Introduction A new cathedral in an age of doubt

The first view for visitors to Truro of the majestic three spires of the cathedral towering over the rooftops of the city leads many of them to think that it must be a medieval building. Truro cathedral is, however, a late-Victorian building, and was the first new Anglican Cathedral to be built in England since the replacement of St Paul’s in London.

Truro Cathedral

For over nine hundred years, Cornwall was part of the Diocese of Exeter. The sheer size of that Diocese meant that the Bishop of Exeter was a rare visitor west of the Tamar, and there was a growing pressure from the leading Cornish Anglicans during the nineteenth century to create a separate diocese for Cornwall1. After rejecting the earlier alternatives of the parish churches of St Petroc, Bodmin and St Columb Major2 the crucial decision was made that the cathedral for the new diocese would be St Mary the Virgin parish church in Truro. The size and condition of this church was completely inadequate for its new purpose. It did however have a large adjacent churchyard, so creating the opportunity to build the first cathedral on a new site in England for over four hundred years.

Edward White Benson was appointed the first Bishop of Cornwall in (Cathedral Time-Line 1), and fund-raising commenced immediately to replace St Mary’s parish church with a new cathedral. Benson knew that Cornwall, the poorest county in England, could never generate sufficient funds to complete the new cathedral in one stage. Cornwall’s very strong non-Conformist tradition meant that much of the population would offer no financial support for his vision. So he persuaded the Prince of Wales to lay two stones during the foundation ceremony on 20th May 1880. The first was placed at the northeast end of the retro-quire where building was to commence. The second, placed in half a granite pillar, was in the middle of the old churchyard of St Mary’s parish church next to High Cross, where the last part of the nave would eventually be built.3 Within five months, the old parish church and first cathedral was demolished, except for its south aisle, on to which the new cathedral was to be built.

As Benson anticipated, the initial funds for the building of the cathedral were exhausted by . The completed quire and transepts were consecrated, the nave arch was bricked up, and all construction ceased for eleven years. Archbishop Benson’s4 death in stimulated a second phase of fund-raising and enabled the next stage of construction to start in . On the death of architect John Loughborough Pearson in , the work was taken over by his son Frank Loughborough Pearson, using his father’s plans. The completion of the nave and the central tower was marked by a service of Benediction on 15th July 1903. The whole building was completed by the erection of the two western towers, and a second service of Benediction was held on 20th June 1910.

Truro cathedral was followed in the twentieth century by new cathedrals at Liverpool, Guildford and Coventry. Like its successors, Truro started from ‘a blank sheet of paper’ and like them its architectural style reflected the age in which it was built. Truro cathedral was a product of the High Victorian Gothic Revival, and Pearson’s design was modified in only the smallest details during the thirty years of its construction. It became therefore a time-capsule of what Victorians envisaged a major ecclesiastical building dedicated to the glory of God should be in the late 1870s. It reflected their religious beliefs, social attitudes, artistic tastes and indeed their latent fears. This is particularly true of its stained glass windows, almost all of which were inserted in the astonishingly short space of less than twenty-five years. The size and ambitious scope of the glazing scheme make the stained glass of Truro unique. Designed and made by one glass studio, the whole scheme for the new windows was conceived as an artistic and theological unity.

The vision for the cathedral’s stained glass windows had a specific relevance to the new Diocese. The iconography of the windows reinforced both the fundamental Christian beliefs and the tradition of Christianity in Cornwall from the Celtic saints. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, before the establishment of the Truro Diocese, Cornish Anglicanism was in a poor condition both in terms of its state of morale and in the physical fabric of its buildings.5. During the first half of the nineteenth century Cornish parishes suffered greatly from pluralism. The diaries of both Bishop Benson and his Canon Missioner Arthur Mason contain heart-breaking accounts of the state many incumbents were in; their poverty, their isolation and the collapse of their morale.6. The intention behind the window scheme was a direct response to this lamentable state of affairs, being a sterling reminder of the county’s proud and long Christian heritage, and a boost to the flagging morale of many parishes of the Diocese. In fact, the Cornish elements in the windows scheme of were a pioneer part of the Celtic-Catholic Revival in the county.7

The window scheme also sent a message to those Cornish Christians who were not members of the Anglican Church. For many decades the main challenge to Anglicanism in Cornwall had come from the Nonconformists, particularly from the proliferation of the various Wesleyan Methodist chapels throughout the county.8 In Cornwall, as in other districts where Dissent prevails, the unity of the Church, the grace of the Sacraments, the apostolic ministry, are, not only neglected, but too often scorned.9

Why was it necessary to envisage such a multi-layered didactic scheme for the stained glass windows in the first place, rather than following the usual practice of appealing for donors and allowing them a relatively free hand in the choice of subject-matter? Canon Missioner Mason gave a clue to the answer when he referred to the Church History sequence in the quire and nave aisles as a vision of great teaching value especially at the present time (author’s emphasis)10 The stained glass windows, like the whole building, were a statement for their age, and their iconography reflected many of the contemporary debates and concerns of the Anglican Church in High Victorian England. Owen Chadwick characterised this period in the Church’s history as an Age of Doubt: the religious question of the last forty years of the [nineteenth] century is the appearance of ‘unbelief’.11 Such Doubt was the result of a number of concerns; concerns that Bishop Benson and Canon Mason would have been strongly aware of in when they started working on the Master Scheme for the stained glass windows. Four specific events from this decade have been chosen to illustrate the contemporary concerns that must have been uppermost in their minds.

