St Sennen

Interior features and history

The Church Interior

The South Aisle

While the Hundred Years War was in full swing the inhabitants of Sennen were altering and extending their church. The South Aisle replaced an earlier transept and was the last part of the programme, because they had built the tower during the latter part of the fourteenth century.  The stone under the font records the dedication of the newly completed church. The date is hard to make out but it seems that the building was dedicated on the Feast of John the Baptist in 1448.The work is very similar to that being done at Sancreed at about the same time; the pillars, moulding of the arches and capitals are nearly identical. Possibly the same masons worked at both churches. Sancreed is very similar to Sennen, having originally been cruciform in plan, but then enlarged with a new aisle. Sancreed though has a much smaller tower than Sennen, even if it is a bit more ornate. The grilles just inside the south door cover not an ancient crypt but a Victorian boiler which looks as if it might have powered a steamship.


The Font

 Is not very interesting, and is impossible to date but it probably stood in the thirteenth century church and after having been moved here and there over the years it has ended up on top of the dedication stone mentioned above. The font cover is interesting. It was carved by a local farmer, Mr. J. H. Saundry out of wood from the wreck of the Khyber which was lost on 15 March, 1905 near St Levan. With the practicality of a farmer he made it so that the cross on the top comes off allowing one of the arches to be pulled out and the lid removed without having to take the whole thing off completely. (Please don’t try doing this).


The Letter from Charles I

For some reason, probably just a very sensible dislike of Roundheads, the Cornish tended to be loyal to the King during the Civil Wars, at least the richer ones did, and because of their willingness to hide the King’s son and heir in lofts, bedrooms and stables as he escaped from the Parliamentary troops*, Charles I wrote them a letter of thanks, copies of which his son Charles II commanded to be placed in every Cornish parish church at his restoration in 1660, where they have been largely ignored ever since

* The Cornish almost certainly didn’t hide him in any such way really, not even in an oak tree.


The Vestry

The ground floor of the tower is used as a vestry and ringing chamber. It is divided from the church by a cedar wood screen built in 1980, which has the very real improvement over its predecessor of completely stopping the whistling draughts which shoot down the tower, and used to shoot straight up the congregation. It would have been just in front of where this screen now stands that an eighteenth century gallery spanned the nave.


The North Transept.

In the later nineteenth century many churchmen, especially the tractarians, decided that leading the singing with an odd assortment of instruments and a bunch of amateur players all doing their best to keep in time was not quite the thing. In Sennen a barrel organ was sometimes used in place of the ad hoc orchestra, but on one occasion it refused to stop playing even after the hymn was finished and had to be carted out, playing all the way.  In 1895, the same year that saw the first Prom concert in London, the Sennen parishioners started pumping away at their new pipe organ, which entirely filled what had once been (possibly) the Lady Chapel, and caused a window in the north wall of the transept to be filled up, and the little north facing lancet to be obscured. It contains a remarkable quantity of dust. In the corner of the transept next to the pulpit the niche in the wall was made from the door which gave access to the spiral stair to the rood-loft.


The Candelabra

During the eighteenth century most churches were filled with big box pews, the walls completely covered with lime wash inside, and the windows filled with sashes and clear glass. There is an old photo in Zennor church showing what this arrangement looked like. The Georgian years were not a good time for church attendance, even by the clergy. The curate for Sennen and St. Levan in the 1820’s was William Spry who lived in Penzance and travelled out to his parishes on a velocipede with his dog Sport, but only if the weather was good enough. The Rev. William Houghton about thirty years later described ‘weeds in the pews….and the surplice a mixture of rags and iron-mould..’ Almost the only ornaments found in eighteenth century churches were splendid brass candelabras. Sennen’s is a particularly good one, and is well liked by everyone except those who have tried to clean it. The only other surviving eighteenth century artefact is the pillar alms box dated 1732 just inside the south door.


The Chancel, and the restoration of the church.

After the abolition of the Deanery of St. Buryan with the death of the last dean in 1864, a Rector was appointed to Sennen parish. Three years later J.P St. Aubyn was appointed to undertake the business of the repair of the church. Many people despair over his drastic methods, but it ought to be remembered that what was thrown out was often quite rotten anyway. Most of the mediaeval fittings at Sennen had disappeared long before, travellers who visited during the early nineteenth century make no mention of carved pews or roodscreen: even Hals who visited in 1700 writes about a plain lime washed interior. St. Aubyn used the same roof and pew design frequently- as he said himself, the mediaeval builders worked to the same general design themselves, so why shouldn’t he? Both roof and pews are splendidly solid, but the roof is easier to live with than the pews. The restoration cost £900 which was not an inconsiderable sum at the time; besides the roof and seating the money went on new floors, window tracery, patterned stained glass and other interior fittings. The floor levels of the chancel date from this work. Since then St. Aubyn's cheap patterned glazing has been replaced with more conventional stained glass featuring figures of saints and apostles, all given in the form of memorials, with a dedication either in the glass itself or engraved on brass plates screwed to the window sills. These look much better when polished, so if you have a look, please give them a rub. A new pulpit was given in 1929 in memory of a nineteenth century rector, and the chancel was entirely re-furbished in 1939 following a bequest from Mr. J. H. Saundry (he of the font cover). This provided a new floor of granite and slate, the panelling, altar rails and choir stalls, which have never been occupied by a choir. All the carving is by Pinwill & Co. of Plymouth, a firm responsible for a great deal of carving and joinery in Cornish churches, perhaps most notably at Crantock, near Newquay. A new altar and reredos were installed in 1953.



The Lady Chapel

The dear wish of a long serving churchwarden, Mr. Sydney Beckwith, was to see the east end of the south aisle fitted up as a Lady Chapel as perhaps it once had been before the Reformation. Unfortunately he died before this work was finished in time for Sennen Feast in 1989, but it is thanks to his generosity that it was undertaken . The floor of Cornish slate replaces the less attractive tiles found everywhere else in the church, and Mrs. Ruth George of Sennen Cove enabled the purchase of  chairs to replace a previously crammed arrangement of pews which had been squeezed in to face the pulpit. There was almost certainly an altar in this position in mediaeval times, the present one is the (much-repaired) seventeenth. Century post Reformation Communion table. The battered statue of the Virgin Mary was one of several recovered from a wall niche nearly three hundred years ago and its just as well to blame the Roundheads for the damage. The others have since disappeared but Mary was finally set up on a bracket and given a new head and child modelled in clay.  The odd looking wall painting on the right of the east window is probably just a fragment of a larger picture stretching right down the wall. The arch and towers visible form part of the canopy of a painted niche which contained a figure of a saint or other significant being. It is quite likely that there was, or is a matching painting on the left hand side, behind Mary. Please don’t try to find this out for yourselves.

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