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
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: Cornwall (Unitary Authority)
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)
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing