The Parish Church of St Levan
The Saint. The Royal House of Padern had its roots in Ireland, moving by way of Wales into Cornwall, where Duke Padern, a Saint of Cornwall, carved out a Dukedom for himself during the fourth century A.D.
St Levan, named after his great-uncle St Soloman, in the Celtic tongue, St Selevan, today corrupted into the name St Levan, was born in the sixth century at, it is said, Boslevan, which lies to the east of St Buryan. He travelled to and lived at Bodellan by the Port of Cornwall, now Porthcurno, and built a chapelry on the site of the present church above Porth Levan or Porthchapel, as it is called today. He built a cell near a well now named after him. There is the story of St Levan and his catching two chad or sea-bream upon which his nieces choked. It was on his walk to his cell from Bodellan when the confrontation with Johana took place, after which no child has been baptised with that name at the church.The stories are told in more detail in the "History of St Levan Church”
The Baptistry and the Chapel of St Levan.
The holy well of St Levan and the Baptistry lie beside the footpath leading from the road to Porthchapel Beach. They are connected to the small Chapel on the cliff edge further down by a flight of about fifty stone steps. The existence of these steps had been known for many years, but they were uncovered as a result of excavations in 1931 by the Reverend H T Valentine and Dr Vernon Favell. Water from the Holy Well is still used for Baptisms in the Parish Church.
The St Levan Stone. On the south side of the Church near the porch is a rock known as the St Levan Stone. In pre-Christian times, the stone was venerated for its powers and particularly in connection with fertility rites. The pagan use was neutralised by the erection of the tall cross nigh on seven feet in height nearby the Stone. It is split in two, and it was said that St Levan sat upon this rock when tired from fishing. Wishing to leave a momento of himself in connection with his rude but favourite seat, one day he gave it a blow with his staff and cracked it through. He prayed over the rock and uttered the following prophecy:
When with panniers astride,
A Pack Horse can ride,
Through St Levan’s Stone,
The world will be done.
In pre-Christian times the stone was evidently venerated as a Holy Rock, since it has never been removed, nor has any attempt been made to destroy it.
The Crosses. There were, in addition to the tall cross by the Stone, at least five crosses of the Celtic pattern, one at each of the entrances leading from the surrounding farms, hamlets and villages to the Church. One remains at the north-east corner of the churchyard by the coffin stone and a second lies on the footpath towards Rospletha.
The Parish. For civil purposes, St Levan has always been a separate Parish. For Ecclesiastical purposes, from the time of the Norman Conquest until 1864 it was with its neighbour a chapelry of the Royal Peculiar of the Deanery of St Buryan Upon the death of the Reverend H F Stanhope, the last non-resident Dean of St Buryan, the Deanery was abolished by Act of Parliament, and St Levan became a separate parish. It now forms part of a united benefice with St Buryan and
St Sennen. Excavations carried out in the Parish reveal that it has been inhabited from as early as 2500 BC, and, until at least 1832 AD. The Church and Churchyard formed part of a small hamlet including an Inn, which itself may well have stood on Church property.
The Parish Church reflects some fifteen hundred years of Parish History. Following the probability of a tiny thatch and wattle chapel having been constructed by St Levan into the round where the main altar stands today, a small pre-Norman church was subsequently built within the present chancel. There followed in the twelth century, the construction of a larger and cruciform church, which encompassed the present chancel, the nave back to where the tower now stands, as well as part of the North transept. The South transept of similar proportions lay within part of the present day Lady Chapel.
In the fifteenth century after the ravages of the Black Death had passed, the Church was extended to roughly what it is today. The original timbers with traces of gilding and colouring can still be seen, as well as a carving of a “Green Man”, which forms part of a boss overlooking the steps to the altar in the Lady Chapel.
The Victorian plaster, used in a restoration in Victorian times by J D Sedding, failed recently and was replaced with the same mix of plaster which had been used in the twelth and fifteenth centuries.
The Tower. The Tower is of two stages and unbuttressed. It appears to be older than other 15th century work in the Church. It contains three bells; the treble 5cwt cast by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester dated 1754 with the inscription "Thomas Robert Bennett, Churchwarden", the second 3 ¾ cwt cast by Mears & Stainbank of London dated 1881 and the tenor 6 ½ cwt dated 1641.
The Font. The Font in the South Aisle is of traditional Norman type, and dates from 1100 to 1130, and may well have been used in an earlier Church. The large circular bowl has a lower burden of cable work, and an upper border of chip carved crosses and four flat motifs of stars in circles.
The Porch. The Porch was built in the 15th century but it contains a Holy Water Stoup of much earlier age, probably 13th century, which was built into the present porch. The undated sundial on the external South wall dates from the 18th century, and is of conventional design. The arch from the Porch into the Church is Norman.
