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A watercolour of St Piran’s Church before its dismantlement in the 19th century. St Piran’s Cross and a dwelling are shown on the right of the painting.

It is generally argued that St Piran’s Church was built following the abandonment of St Piran’s Oratory, though it is possible that both the Church and Oratory co-existed for some time.  It has also been suggested that the Church and associated graveyard are positioned within an earlier pre-historic enclosure or round.  The well-known St Piran’s Cross, which stands within the enclosure, certainly pre-dates the Church.  Indeed, it is believed to be the oldest such cross in Cornwall, pre-dating the Norman Conquest.

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St Piran’s Cross – possibly the ‘Christel Mael’ recorded in a charter dated 960AD.

The earliest date that can be ascribed to the surviving fabric of the Church is late 12th or 13th century, though there may have been structures on the site prior to this.  The earliest part of the Church was the chancel.  The structure was enlarged and underwent various modifications between the 13th – 16th centuries, which included the construction of a south aisle and tower.  It was finally abandoned in the early 19th century due to the encroachment of sand, although it is recorded that the Church had difficulties with sand as early as 1281.

In 1755, it was recorded that the sands had spread all round the Church and by the start of the 19th century, it was quite normal for the porch to have to be dug out in order to gain entrance to the Church.  In 1804, the decision was taken to relocate the Church 2.5km inland.  The medieval Church was largely taken down and much of its fabric reused in the new construction, with remains left to decay.

“Ruinous, being divested of its roof, pillars, window frames and towers.  Broken walls, staring windows and shattered tombstones are here seen in melancholy confusion, while the interior of the ruin is filled with sea sand”.

CS Gilbert describing St Piran’s Church in 1820.

The site was excavated by TG Dexter between 1917 and 1920.  The periphery of the Church was dug to define the shape and size of the structure, and the chancel was cleared of sand ‘internally and externally’.  The excavation revealed substantial walling, plastered window splays and carved stones.  It was clear, however, that the tower, pillars, font, tracery and other cut stone had all been removed to the new Church site at Lambourne.

In 2004, a geophysical survey of the area around the Church was undertaken which revealed small ploughed fields up to the graveyard, and within the graveyard, the remains of several structures.  The following year, an archaeological excavation of the Church was undertaken by Cornwall Council and the St Piran Trust.  The excavation greatly increased our understanding of the structural development of the Church and confirmed the earliest visible fabric to be the masonry forming the east and north walls of the chancel – dated to the late 12th or early 13th century.

St Piran's Church today, showing the chancel and the north east walls - the earliest part of the structure.

St Piran’s Church today, showing the chancel and the north east walls – the earliest part of the structure.

Location