Walter Bronescombe, Bishop of Exeter, had been rather ill after a visit to Germany. During episodes of delirium he experienced several, ‘visions’, in which he saw St Thomas à Beckett. As the visions played out Becket insisted that Walter would return to health and head to Penryn in search of woods in Glasney. There he would erect a collegiate church to the glory of God and in the name of St. Thomas the Martyr. Pretty hardcore state of delirium huh? A record of the instructions can be found in the cartulary of Glasney,
“This shall be to thee a sign. When thou comest to the place, Glasney, thou shalt search a certain spot in it near the River of Antre, called by the inhabitants Polsethow, being Cornish for Mire or Pit– which said place hath of old time borne such a name from fact, that wild animals in the neighborhood when wounded by an arrow were wont to run thither after the nature and custom of such animals, and to plunge into its depth, and the arrows could never be discovered there. And thou shalt find in it a large willow tree, and therein a swarm of bees; and there thou shalt appoint the High Altar and ordain the fabric. Of which said place it hath anciently been prophesied “In Polsethow shall habitations, or marvelous things be seen.”Source: Thurston, C. Peter “The History of Glasney Collegiate Church, Cornwall” 1903
So in 1265 the Bishop set about fulfilling his orders and within two years the great Collegiate College of Glasney was built. The structure, situated at the head of the Penryn river, covered six acres and the spire was rumoured to be so tall it kept collapsing and was eventually removed. The refectory, chapter house and corn mills spread across Hill Head and College Hill and while many new buildings have since been established small hints and landscape remain enough to spark imagination.
Glasney was a hive of ecclesiastical and spiritual learning with thirteen Canons, seven Vicars, thirteen Priest-Vicars, Eleven Prebendaries, a Provost and of course Choristers of which there were six. Payment in kind was made by way of great tithes appropriated from fourteen parishes across Cornwall. Originally donations of corn, wool, milk and other crops made up the portion of yearly profits from farming. Gradually money in lieu of produce was paid by parishioners to keep and maintain their local church.
But it wasn’t all learning and labour at Glasney. Over time the church and its clergy grew somewhat of a reputation. The miracle plays of the day were reported to have lost their religious tones in favour of a more perverse narrative. It is said that the provost and his priests had taken to drinking and the church, along with the conduct of service, had fallen to neglect.
When the church fell victim to king Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries imagine the disappointment of government officials sent to value Cornwalls greatest Collegiate Church. On their arrival they would have found most of the churches artifacts lost, damaged and unaccounted for while the estate buildings had fallen to disrepair. All this pointed to the conclusion that the once magnificent and well respected centre of light and learning had become corrupt.
Several custodians fought to preserve what was left of the church and to restore some sort of order for the future but it was to late and the church was sold and dismantled. Many buildings rose up during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries built from the stone of various old buildings.
Very little remains of the Church with very little record of where the dismantled stone work was taken and used. That doesn’t mean that it did not leave it’s legacy. Take a stroll through the town and you will discover a variety of pillars, blocks, gargoyles, keystones and old walls that are integral to the towns old and beautiful architecture. Each Sunday a bell in the towns clock tower strikes to remind us of the bells of the church that once rang parishioners to worship. Street names bare reference to its existence. Excavations in recent years have helped to build a slightly clearer picture of its history and more recently a section of east wall of the chantry chapel has been restored by the Friends of Glasney College.
Some of the most breathtaking references to the church can be found in the work of graphic designer Shaun Broderick of Kernow 3d. Shaun spent several months painstakingly piecing together the architecture of Glasney to create the wonderful images found on his website a few of which can be seen in this post. Possibly the most tangible and greatest images available they are certainly worth seeing if you have ever wondered what one of the most important religious institutions in Cornwall looked like.
A selection of Shaun’s images and work can be found at http://www.kernow3d.com/portfolio.html with some fascinating history of the project to be found here http://3darchaeologyvisualization.wordpress.com/.
With thanks to Shaun for allowing me to use these wonderful images.