St Piran's Oratory and associated early medieval cemetery


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1018955

Date first listed: 13-Dec-1929

Date of most recent amendment: 10-Aug-1999


Ordnance survey map of St Piran's Oratory and associated early medieval cemetery
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Cornwall (Unitary Authority)

Parish: Perranzabuloe

National Grid Reference: SW 76839 56393


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

An early Christian chapel is a purpose-built structure, usually rectangular and often comprising a single undivided room, which contained a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate for Christian worship in the early medieval period (c.AD 400-1100). Until the seventh century, such chapels were mostly constructed of wood, often being replaced in stone at a later date. The Venerable Bede (c.673-735) provides an account of the transition from wooden to stone building in Northumbria, and there are references in the saints' vitae and in early Irish sources to the various building traditions. They are mainly restricted to the northern and western parts of England. A number of early Christian chapels have been found to be located at earlier burial sites, the grave of a saint or ecclesiastical founder providing the focal point. Chapels of this early period are sometimes referred to as oratories. In all cases, however, the chapels would have served as a place of prayer for a religious community, in some cases located within an early monastic site and set with other buildings in an enclosure called a vallum monasterii. Early Christian chapels of this type and function should be distinguished from the later parochial chapels of the medieval period which served a secular community, and were mostly designed for larger congregational worship. Certain of the early chapels which became identified with particular saints became places of veneration for medieval pilgrims, and, such was the desire to be buried close to the relics of the saint, that the burial tradition often continued in proximity to the chapel. Many early chapels, with their strong associations with saints, will have been subsumed within later and grander religious structures, and their survival in anything like their original form is therefore rare. The remains of early Christian chapels, where they can be positively identified, will contain important archaeological information relating to the development of Christianity, and all examples with significant surviving archaeological remains are considered to be of national importance.

Despite some 19th and early 20th century restoration, St Piran's Oratory survives as an early Christian chapel with all of its four walls standing beneath its protective covering of sand. It represents the supposed site where St Piran, an Irish saint, came ashore and established a Christian centre of worship in the sixth or seventh centuries AD. It is particularly important therefore in the study of the introduction and development of Christianity in western Britain and the religious focus of the site is enhanced by the documented entry in Domesday Book which identifies a `lann' or religious enclosure in the area. The chapel later became a place of pilgrimage in medieval times and, although buried, the monument still acts as a place of veneration and its fabric, below ground remains, and associated burials, will retain archaeological information relating to the early Christian tradition in Cornwall and the early Christian and medieval periods in south west Britain.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument known as St Piran's Oratory is an early Christian chapel comprising a small stone-built nave and chancel located on the wind-blown Gear Sands 1.5km from the coast line at Perran Bay. Burials, some in stone and slate cists lie within an associated graveyard which surrounds the chapel. The oratory, a Grade II Listed Building, has been deliberately buried in sand for its own protection. The oratory chapel is thought to have been erected probably in the seventh century AD and remained in use perhaps until the 11th or 12th centuries. The construction is of rough local stone with the walls surviving to a height of 2.4m when last recorded in 1953. The chapel is rectangular in plan with external dimensions of 9.5m by 5m, giving it close similarities with early Christian oratories in Ireland. Internally, the nave is about 5m in length and the chancel about 2.7m in length with the altar against the east wall. Two doors have been located in excavations: one in the south wall and one in the east wall, but the latter is probably not part of the original design. The association of St Piran with the area is provided by the Domesday Book (AD 1086) entry of a monastery at Lanpiran denoting an early Christian foundation, and by the place-name Perranzabuloe. It is uncertain how much of the surviving chapel masonry dates to the earliest periods; an inscribed stone, largely illegible but believed to be an early Christian memorial stone, was recorded by Warner, built into one of the walls. The east doorway may have been added when the oratory became a place of visitation for early medieval pilgrims and an arched doorway on the south side with a cat's head carved on the keystone is considered to be 11th or 12th century date. The south doorway may have replaced an earlier original doorway and this work may represent the last addition before the site was abandoned due to engulfment by shifting sand dunes, although worship is believed to have continued at St Piran's Church some 350m ENE of the oratory. St Piran's Church is also known as the `new' or `second church' but the `old' church, that is the oratory chapel, may have continued to attract pilgrims who believed that St Piran's bones were buried there; documentary evidence (now lost) of the 15th century appears to support the view that it became a pilgrim shrine. Early antiquarians record the chapel as being completely invisible beneath blown sand in the 18th century but the walls were partly visible again at the beginning of the 19th century. Partial excavation in 1835 and 1843 cleared the inside of the monument down to the original floor levels and allowed some internal rebuilding to take place including the placement of a new altar inscribed `Sanctus Piranus'. Three headless skeletons were reportedly discovered in the excavations beneath the altar piece. The exterior walls of the chapel were exposed down to and including their foundations during the excavations but subsequent mounding of wind-blown sand against these outer walls led to protective measures being taken and in 1910 a shell of concrete was constructed around the entire building. In 1980 the shell was largely demolished and the chapel reburied in sand in order to protect it from vandalism. A commemorative stone marking the spot lies above the now infilled and buried structure. At least ten cist burials, believed to be of early medieval date, and the bleached bones of further burials, were discovered in close proximity to the chapel and at distances up to 30m from its foundations, during the works of 1980. This provides the evidence for an associated cemetery which, whilst its full extent is unknown, is believed to surround the chapel building. The artificial sand dune, measuring 25m by 18m, which encases the chapel is included within the scheduling as it forms part of the protective measures taken to ensure the monument's preservation. The commemorative stone which marks the location of the chapel is also included in the scheduling.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 5 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29670

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Johnson, N, St Piran's Oratory, (1982)
Collins, M B, 'Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall' in St Piran's Oratory, Perranzabuloe, , Vol. 18, (1910), 390-97
Dexter, T F G, 'Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall' in St Piran's Oratory: an attempt to trace its history, , Vol. 20 (3-4), (1919), 358-73
Johnson, N, 'Cornish Archaeology' in St Piran's Oratory, , Vol. 20, (1981), 216
Thurston, C P, 'Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall' in St Piran's Old Church, , Vol. 16, (1908), 133-43
Warner, R, 'Cornish Archaeology' in Parish of Perranzabuloe, , Vol. 2, (1963), 70-72
Fletcher, M J, Ordnance Survey Archaeological Index Card, (1971)

End of official listing