According to legend, St Piran was born in Ireland in the 6th century. He was renowned for his miraculous deeds but a group of tribal kings grew afraid of his powers and jealous of his influence. They put a millstone around his neck and threw him off the top of a high cliff into the sea. As Piran fell, lightening and thunder raged, but as he reached the sea the storm ceased and the Irish watched St Piran float on the millstone towards the Cornish shore.
After many days at sea, he safely landed on the beach that bears his name today – Perranporth. He built his chapel in what is today a large expanse of sand dunes and it is said that his first converts were a fox, a badger and a boar. The Cornish people flocked to see him as news of his teaching spread.
St Piran is a well-known saint and many places and churches bear his name throughout Cornwall and Brittany. There was also a medieval chapel of St Piran in Cardiff, Wales. Piran is the patron saint of tinners and one tale explains how he discovered tin – although in truth, tinning had been carried out in Cornwall for centuries before hand.
St Piran also liked a drink and the local expression ‘as drunk as a Perraner’ has survived down the ages. It is also reputed that he lived to the grand old age of 206.
St Piran’s flag is acknowledged as the national banner of Cornwall, with the white cross on a black background said to signify the white tin coming out of the black ore and the light of truth shining in the darkness, a reference to the early Celtic Christianity Piran brought to Cornwall.
Each year a large number of events, which focus on Cornwall’s distinct culture and identity, are held to celebrate St Piran’s Day. This includes the traditional march across the sand dunes to St Piran’s Oratory and the later medieval church.
Whilst St Piran’s origins can not be known for certain, there is no doubt concerning the cult which grew-up around him. The relics of the saint were preserved and venerated for over 1,000 years. As early as 1331, the Dean and Chapter of Exeter noted with some concern that Piran’s relics were being paraded “inordinately, to diverse and remote places”.
Bequests to St Piran’s Church, as well as St Michael’s Mount and St Day, were common in medieval wills – all three sites were popular destinations for pilgrims. Indeed, the the growth in the pilgrim ‘trade’ no doubt accounts for the continued structural development of St Piran’s Church through the 14th and 15th centuries.
“40 shillings to the parish of Sanctus Pyeranus in Zabulo for enclosing the head of St Pieranus finely and the best they know how”.
Will of Sir John Arundell, 1433
Other relics of the saint included a silver scutella (saucer or bowl), his pastoral staff covered with silver, gold and jewels, a silver cross, a copper bell, a cross of St Piran made of bone and a shrine which held the body of the saint. Until the Reformation, Exeter Cathedral held an arm bone of the saint, as did Waltham Abbey.
Writing in the late sixteenth century, Cornish antiquarian Nicholas Roscarrock records that the relics “were wont to be carried up and down in the country upon occasions” and he recalls as a boy seeing such a procession during the reign of Queen Mary (1553 – 1558).
The flag of St Piran, a white cross on a field of black, is first mentioned by Cornish historian Davies Gilbert in 1838, where he describes it as “formerly the banner of St Perran and the Standard of Cornwall”. However, it is interesting to note that sometime after Domesday the manor of St Piran was in the possession of a Breton family which took the name de Saint-Péran. They are recorded as bearing arms “sable, a cross pattée argent” – a white cross (with flared arms) on a black ground.
“The manor or honor of St. Piran, now destroyed by the sands, belonged to a college of canons, by whom it was held free of all taxes… it is said to have been, at a latter period, the property and seat of the family of St. Piran, from whom it passed by successive female-heirs to the Kendalls and Vincents”.
Lysons, Magna Britannia Volume 3, Cornwall – 1814