A triumph of Gothic Revival Architecture, Truro Cathedral is a dominating feature of the city’s skyline and best admired when silhouetted against the bright blue Cornish sky. But what is its story? How was this important hub of worship, art and the local community built and why?
“London of Southwest”
Although Truro may not be as old as some other places in Cornwall, it has a rich and illustrious history. It first emerged in the Norman times, when a settlement formed around a castle built in 1139-1140 at the site of the present-day Truro Courts of Justice.
By the beginning of the 14th century, Truro was an important port and a stannary town for assaying and stamping tin and copper from Cornish mines. Truro’s prosperity peaked in the 18th and 19th century, when wealthy mine owners moved to the town and many elegant Georgian and Victorian townhouses and squares were built.
Truro became the centre of society in the county, a place where you wanted to be seen, and it was even called “London of Southwest”. During this period the town benefited from smelting works, tanneries, potteries, boatyards and transporting tin and timber on the river. In 1860 the Great Western Railway connected Truro with London Paddington, only increasing the town’s prosperity and appeal.
Diocese of Cornwall
As a result of this prosperity, the new Bishopric of Truro was founded in 1876. Its first bishop was elected in the person of Edward White Benson. Queen Victoria granted Truro the city status the following year (1877).
The new bishopric needed a cathedral and there were several potential sites, most of them more venerable than Truro. However, the vibrant and prosperous county capital was selected and its 13th century parish church of St Mary became a cathedral. Although St Mary’s had been rebuilt in the Georgian style in 1768, it was deemed too modest for a cathedral and plans were drawn for a new building.
The first Anglican cathedral since Salisbury
The local resolve to build the first Anglican cathedral at a new site since the completion of Salisbury Cathedral in 1220 was stronger than ever. The architect John Loughborough Pearson, a leading proponent of the Gothic Revival style, was commissioned to design the new Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the work began in 1880. However, the funds for this mammoth project were not fully secured and fundraising took place while the cathedral was being built. This did not dampen the resolve of Truronians, who from the laying of the foundation stones were determined that their city should be graced by a most splendid new shrine.
Two foundation stones
On 20 May 1880 the Duke of Cornwall, later King Edward VII, laid two foundation stones. Due to limited space, the laying of the first was witnessed only by a small group of people. The second stone was therefore laid on the same day in front of thousands of people in an open grass area where the nave was eventually built.
The second foundation stone was a base of a pillar and unlike other pillar bases it was made from granite as it had to endure three decades of weather while the rest of the cathedral was built around it.
The granite base was also a notable symbol of people’s resolve that despite financial uncertainty, the new cathedral would be completed.
And so it happened…
The construction of Truro Cathedral took 30 years. First, the chancel and the transepts were built and consecrated by the Duke of Cornwall in 1887. Then the building work stopped as more funds needed to be secured.
The work recommenced after an eleven-year pause in 1898. By then the cathedral’s original architect John Loughborough Pearson had passed away but the project was brought to its completion by his son, Frank Pearson. The nave was dedicated in 1903 and the central tower was finished by 1905. The cathedral was completed with the dedication of the two western towers in 1910.
What is there to see
The cathedral’s crowning glory is stained-glass windows by Clayton and Bell. Featuring some of the finest Victorian stained glass in the country, they depict three big themes: The Trinity, Biblical stories and the history of the English church.
The cathedral’s two foundation stones are both visible to visitors: the first from outside, in the northeast corner, and the second in the southern side of the nave. You will recognise the second one, a granite pillar base, by its colour: it is grey unlike other pillar bases in the nave.
A beautifully ornate part of the cathedral is the baptistery, dedicated to the Anglican priest Henry Martyn. The life of this miner’s son and missionary from Truro is depicted in a set of windows. The font is made from red breccia marble from North Africa and the green serpentine rock from the Lizard.
The intricately decorated mosaic floor in the baptistery and chancel was helped laid by Italian craftsman Antonio Bertolucci. He travelled to Truro from Lucca, Italy, and eventually settled down and married a local girl. He was also known for his delicious ice cream.
The focus of worship, the high altar stands against a magnificent screen or reredos. The central theme of the carvings is the Crucifixion. If you look closely, you will find the Green Man surrounded by foliage amidst the carvings.
Another important part of the cathedral’s life is music. Truro Cathedral has hosted performances by many esteemed choirs and individual artists. The award-winning Truro Cathedral Choir and Truro Choral Society continue the tradition of Cornish choral music, contributing to the art of Cornwall.
Truro Cathedral boasts three organs. One of these is a Father Willis Organ, delivered by boat and installed in 1887. This splendid instrument is the main protagonist of many recitals and concerts held at the cathedral to this day, which are bound to nourish your soul.
After nourishing your soul, what about some nourishment for the body? This you will find in abundance at Cathedral Restaurant. Located in the Chapter House to the rear of the Cathedral, this hidden gem in the heart of Truro offers tasty breakfasts, lunches and cream tea at affordable prices. However, it is much more than just a restaurant. It has become a community hub, a place to meet friends and family. On some Sundays, the restaurant serves Sunday roast, but booking in advance is essential.
Where to Stay
Fal River Cottage is a perfect base for exploring Truro, its cathedral, old squares and shops. The cottage’s location on the confluence of the rivers Truro and Tresillian means that it is mere 2 miles out of Truro and within walking distance of the city on the footpaths along Malpas Road.
Postcode: TR1 2AF
Distance from Fal River Cottage: 2 miles via Malpas Road
Guided tours of the cathedral: Monday-Thursday 11 am (free)
Cathedral shop: Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00; Saturday 10:00 to 16:00; Sunday 11:00 to 15:00
Refreshments: Cathedral Restaurant, open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 15:30, Saturday 09.30 to 15:30; tel. no.: 01872 245011. Advance booking essential for Sunday carvery.