The Rood Screen. Although the Rood Screen does not survive in its original Tudor form, four out of five bays of the chancel screen remain. The base of the screen is carved with shields bearing initials and symbols of the Passion. E H Sedding, brother of J D Sedding, writing in 1909 about the screen says: "Each bay is divided into three compartments, and almost the whole of the surface is strewn with carvings even to the styles, the frames and the transoms. And to show how redundant his mind, and prodigal of bodily toil, we note the carver has finished the tracery points with beasts heads. His stiles have griffins, snakes and cordage intertwined with the foliage - Celtic to the core, as all Cornish work is, with its serpent device."
The Bench Ends. These are perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the Parish Church, and contain some unusal and interesting designs. On one is depicted two fish, apparently on one hook, recalling one of the legends of St Levan. There are also depicted a shepherd with a crook, a jester with cap and bells, profiles of medieval parishioners, two eagles, and a pilgrim, possibly St James with scallop shell badge,breviary and discipline. In addition to these of the 12th and 15th centuries, the ancient tradition of wood carving has been continued up to the present day and there are in the Church several excellent modern bench ends, the work of the late Charles Hoare of Penzance, the late Mr A Snell of Newlyn and also of Mr D C Armitage of St Buryan and, most recently by Mr Charles Russell. These are also carved with appropriate imagery and have been erected in recent years as memorials.
St Levan’s Statue. The bronze high relief sculpture of St Levan, situated behind the pulpit is by the local artist Judy Reed. The statue, set in a granite slab, depicts St Levan Blessing three bream, and was blessed by the Bishop of Truro On Feast Sunday, 17th October 1993.
The Lady Chapel. Towards the end of the 1920’s the East end of the South Aisle was in a deplorable condition. It was both dirty and damp, and housed a single oak bench for a non-existent choir. There were no traces of an altar in the East wall but the floor sloped towards the east, thereby suggesting a hidden step. The then incumbent of St Levan, the Reverend H T Valentine was responsible for the work of restoration and the introduction of the Lady Chapel. The work was directed and designed by Mr Walter Taplin, then architect in charge of Westminster Abbey. The floor was laid in Delabole slate, and the old oak bench was also incorporatedin the flooring of the Chapel. The Victorian upper section of the Rood screen, designed by J D Sedding, was removed and resited between the Chancel and the Lady Chapel. On its South face was carved an inscription in Cornish:
Rag carensa Dew ha rag cov sans Selevan
Cryst agan bara terrys ragon-ny.
The English Translation being:
For the love of God and in memory of St Selevan
Christ our bread broken for us.
As might be expected, the Churchyard reflects the fact that St Levan stands on some of the wildest coastline, and near the most treacherous waters inthe British Isles.
Near the tower is the communal grave of twenty-three men who were lost with the ill fated Khyber of Liverpool. She was shattered into literally thousands of spars on the night of March 15th 1905. this tragedy led to the provision of a breakwater at Sennen Cove, to enable the lifeboat to be launched in stormy weather. On the south-west side of the Churchyard is the grave of one Captain Richard Wetheral of Scilly, who was lost in the brig Aurora on the Land’s End on December 18th 1811. there is a legend that a ghostly ship’s bell strikes the watches in his grave and those who hear it are doomed to die within a year.
The Registers. Due to the inefficiency of successive Deans of St Buryan, registers earlier than 1700 have not been preserved. The present records only date from that year. An interesting feature of the early registers is the prevalence of Old Testament names used for the Christian names, such as Methuselah, Tobias, Hosea, Ezekiel and Mordecai. Elizabeth was undoubtedly the predominantly favourite Christian name for a girl.
Previous Curates of St Levan. Records would seem to indicate that as far as St Levan goes the 18th and 19th centuries could not have been called the 'good old days'. The Reverend William Spry (1815-26) resided in Penzance and from thence proceeded to his cure at St Levan when deemed necessary 'on his hobby horse or velocipede'. When the weather was bad he stayed at home for weeks at a time. In 1847 the Reverend George Rundle Prynne records that his congregation was 'half-a-dozen or less' and that there were only four communicants on Christmas Day, and in 1865 it was recorded that 'the Church building is in a most dilapidated state, neglected and extremely damp, and with the atmosphere of a vault' and a correspondent to The West Briton on 20th January 1814 complains that 'Sennen and St Levan had no curates, and that no services had been performed there since October.' There is, however, today an active and strong congregation, which worships regularly at St Levan Church.
This brief guide is based on comprehensive notes prepared by the late Mr Howard Jewell and Mr Peter Laws of Penzance, whose assistance is most gratefully acknowledged. It has been revised by the late Jeffery C Burr.
History of St Levan Church by Susan Hoyle is available from the bookstall in the Church.
© Drawings Brian Lea © March 2003