The first mention of religious observance within the borough walls is in connection with a chapel of the Castle, although in various surveys there is another mentioned, a very small one and probably the private chapel of the Earls. The first foundation bearing the Magdalene’s name at Launceston, was a chantry chapel, a private religious establishment existing in the days of the Plantagenet Kings. This was a modest building, and owed its origins not to the feudal lord of the castle, but to the piety of the burghers of the town. The Earl of Moreton had provided two chapels in the castle, both mentioned in the survey of 1338, but in the taxation of Pope Nicholas (1291) there was no mention of St. Mary Magdalene in Launceston, but only of ‘capella de castro’ which is rated at £1 6s. 8d. per annum. By this time the mayor and commonality of the expanding borough had obtained a royal charter, sought the attendance of a priest, and some burgesses desired to have, after the fashion of the time, a perpetual succession of prayers for the prosperity of their families whilst living and the repose of their souls when dead. Also at this time there is mention that during repairs to an existing building, the walls showed traces of an earlier structure which was most probably that of a small chantry chapel dating from the middle ages and to be of a late Norman style. Thus, although there is no written record, this proves the existence of a church on the present day site of St. Marys. Before that there was a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary standing on the opposite side of the street.
It was within the first year of Prior Tredydan’s rule of Launceston Priory that the ‘Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene’ was made parochial. On June 12th, 1380, the mayor and burgesses obtained a licence from Bishop Brantyngham to have service performed in this edifice. It was at this date that the old chantry chapel was extended to accommodate the borough’s increasing population. With the castle chapel falling into disrepair, this building became the principal ecclesiastical edifice in the borough. It is also quite likely that the tower which still overlooks St. Mary Magdalene’s is from this period of time or just after the burgesses had obtained Bishop Brantyngham’s licence.
The intricate worked granite blocks, which give the church its unique carved exterior, were originally intended for a mansion at Trecarell, Trebullett for Sir Henry Trecarell. The reason for this is said to be due to his infant son drowning in his bath and the grief-stricken Sir Henry switched the stone to ecclesiastical use as he decided to build the church instead. How true this story is, is open to conjecture, but what is most certain is that the present church owes its existence to Sir Henry.
This was in 1511, and was to be the third church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene on this site which at that time contained the Parochial Chapel of the Blessed Mary Magdalene of the 14th century along with tenements which were attached to the said chapel. These were purchase and removed so that the site was free for the new construction. As previously mentioned the present tower survives from one of the earlier churches, being built by Edward the Black Prince, who became the first Duke of Cornwall in 1337 and whose capital was Launceston. This explains the fact that the body of the church is not directly connected with its tower, which indeed is on a different line. Between them lies what is now the choir vestry, but at one time, there were two cottages between the church and tower. These were purchased by the Duke of Northumberland who had the Guildhall (then called the Council or Mayoralty Room) built on the site. After a disagreement between the Council and the Vicar over his use of the building as his dressing room, it was decided in 1880 that a new Guildhall would be built on Western Road, and thus, the building passed into the possession of the church. On the eastern face of the tower, below the clock and above the choir vestry can be seen the lines of two former roofs; the upper may have been the line of the roof of the second church. A feature of the church is the chain of shields which runs around its exterior, each bearing a single letter of mark of punctuation in the form of a coat of arms. It spells out in Latin ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord be with thee. The bridegroom loves the bride. Mary hath chosen the best part. O, how terrible and fearful is this place! Truly this is no other than the house of God and the gate of Heaven.’ Spencer Toy found that the original builders had made a mistake for they had inserted one upside down. Thus the apparently mysterious figure 3 which appears on a stone at the north-east corner of the church is in fact a capital ‘E’ upside down and backwards.
Going back to August 1st, 1521, for the purposes of the church a cemetery was required, and to provide this, John Baker, who at some date unknown had succeeded Carlian as Prior, conveyed on behalf of the Convent, the fee of ‘Le Polholme Gardyn’ ( above left, described as lying between the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene on the west part, and the town wall and the road leading to ‘Le Blindhole,’ and to another garden of the Priory on the east side,) to Richard Miller, the then mayor, John Chamond and Henry Trecarrell, esquires, and the burgesses of Launceston, in return for which the mayor and corporation bound themselves to pay yearly at Michaelmas a consideration of six-and-eight-pence. In 1524 the Church had been completed and along with the cemetery was consecrated by Thomas Vyvyan, Prior of Bodmin, and titular Bishop of Maegara, with the deed being signed at Crediton, on June 18th, 1524.
By about 1550, the original lead work of the church had apparently proved inefficient, and the Corporation, having ascertained that a skilful system had been applied to Buckland Church, employed, at their own expense, a plumber to recast and relay the leads upon the Buckland principal.
