St Pirans Oratory, Cornwall

St Pirans Oratory, Cross

Saint Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners and the national saint of Cornwall. Saint Piran's Flag is a white cross on a black background, which flies in many places in Cornwall. And St Piran's Day is March 5th.

St Piran apparently was born in Ireland, landed on Perran beach and built the tiny oratory in the Irish style with the heads of a man, a woman and a beast around the arched doorway The priest's house is built inside the graveyard as in the Irish style.

Piran's first oratory was probably built of wattle and daub, and was replaced by a stone building at a later date. It is the remains of the stone one that now lies buried in the sand. We cannot be sure that the reburied oratory building is the original structure of St. Piran. Some academics believe that stone was not in use in the 6th century. We also know that a large graveyard buried under the sand.

The small chapel dedicated to St. Piran circa 450AD, and abandoned because of encroaching sand in the 10th century. It was replaced by St Piran Old Church, which in turn was abandoned in 1805, because of the sand - tin mining having dried up the stream that had been protecting it from the sand. It was excavated in 1835 and was claimed to be the oldest extant building of worship on mainland Britain, second only to Iona Abbey.

In 1835, Rev William Haslam made some amateur archeological excavations at the site of St Piran's Oratory. This is mentioned in the book "In Search of St Piran" by historian E.W.F. Tomlin published by Lodenek Press.The Haslam book was based on a paper read before the Royal Institution of Cornwall entitled "Perranzabuloe, with and account of the Past and Present State of the Oratory of St. Piran in the Sands and Remarks on its Antiquity". pub. London, 1844. This includes these observations.

"Camden tells us that there is a church dedicated to St. Piran buried in this neighbourhood. Norden relates that the sand which had covered much of the parish had compelled them to remove their church. Subsequent historians relate the same tradition; but until about 55 years ago its site was unknown. Then it was accidentally discovered by an old man, now alive, who says he was the first who saw any part of the old Church. Although numerous attempts were made from time to time to explore the ruin, none were successful until Mr. Michel, with characteristic zeal and perseverance, accomplished the task, and once more restored this little sanctuary from the darkness, uncertainty, and mystery in which it was enveloped, to the broad glare of sunshine. The church lies very nearly east and west – its extreme length is 29 feet, its breadth 16½, the height of the gables is 19 feet, of the side walls 13 feet. When opened by Mr. Michell, all were in good preservation – even the holes or steps in which the rafters rested along the top of the side walls were as perfect as when the rafters were taken out of them. The walls are nearly two feet thick all round; the masonry of the rudest kind imaginable, affording no slight evidence of the antiquity of the structure. There is not any lime used either in the building or plastering, but china clay has been used instead. The principal entrance was in the south side, nearer to the west than the east end of the building. It was a neat semi-circular arched doorway, of parallel sides, with a splay, having a moulding unlike in detail any which has hitherto been known in this country, and which contrary to Saxon or Norman custom is continued along the arch, and down the sides of the doorway without imposts or base. This entrance was ornamented with three heads, now in the museum of the society, one on each side at the spring of the arch, and one on the key stone, but which are considered of later insertion. There is another smaller doorway, but without the ornaments, in the north-east corner of the church. Both these doors lead into the interior by a descent of three steps. The floor is of concrete composed of coarse sand and china clay. The interior of the church is distinctly divided into chancel and nave. Attached to the east wall was an altar-tomb lying lengthways east and west, not in the centre of the east wall. In the centre of this wall, and a little above the altar, was a small window, having a slight internal splay, about two feet wide, and round headed, and most probably about two and a half or three feet high. In the south wall of the chancel was another small window, of which the arch, the only one now remaining, is the rudest that can be seen. Such was the church, in 1835, when first recovered from the sands. Now, the south and east walls have fallen down, and its old enemy, the sand, which has preserved it from more ruthless enemies for many centuries, is again gathering round, as if jealous of its own dominion, and jealous of that precious relic which for ages has shed such a charm and such deep interest over that desolation and wild solitude. We regret that our space will not allow us to follow the reverend antiquary through the chain of reasoning by which he supported the claims of this little church to the highest antiquity, but our regret is lessened by the assurance which was given at the close of the meeting, that in compliance with the earnest desire of those who were present, this most interesting paper would very shortly be printed."

St Pirans Oratory is buried a few hundred yards west of the ancient cross that also bears his name, in the wide expanse of Penhale Sands. A little further south still is the holiday resort of Perranporth. Because of constant erosion by wind and sand the remains of the building have been buried to protect it. The mound is now topped with a smallish granite stone and a plaque which reads:

"This stone is dedicated to the glory of God and in memory of St. Piran, Irish missionary and Patron Saint of Tinners, who came to Cornwall in 6th Century. Beneath this stone is buried the Oratory which bears his name. Erected on the site hallowed by his prayers. October 1980."

St Pirans Oratory by the St Piran Trust

St Pirans Cross information

St Pirans Oratory information


Cornwall Churches