miles away, and there was much coming and going of troops in the district during the Lostwithiel campaign. During the Interregnum Joseph May, who held the incumbency of St. Neot in plurality with that of St. Austell, was ejected from the living and in 1680 Thomas Philpe, the vicar inducted in 1660 after the king had
enjoyed his own again, wrote plaintively of the ruinous condition of the vicarage when he came to it. He gives a dismal tale of the levelling of hedges, the cutting down of the apple trees, the burning of the rafters and other timber "both of the dwelling and outhouses, taking away the glass and the iron bars of the windows so that all was in the high way to total devastation and one of those spoylers found of ability to make the least satisfaction so that the incumbent was necessitated to betake himself forthwith to building if he would have any house to put his head in
Certainly St. Neot is Royalist and every year on Oak Apple Day, 29th May, church people go to the roof of the tower to take down last year's oak branch and substitute a new one. If you stand outside the south porch you will see it peeping over the battlements.
The canopied recess on the north side of the sanctuary is popularly supposed to have contained the shrine of St. Neot, but it is more likely to have been an Easter Sepulchre. Within it are faint traces of a mural painting. A squint pierces the wall between the north aisle and the sanctuary. A squint allowed a leper to watch the priest as he celebrated. In 1313, Sir Philip (the Vicar) became a leper. Bishop Stapledon of Exeter appinted a co-adjutor Vicar to carry out the duties of the Parish Priest. The stone tunnel vaults of the south porch and of the tower are of worthy notice. "The ground-floor of the tower has a stone vault (or ceiling) of pointed tunnel shape with transverse arches unique in Cornwall" (Nikolaus Pevsner).
THE ANCIENT CROSSES
Just outside the church door stands the upright of a granite cross richly ornamented with Celtic interlacings. Each of the four sides of the shaft is decorated in this fashion with a great variety of patterns. The ancient Cornish crosses are generally inferior in design to the Irish, the Welsh and the Northumbrian because granite is a difficult stone to work, but the St. Neot cross shaft is an excellent example, perhaps the finest in Cornwall. It probably dates from the tenth century. We have documentary evidence of the existence of a college of priests at St. Neot at the time of the Norman Conquest, and there can be no doubt that this cross was associated with the college. Four other ancient crosses stand near by. There is a lantern cross which came from St. Kew and three fifteenth century Latin crosses, which were formerly in the vicarage garden. One of these came originally from the Crowpound on Goonzion Down and probably gave its name for "crows" is Cornish for "cross". There are several other ancient crosses in the parish: at Hultown, Polmenna, Newton, Tredennick Chapel and at Wenmouth Cross, half-a-mile to the east of the village, and the famous Fourhole Cross on the A30.
THE HOLY WELL
The holy well is some three hundred yards from the church. It stands near the St. Neot river in a level meadow backed by a steep bank planted with trees. One reaches it by turning in beside the Carlyon Garage. Michell, in his Parochial History of St. Neots, 1833, states: "That there was an arch of stones over it, with a large oak springing from the arch, and with doors to the entrance, was remembered by some old inhabitants of the parish lately deceased Weakly children used within memory to be brought here".
The St. Neot well house was rebuilt in 1862, a simple but pleasant building which is plainly visible from the road on Goonzion Down more than half a mile away.