Stones of Glasney College reveal a Medieval churchman's dream at Penryn Museum

By Ralph Gifford | 01 April 2011
a photo of a selection of carved stone fragments
The stones of Glasney College are among the treaures of a History of Cornwall in 100 Objects© Cornwall Museums and Bernie Pettersen
Situated one mile North-West of Falmouth, the parish town of Penryn has over the years witnessed its larger neighbour dominate both the limelight and to some extent the wealth. For the inquisitive eye, however, Penryn hides an intriguing past which few other places in Cornwall can match.

As you walk up Penryn's main road, Market Street, it splits to allow traffic to pass by the museum that stands prominently in the centre of the town. Inside its old granite walls lies a collection of items and artefacts, representing a diverse history.  

Among them, one object particularly sparks the imagination: the model, stones and diagrams of Glasney College, a building with a story that has the capability to delight the hardiest local or most cynical visitor.

a photo of a model of a church priory in a display case
© Penryn Museum. Photo Ralph Gifford
Today, if you were to say that Penryn once had a Cathedral which was two-thirds the size of Exeter’s, people would most probably say you were having a funny dream. Funnily enough, a smaller replica did exist - Glasney college - and it was all because of a dream. 

The Bishop of Exeter, Walter Bronescombe, was told in a dream by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, to found a college by a large willow tree that contained a swarm of bees. This vision inspired Bronescombe to set about building Glasney College in 1265.

As bishop of Exeter, Bronescombe based the design of Glasney on his home town cathedral. Local Cornish granite was used together with limestone from Caen in Normandy and Beer in Devon. The college was walled with two towers to guard it from attack.

Once completed, the site included a complex of cloisters, a chapter house, a refectory, an infirmary, mills, housing, a deer park and a fish pond as well as the cathedral. At its peak the college is thought to have been able to accommodate around 70 people.
 
a photo of a drawing of a priory building
A drawing of the layout at Glasney College © Penryn Museum. Photo Ralph Gifford
For 300 years Glasney College served as the administrative centre and ecclesiastical powerbase of Cornwall and for the diocese of Exeter. It was used to train priests for the surrounding parishes and is noted for being a highly regarded place of study for young clergymen.
 
“Glasney gave Penryn its status because people relied on the college as a centre for the training of priests,” confirms Mary Hearn, one of Penryn Museum’s knowledgable volunteers. “It is part of our past which people seem to forget, but they need to remember that if it wasn’t for Glasney Penryn probably wouldn’t be here.”

Penryn reaped the benefits of having such a prestigious college on its door step.  While Glasney was being used by the church the town experienced a phase of growth. This was due to the stable population and income that the college brought to the town.
 
Trainee priests who lived within the college walls had their accommodation paid for by the local gentry, but they were left to fend for themselves when it came to finding money for food and supplies. 

This meant many of the college’s inhabitants helped the townsfolk work the fields, and large quantities of the rock dug in local quarries to build the college were also loaded onto ships and exported overseas.

Penryn’s market also flourished as it grew to become a central source of income for the farmers that lived in the surrounding area. All of these factors helped to bring wealth, people, knowledge and skills to the town.

a photo of a selection of carved and painted stone fragments
© Cornwall Museums and Bernie Pettersen
Sadly the prosperity was not to last because of Henry VIII’s split with the Catholic church. Although it survived the catastrophic dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541, in 1548, a year after Henry’s death, the college was sold for £149 to Giles Keylwaye for building materials. 

But once again the college benefited Penryn. Much of the stone from Glasney was used in buildings in the town, and some of them are still standing today. The rate of growth and the amount of wealth found in the town began to drop after the college was sold, with traders preferring Falmouth as a place to do business.

a photo of a display case with various stone remnants in it
© Penryn Museum. Photo Ralph Gifford
The only remnant of Glasney College visible above ground today is a small section of stonework. Nevertheless there are known to be significant remains below ground after an archaeological dig revealed extensive remnants in 2001. 

Glasney College stones are now thought to be so important to Cornish history that they have recently been included in Cornwall Museums’ History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’ project, which is aiming to highlight the people, places and items that make Cornwall what it is. Few would argue with Glasney’s inclusion.

Penryn’s small, fascinating and unique museum opens the door to this invisible history that lies buried beneath the town. If it were not for the commitment and enthusiasm of the volunteers there and the Friends of Glasney College, who also care for the remains of the college and promote its history, this incredible period in the town’s past would simply be forgotten.

Whether you have been a resident of Penryn for many years or are simply visiting, take the time to visit the museum. You will have your eyes opened to the dream of Bishop Walter Bronescombe. 
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