The register of births, marriages, and deaths in St. Mary Magdalene commenced in 1559.
In 1640 the mayor paid for a large quantity of new glass, which had been put into the church windows, and for ‘nue leadinge one schuchin (escutcheon) of arms;’ also ‘for a boulte for ye mayor’ pue doore, and for mendinge the eight mens (the alderman’s) seats in the churche.’
In 1719, Lord Lansdowne, wrote a letter to Lord Gower, asking that nobleman for aid towards repairing the school and the church at Launceston, of which he was the recorder, and he added that most of the Cornish gentlemen had subscribed. What was the precise nature of the restoration is not known, but whitewash and plaster were abundantly employed, in the approved style of an age which believe the Gothic to be barbarous. Five of the six bells in the tower bear the date 1720, when the restoration was probably completed, and were cast by Abraham Rudhall, of Gloucester.
A commemorative tablet in the church records the death of one John Hardy of Worcester, who died in 1849 in Launceston; as far as is known, he was the last man to die of the cholera in England, but no epidemic ensued, and so grateful were the inhabitants of Launceston that not only did they raise this memorial tablet, but they also observed a day of public thanksgiving and decided to restore the church. The Rev. G. B. Gibbons, then Perpetual Curate, stated that ‘owing to the constant making of new vaults and opening of old ones, the building had in previous years been so undermined that the pillars of the middle aisle had commenced to sink, and, leaning on one side towards the graveyard and on the other towards the street, had had to be braced up by two heavy bars of iron stretching across the central aisle. These rendering the interior as ugly as it was dangerous. Something, however, had to be done, when one rather short shaft, for instance, was as much as seventeen inches out of the perpendicular, and, as a consequence of the old neglect, the whole fabric, though perfectly sound, leans a little even now.’ The woodwork also at the time was also worn and unsightly, and the roof was in need of attention. A working committee was subsequently formed, and subscriptions were sought, with the Duke of Northumberland and others contributing largely. There was a grant of £600 from the ‘aftermath fund’ and a ladies bazaar in 1851 raised about £200, so that the total cost (which was about £2,000) was soon reached. The church was closed for restoration from January to December of 1852, with the Mayoralty Room being used for services, while neighbouring churches accommodated part of the congregation. In the course of the works the vaults beneath the building were filled in or (as in the case of that belonging to the Lawrence family) bricked over and cemented down, new bench seats were placed throughout, and an oak reredos (the gift of John Ching) was erected where previously had stood painted copies of the Ten Commandments, and a couple of antique pictures representing Moses and Aaron. Very shortly afterwards the windows were begun to be filled with stained glass, mainly of representations of Biblical scenes; these were erected by members of the principal families in the town in memory of departed relatives, the only exception being that to Henry Ching, a midshipman in the Royal Navy, who died of yellow fever in Jamaica in 1863, and to whom the window was ‘dedicated by the officers and crew of H.M.S. Shannon, as a tribute of their esteem and a parting token of their regard,’ and that to Henry Trecarrell, the product in 1883 of a subscription organised by Mr. G. M. Gifford among those who had been baptised in the church.
Superstitions concerning the figure of St. Mary (below) which lies outside and under the east window, state that whoever can, in one cast, cause a stone to lodge there will be rewarded with good luck.
‘St. Mary’s Minstrels’ were quite famous, and the church had what might well be called a minstrel’s gallery sited at the back of the church. This was taken down in 1910 which greatly increased the natural lighting. In fact its is due to the choristers of St. Mary’s that Sibardiswyll Hill is no longer known by that name. A visiting Bishop who had fallen asleep in his carriage was awoken as he came up the steep hill by the heavenly singing of the choir who had formed to greet him, and exclaimed in his sedentary state that ‘it was as if he could hear the sound of angels as he ascended to heaven’. From that moment on Sibardiswyll Hill was known as Angel Hill (below left).
Nearby to the memorial to John Hardy, is another interesting memorial tablet from pre-Victorian times; to Thomas Prockter Ching who was shipwrecked in the ‘Torres Straits’ and survived that catastrophe only to meet an even more unhappy fate ‘at the hands of ignorant savages,’ as the inscription puts it. This, its understood to mean that he fell into the hands of cannibals.
For many years the church was used for the storage and use of the borough’s official weights and measures equipment, which were to cause many complaints as cattle and pigs were being weighed in the tower.
