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St Mary Magdalene, Launceston, Cornwall

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Feature Sets (2)

Description

A 14thc. tower survives from an earlier chapel, the building itself is the work of Sir Henry Trecarrell in 1511-24, entirely of granite, and externally highly ornate.
The font base is the only Romanesque feature.

History

St Mary Magdalene was first built between 1295 and 1319, by the burgesses of Launceston as a public chapelry to St Stephens Priory, and in 1338 it was elevated to parish church status, with the dedication of its high altar.  Between 1511 and 1524 it was rebuilt by Henry Trecarrell, with the exception of the 14thc. tower.  

Features

Furnishings

Fonts

Font

At W end of N aisle. Post-Reformation apart from the base, which is bulbous with a flattened cable moulding incised around the upper zone; its plain lower zone is carved with three equidistant feline animal masks, with large almond-shaped eyes and upward-pointing ears (except the one facing W, which is earless); these slightly overlap the main zone. It is made of Ventergan stone.

Dimensions
Circumference at bottom of font 1.89 m
Height of base 0.25 m

Comments/Opinions

The Parochial History (III, 1870) states that "the font is of Polyphant stone; it has been stripped of its ancient ornament of heads and geometrical figures by recent dressing". This perhaps implies that the font was of a Romanesque type (such as at St Thomas, Launceston), as the base would suggest; and that in its present form the bowl is a merciless Victorian bowdlerization. But whence came a Romanesque font, which appears to predate the earliest chapel of this site? Either it was made in the 14thc. as an inexact copy of the font now at St Thomas's, but then in St Stephen's Priory, St Mary's mother church (the base differs from this font in its use of animal heads and lack of corner motifs, but has the same flattened cable moulding); or it was taken from the Castle Chapel after the Reformation, this being the only other possible local source. But in the early 1900s, as Sedding informs us, the base, the only Romanesque part of the present font, was lying loose at the W end of the N aisle, upside-down and roughly hollowed out. Sedding's verdict was that "there is no evidence to show that the Norman base ....belonged to this church", and certainly the present bowl does nothing by its form and dimensions to corroborate the Parochial History (being cup-shaped and completely plain, and measuring h. 0.45 m, diameter at top 0.66 m at bottom 0.43 m, circumference at top 2.24m, internal diameter 0.5 m, diameter 0.27 m, wall of bowl 0.08 m thick, lead-lined). I concur with Sedding in seeing the font as post-Reformation and the base, on which it was placed some time this century, as Romanesque.
Dating: first half of 12thc.

Bibliography

  • P. Beacham and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Cornwall (New Haven and London 2014), pp.287-89.

  • C. Henderson, The Cornish Church Guide, (London 1925), pp. 113-5

  • A Complete Parochial History of the County of Cornwall, vol. III, (Truro and London 1870), p. 72.

  • N. Pevsner and E. Radcliffe, The Buildings of England: Cornwall, 2nd ed (Harmondsworth 1970), p. 96-7

  • E. H. Sedding, Norman Architecture in Cornwall: A Handbook to old Cornish ecclesiastical architecture with notes on ancient manor houses (London and Truro 1909), pp. 214-5, pl. 87.

Font, general view.
Exterior, from SE.

Location

Site Location
Launceston
National Grid Reference
SX 332 846 
Boundaries
now: Cornwall
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Cornwall
Diocese
now: Truro
medieval: Exeter
Dedication
medieval: St Mary Magdalene
now: St Mary Magdalene
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
RCAHMS, Richard Jewell 
Visit Date
20 Jan 1992