(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


ST. GERMANS, St. Germanus of Auxerre  (SX 359 578),


(Bedrock:  Middle Devonian to Carboniferous, Saltash Formation.)


A former priory church of the Augustinian Canons, holding many features of interest,

including 'the most ambitious monument in Cornwall' (Pevsner).



This web-site is not much concerned with church monuments but an exception is made of some important late seventeenth to early nineteenth century examples that serve to illustrate wider trends in the art and architectural history of those years.  Although any attempt to divide a complex series of changes into discrete stages is susceptible to the charge of over-simplification, as a basic introduction to the subject, four principal phases in its evolution can be identified:

1.  the age of heraldry and ostentation, which is essentially the late Stuart period, c.1660 - c.1714, in which the aristocracy sought to depict their departed relations, bewigged and dressed in all their finery, with coats of arms to display their long pedigree, and 'symbols of mortality' (most notably skulls) to advertise their piety;

2.  the Age of Politeness, corresponding roughly to the period of the Whig Supremacy and the ascendancy of Palladian architecture, c. 1714-60 (that is, the reigns of the first two Georges), in which the new ruling class actively rejected the old Tory memes and mores and sought to present themselves as the new èlite, and their deceased relatives dressed in the timeless apparel (usually Roman togas, suggesting they themselves were like Roman senators)  that eschewed vulgarity and ostentation (skulls again, heraldic devices - not least because their pedigree often offered little to shout about) in favour of the appearance of effortless superiority;

3. the period of the 'Gothick' style, which overlapped periods 2 & 4 but which was particularly prevalent around the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was in turn a reaction to the Age of Politeness in favour of something more theatrical and exciting, frequently characterised by monsters or Death personified as a skeleton, on the one hand, and a damsel in distress on the other or some other form of female imagery calculated to add some sexual frisson;

and 4. the Age of Sensibility, in which it suddenly became not only fashionable for gentlemen to show display their emotions, but de rigueur.

These themes between them, fashioned many of the monuments of these years to a greater or lesser degree, as will appear further on the page below.  



St. Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378 - c. 446) is another fifth century dedicatee of the churches of Cornwall, but a rather better documented one than most.  He is believed to have been a bishop of Auxerre (Gaul) who was sent to Britain in c. 429 with the mission to suppress heresy in the British church, but who allegedly became involved in leading the native Britons in their successful resistance against an invading horde of heathen Saxons, and the building dedicated to him here is one of several in western England and Wales besides being the most important Norman/Norman-Transitional church in Cornwall.  It is not an easy one to interpret, however – a task made more difficult by the fact that the north and east fronts can only be viewed from the private grounds of Port Eliot Estate.  Fundamental to its understanding is the realization that the present plan is not the original one and that what now appears as a pair of twin naves and chancels, is more accurately a nave and chancel with a S. aisle and chapel of similar or greater dimensions.  The original building, which was constructed as the priory church of a community of the Augustinian Canons in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, consisted of the wide nave and flanking towers which are still largely extant, with symmetrical narrow aisles and a long choir to the east.  Subsequent alterations to this plan included:  (i) in the early fourteenth century, the widening of the two eastern bays of the S. aisle to form a large chapel;  (ii) in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the widening of the rest of the S. aisle and the construction of a shallow S. porch against the S. wall of the southwest tower, in order that the aisle and chapel might serve as a parish church, alongside the priory church;  (iii) in the sixteenth century, the shortening of the choir after the Dissolution had rendered it obsolete (thereby reducing the nave and chancel to the length of the S. aisle and chapel); and finally, (iv), in 1802/3, the demolition of the N. aisle and the construction of the small transept now forming the organ chamber but which initially served as the Eliot family pew (Nikolaus Pevsner & Enid Radcliffe, The Buildings of England: Cornwall, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 174-177, and the Reverend Canon John Spence, St. Germans Church; a History and Guide, 2010).  These parts of the church must be considered in turn, beginning with the W. front.


This is a powerful piece of architecture, comprising the W. wall of the nave and the towers on either side.  The great round-arched doorway into the nave (illustrated below left), though very worn, is formed of seven moulded orders beneath a gable, bearing (from outside in) chevron on orders one, two, four and five, a roll on the third, and what might once have been beakhead on orders six and seven, together supported on jambs with attached circular shafts and chevron moulding alternately.  The wall above the doorway is pierced by three stepped round-arched windows, with side shafts with scalloped capitals.  The towers on either side rise up in massive square section for the first stage in the case of the southwest tower and the first two stages in the case of the northwest tower, above which the two upper stages of the southwest tower are probably late fourteenth century Perpendicular work, still square in section but narrower, with two-light bell-openings with straightened reticulation units in their heads, and the third (bell-) stage of the northwest tower is Early English and octagonal. Both towers communicate with the nave inside through Transitional pointed arches, and a third, similar arch (shown below right) leads from the southwest tower into the aisle.  (The northwest tower now has a door in this position, opening into the grounds of Port Eliot.)


