Some notes on the history of the Church and Parish of St. Ewe for Visitors

by Ivor Herring, author of "400 Years of Tremaynes at Heligan"


The Saint and the Parish

St Ewe was a Celtic saint, though no one knows what sex. His (or her) name is variously spelt YWA, EUWA and later ST. TUE. Cornish saints are not necessarily “saints” as we think of them today. Some of them were indeed holy men or hermits but sometimes they were merely missionaries or younger sons of chieftains who took up “social work.” There was much “saintly traffic” across Cornwall during the Dark Ages between Wales and Brittany in both of which countries there were earlier Christian foundations. St. Theo of Bodeo in Brittany may have been the same person.

Whoever he or she was, the early missionaries probably sailed up the river from Porthluney (Caerhayes Castle) which was then navigable up to Polmassick, and for safety established a settlement on the high ground to the South-west of the present church at Lanewa (now Lanau). The prefix “Lan” indicates a burial ground which was frequently established by the early Christians even before they built a church. The saint’s name is also preserved elsewhere in the parish, as in Bosue (the House of Ewe) and Trelewack, a nearby farm. We know that there was a Celtic monastery at Lanua in the sixth century but the manor is not mentioned until 1347. Other manors are mentioned in the Domesday Book - Tucoyse, Trewerrick, Lanhadron and Lavalsa.

The parish is first mentioned by name in 1921 but the earliest recorded rector was William Bloyon in 1310; between then and 1910 the names of forty rectors are recorded. One of these resigned in 1450 “because he could not speak the Cornish tongue” and in 1559 Parson Hugh Atwell earned fame throughout the West country as a benefactor and physician. - “The poor saylers praise and the parson of Twe in Cornwall who feedeth the hungrie, helpeth the sick, cureth the hurte, etc.” His favourtie remedies were milk and apples. He was also an ancestor of the famous artist Mabel Lucie Atwell.

The parish has had its ups and downs. In 1745 the Bishop of Exeter was informed that St. Tue had “180 families and one family of Quakers, two or three poor women keep school and the Rector mostly resides elsewhere.”

In 1812, we learn that “The Principles of the Parish are farmers who attend more in their farms than in their Church”! In 1821 there were 301 families in 269 houses, totalling 1663 souls in all but “Most of the men are sojourners and should the mines stop, they must remove as paupers.” This was the heyday of the Happy Union Mine in the North of the Parish. In 1864 however, “Six gentlemen’s carriages drive to church every Sunday.” Today the population of the Parish is a little over 600.

The Church

The Church was rebuilt by the Normans on its present site about 1120. The foundations of the Chancel and Nave were found when a trench was dug round the outside in 1866. The Font is Norman, dating from the middle of the XIIth Century. Unfortunately the shafts were wrongly set in Victorian times when they were repaired and renewed. The area round the Font accommodated a locally recuited band in the days before harmoniums and organs. The village stocks are kept here to preserve them. The North Porch (the entrance you probably came in by) was build in XIVth Century. The bases of the outer arch are not perpendicular, giving the entrance a horseshoe shape. The Tower, of which more later, was added at the same time. Between 1390 and 1400 the South Aisle was built. Note the waggon roof with its finely carved bosses. These were repeated at a later date in the Transept roof over the Vestry. The pillars separating the Nave from the South Aisle have a curious feature. There are five of them forming an “Arcade” with a respond (a “half pillar”) at the East and West ends but the design on the capitals of the two outside ones is different from the middle three. Moreover, the workmanship on the one at the West end (opposite the doors) is much rougher, almost as it an apprentice was permitted to “have a go.”

The Rood Screen

The Rood Screen is unique and the most interesting thing in the church, It is -the only one of its kind and age in Cornwall-to have escaped the destruction by Cormwell’s soldiers. Although it is now set across the Chancel entrance it was probably originally across the Transept Arch leading to the South Aisle, where the Lady Chapel is now. This was then the Tregonan Chapel, the private chapel of the Tredenham family whose influence apparently was strong enough to restrain the vandals.

Traditionally, Cornish Screens have five bays, but this one now has seven as an extra bay was added at each end to make it fit its present position in the last century when its red and gilt paint was also removed.

The Cornice at the top which originally carried a rood loft depicts Old Testament animals. Below that, the vaulting is beautifully carved and deserves close inspection; the instruments of Our Lord’s Passion are shown at either end. The supporting pillars are each carved differently with leaves and figures. A king and queen can be found on the right of the door and a knight and his lady on the left, both apparently in Purgatory, (perhaps a mediaeval worker’s protest?) and on the right hand doorpost is the head of a piskey. The inclusion of seaweed in the design of the leaves and tendrils is a unique Cornish feature. The original screen was probably carved during the 15th Century with some additions in the 16th [Century], by a band of travelling craftsmen. Examples of the trail of stem and leaves are found at Mullion and other Cornish churches.

The Pulpit

In mediaeval times the congregation had to stand up in church; the only seating was a few benches round the walls for the sick and aged. Hence the expression “the weakest go to the wall.” The carved ends of three of these benches are embodied in the pulpit.


In the South Aisle there are several monuments, one dated 1699. In the aisle floor is a slate memorial bearing the coat of arms of the Tremayne family, squires at Heligan since 1513. showing Three Hands (tres mains) a French pun on the family name. The Tredenham and Tremayne funeral hatchments stand in the church and there are memorials to Sir Joseph Tredenham (1705) and John William Hope the son of a Rector who became head of a banking firm and died in 1813 leaving over half a million pounds.

The Tower and Churchyard

As you come out of the North Porch you will see the St. Ewe camellia, a variety bred at Caerhayes Castle, and a mass of pink blooms in the Spring. The Tower, built about 1350, has squinches at each corner supporting a Broached Spire, that is, one rising from the tower without a parapet. The decorations towards the apex called a “quatre foil string course” are rare; the weather vane has been there since 1696. The bell tower housed three bells in 1547 but over the centuries they have been cast and re-cast until in 1926 more metal was added and six bells were cast and hung in pairs above each other in what is reputed to be the smallest bell tower in England. Outside the North wall of the Chancel is an alter slab dated 1447 which probably originally stood under the East window. The two stones on the East wall bearing the inscription “W.P. 1636” were obviously put there long after the wall was built. The churchyard contains a variety of interesting inscriptions on the headstones, two of which are worth quoting. The first unfortunately cannot now be found, but was inscribed on an 18th century headstone, probably composed by a waspish ‘in-law’.

“Here lies the body of Jane Carthew,
Born at St. Columb, died at St. Ewe
Children she had five,
Three are dead, two alive,
Those that are dead choosing rather
to die with Mother than live with Father.”

The other can be seen on the headstone of William Rosevear, by the wall of the cottage garden on the West boundary, the second grave from the end near the tower, and reads: -

“Time was we stood where thou do’t now
and view the dead as thou dost we.
Ere long thou’st lay as low as we
and others stand to look on thee.”

A salutary reminder!

At the Entrance Gate a granite Sheep Grid prevented animals from straying into the churchyard and outside in the Churchtown there is the St. Ewe Cross. The base is of considerable antiquity and is set four-square to the points of the compass and not orientated to the village. The central pillar is probably the shaft of an ancient cross brought from elsewhere, at one time it carried a sundial. The base has come in for use variously as a mounting block, a backing for the village stocks, and an auctioneer’s rostrum at the St. Ewe Fairs which were held in April and October.


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