The coat of arms that is painted on the face of the church clock are those of the Hockin family, of Gwithian in West Cornwall, and although that at first glance appears to have nothing to do with Launceston, the Mayor of the Borough when the clock was repaired and refurbished around 1830 was Parr Cunningham Hockin. The work was paid for by the Borough Corporation and while one might expect the town coat of arms to have been displayed, perhaps Parr Cunningham regarded the right to put up his personal badge as the prerogative of the chief citizen for the time being. The Corporation, forerunners of today’s Town Council, held the patronage of St. Mary’s for many centuries and it was they who appointed and paid the clergy, as well as keeping the building in repair, assigning the seats and entirely controlling the affairs of the church. This continued until 1847, when they sold the advowson to the Duke of Northumberland (then owner of Werrington Park) for £400. The Duke subsequently gave the patronage to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in 1890 the Archbishop transferred it to the Bishop of Truro, in whom it is still vested.
In 1809-10 the iron railings around St. Mary’s church were purchased from the Tavistock Foundry, at a cost of £222 8s. 3d.; and in 1839 the lime-wash was removed from the granite pillars of the church. On October 30th, 1852, the Corporation sold £513 5s. 3d. of the ‘Aftermath fund,’ giving the proceeds towards the restoration of St. Mary’s. The lower cemetery, formerly a bowling green which had been consecrated in 1843, and the old churchyard were closed for further general interments in 1882. The Burial Board of St. Mary Magdalene then purchased a piece of land at what is now Upper Chapel, which was then consecrated for burials (Launceston Cemetery).
As has been previously mentioned, the Corporation used to meet in the adjoining Council Chamber every Sunday morning and attended St. Mary’s as a body. They sat in the Corporation pews placed originally where the organ now stands. They had their own prayer books, some of which are still preserved.
One of the most interesting features of the church is its wooden pulpit (above right), which dates back to pre-reformation days. It is richly carved, with the upped part divided into canopied niches covered with a floral and scroll design. It bears numerous marks of having been carefully restored in the eighteenth century from injuries previously inflicted on it, possibly during the religious differences of the Civil War. Traces of brush work which can be seen through dark varnish now covering its panels may indicate that at one time coloured figures of the saints were painted on them. Legend has it that the pulpit itself, originally came from North Petherwin. A carpenter, engaged in its repair when in that church, having informed those concerned that it was an old thing not worth mending, and that he would make them a new one of imitation mahogany for less that the other would cost to put in order, and having removed it to Langore, whence it found its way to Launceston. The Rev. T. B. Trentham, writing on the subject, says; ‘There is a tradition that the Launceston pulpit once belonged to North Petherwin, but it is very vague, and I do not think there is a record of such a transfer. I think that the ‘tabernacle work,’ or carved canopies to the panels of the Launceston pulpit, is of earlier date than the rest, which appears to be Jacobean, so that it is not unlikely that when some ancient pulpit of late perpendicular work was broken up, being thought not worth mending, some one may have got hold of the tabernacle work and attached it to the Launceston pulpit, and this may have come from North Petherwin.’
The south porch (below) is covered with ornamentation, including St George and the Dragon and St Martin sharing his coat with a beggar which may refer to former church guilds.
The church’s organ is a fine instrument presented by a member of the Morice family of Werrington Park. The donor was either Sir William Morice, 3rd Baronet (1707–50) or his successor Humphry Morice (1723–85). The casework is most elaborate and is regarded as a superb example of 18th century woodwork; the 18th century pipework is also of very high quality.
John Betjeman wrote that “St Mary Magdalene’s church becomes a medieval triumph of Cornwall” and Simon Jenkins, in 1999 rated St Mary’s among the ‘top hundred of England’s Thousand Best Churches’ one of only two in Cornwall.
The Bells in St. Mary Magdalene Church Tower: 1720 a peal of Six –
No 1 – The FIRE BELL. Legend – GOD SAVE THE KING. 1720.
No 2 – The SANCTIS BELL – PEACE & GOOD NEIGHBOURHOOD 1720
No 3 – A+R PROSPERITY TO THIS TOWN 1720
No 4 – PROSPERITY TO THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND 1720
No 5 – AFR. OF GLOUCESTER CAST US ALL 1720
No 6 – CURFEW BELL – THE PEOPLE TO THE CHVRCH TO CALL
AND TO THE GRAUE TO SVMMON ALL.
In the tower was a list of Eight bells which showed that of these eight those numbered from 3 to 8 once comprised Rudhall’s peal of 6 of 1720. The bells are numbered 4, 5, 6, and 7 and bear 1720 on them and the list shows that number 3 was recast ‘at the expense of John Ching, churchwarden’, by Mears & Stainbank in 1874, and that number 8 was recast by the same firm in 1870 when Northmore Herle Pearse Lawrence & John Ching were churchwardens.
On the 29th June, 1901 – The two Treble bells were added to the peal of the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Launceston, bringing it up to a peal of eight.
St. Mary Magdalene Marriage Registers:
St. Mary Magdalene Church Gallery.