Transitional work in the nave comprises the two unequal western bays of the arcade (seen in the photograph, below left, viewed from the west end of the nave), formed of pointed arches of two plain orders, supported on very wide circular piers with square scalloped capitals and a matching W. respond.  They are continued eastward by four similar but slenderer bays, built after the partial collapse of the original work in 1592 (St. Germans Church; a History and Guide, p. 16).  Well before this however, perhaps around 1340, the widening of the two eastern bays of the aisle to form a chapel, required the construction of new windows, of which the westernmost S. window survives.  Whatever windows were inserted further east were themselves replaced in Tudor times by the two uncusped, three-light windows present today, which are much less attractive but seen to better effect inside, for reasons that will appear below.  The E. wall is pierced by a pair of three-light windows at the lower level, with central lights stepped down and wheels of tracery above, and a third three-light window above and between. The lower windows are separated by a niche, now housing a modern statue of Christ the Good Shepherd, and the S. wall shelters in a recess the remains of a large tomb-chest, which at some point in time has been badly vandalised.


The four-light S. windows in the four western bays of the aisle (seen in the photograph at the top of the page) have been renewed externally but appear contemporary with the widening of this part of the aisle (i.e. early Perpendicular) inside and feature tracery which - described from west to east - is reticulated in the first, alternate with subreticulation and split 'Y's in the second, alternate with subreticulation, split 'Y's and subarcuation of the lights in pairs in the third, and alternate with subreticulation, subarcuation and a supertransom in the last.  (See the glossary for an explanation of the terms employed here.)  Perhaps a new E. window was inserted in the choir around the same time, for it appears to have been re-used in the chancel when the choir was shortened in 1539 (ibid).  This is five-light and transomed, with cinquefoil-cusped lights above and below the transom, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and strong mullions either side of the central light (as illustrated, from the inside, above right).  The shallow S. porch is open to the west and south, and communicates with the main body of the church through a door in the E. wall, leading down steps into the S. aisle;  it has a barrel-vaulted ceiling divided into squares, each crossed by a pair of diagonal ribs.


Perhaps unsurprisingly after all these changes of plan, carpentry in the building is largely lacking in interest, but the church contains some important stained glass and monuments that demand attention.   The most important glass is to be found in the chancel E. window (seen above right) and in the two square-headed S. windows in the chapel (illustrated  below), which was designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and executed by William Morris & Co.  It features the four Evangelists and St. Stephen in the E. window lower tier, Christ flanked by SS. Mary and Mary Magdalene in the E. window upper tier, and the allegorical figures of Joy, Justice, Faith, Hope, Charity and Praise in the chapel S. windows, and 'brings home most forcibly the value of William Morris's reform.  Here are clear outlines, pleasing patterns, and simple colours in sufficiently large expanses to be taken in individually.  No overcrowding, no competing with the art of painting, and yet a sentiment that is wholly of the C19' (Pevsner). 


No less worthy of consideration is the principal monument in the church, notwithstanding the dark and dingy position it now occupies beneath the northwest tower.  Described by Pevsner as 'the most ambitious monument in Cornwall', this is the work of Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), the greatest statuary working in England in the early eighteenth century, albeit that it is, admittedly, one of the artist's earliest signed works and looks, perhaps, somewhat disjointed, with its constituent elements rather too far apart.   Commemorating Edward Eliot (d. 1722), it is particularly interesting, however, for the striking contrast it provides to Rysbrack's monument to John Knight (d. 1733), at Gosfield in Essex, who had married Eliot's wife's sister (née Cragg), for whereas there, the seated figures of the deceased and the donor occupy positions of near equality, here, Eliot is shown reclining on his left elbow while a seated female to his right (who may or may not have been intended to be his wife) looks down solicitously, while above,  putti bear his medallion portrait up to heaven in accordance with a well-worn, suitably elevated theme for 'polite' monuments in the days of the Whig supremacy.  The Latin inscription translates as 'This is a monument to their undying love, the weeping, yearning and longing of spirit;  a wife, alas, once very happy, places this until his and her ashes may be put together', and Matthew Craske records that Eliot's widow's 'reaction to bereavement was intense.  While Edward Eliot's brother... inherited, she retired.. [and u]nder the influence of [Alexander] Pope she embraced Catholicism and followed the continental pattern of a life of prayerful meditation until her death (The Silent Rhetoric of the Body, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 279-280).  Compare that with the behaviour of her sister at Gosfield indeed!