Firstly, with the publication by Charles Darwin of Descent of Man in , the doctrine of evolution became axiomatic, or probable, or tolerable to many educated Englishmen.12 In the early 1880s the Church of England generally was perceived as being under threat from increased secularism and post-Darwinian scientific theories. The idea that science and religion were somehow in conflict had created a sense of ‘unsettlement’ of faith for at least two decades.13

Secondly, the presentation of the revised version of the New Testament in marked the culmination of decades of debate about the reliability and interpretation of the standard Biblical texts, stemming from the translation into English of such seminal texts as Strauss’ Life of Jesus and Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity.14 These years of controversy over Biblical criticism added to the pervading sense of unsettlement of these times.

Thirdly, such a sense of unsettlement had been exacerbated when the publication of Essays and Reviews in caused immense debate and controversy in the Anglican Church. Essays and Reviews claimed that a gap was exposed between Christian doctrine and the beliefs of the educated man; that the truth of Christianity was no longer tied to the maintenance of the exact truth of a detailed Biblical record of events; and that citing miracles and prophecies was not a proof of revelation.15 The resultant case against Bishop Temple of Exeter in and the earlier one of Cornish-born Bishop Colenso before the judicial committee16 brought these controversies directly into southwest England. By these debates were still raging.

Lastly, the sense of unsettlement and lack of belief was brought to the fore in by the election of the atheist Charles Bradlaugh as Member of Parliament for Northampton.17 Six years of debate and legal actions that followed before he was able to take his seat forced the issue of unbelief into public discussion. What was true of the conflict between science and religion was true of the wider conflict between reason and religion.18

So, it was within this Cornish and national context that Benson and Mason felt a pressing need to use the new cathedral’s stained glass windows in an assertive and didactic manner. The windows were to be a visual expression of the traditional High Anglican teachings of the Faith in an increasingly sceptical, apathetic or hostile environment. In an age when the theory of evolution looked menacing to traditional Christian beliefs, I believe in God the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth became a moral assertion as well as a metaphysical one.

Benson and Mason had little sympathy with the Evangelical and Broad Church wings of the Church of England.19 At the foundation-laying ceremony, the dignified ceremonial and Solemn Eucharist, to say nothing of the Masonic ritual, would have caused a Protestant outburst even a decade earlier. The establishment of daily Holy Communion in the new cathedral, together with the use of Eucharistic vestments, Reservation and the use of incense on special occasions are only some of the examples of the way in which Catholic worship was established as the norm for Truro Cathedral from the start.20 The cathedral’s stained glass windows were the theological, visual and artistic context for these Catholic liturgies and rituals.

Thus the vision behind the scheme for the stained glass windows, like that of the building as a whole, had a resonance to Anglicans, Dissenters and non-believers in the new Diocese, and was a response to the sense of Doubt in the national Anglican communion. Truro’s windows were conceived as a vision of theological and artistic unity; their story and the manner in which the vision was fulfilled is the subject of this work.


  1. H Miles Brown (HMB 1): The Story of Truro Cathedral. Redruth, , pp. 3–6
  2. HMB 1 p. 5
  3. Donaldson AB, The Bishopric of Cornwall, the first twenty-five years , p 113. , London, Rivingtons. It was at Benson’s insistence, against contrary advice, that building should begin with the quire and the east end, not the nave and the west end.
  4. Benson was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in .
  5. Donaldson , op. cit., p 20. The condition of the Church in Cornwall, up to the close of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, cannot have presented many admirable features.
  6. Benson AC, The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, London, Macmillan and Co., Limited, , Vol Ⅰ, p 429 and DD/716/69/3, Canon Mason’s diaries .
  7. Philip Payton : Cornwall, a history. Fowey, , p. 260.
  8. TCM/115 Copy of letter from Bishop Benson, dated : An earnest, quiet, but strictly systematic and organised place, unpretentious, but solidly based, centralised in persons immediately connected with the whole Episcopal work, forming part of the Church system, with no aggressive or spasmodic character, is what is urged on me on every side by those who are well acquainted with the excitable Cornish character and the evils of Revivals as the Methodists have worked them. Many have said (and all have approved) that such work should emanate from the Cathedral and be founded in it.
  9. Donaldson , op. cit., p 17.
  10. TCM/919. Letter from Canon Mason to Chancellor Worlledge.
  11. Owen Chadwick (OC) : The Victorian Church, Part Ⅱ, London , p. 112.
  12. OC : p. 5.
  13. OC : p. 2.
  14. Both volumes were translated by George Eliot in and respectively.
  15. OC : p. 77.
  16. A memorial window to Bishop Colenso was dedicated in in the south aisle of St Austell parish church, donated by townspeople and friends. Provocatively, the subject chosen for the window was Christ standing trial in front of Pilate.
  17. DD/716/69/4, Canon Mason’s diaries , record a local Cornishman who danced in front of Bradlaugh’s portrait on his election victory, but after attending one of Mason’s missions burnt the portrait.
  18. OC : p. 113.
  19. DD/716/69/4, Canon Mason’s diaries , The Bishop said what Broad Churchmen do—they will not tell you which way to go, but they rehearse all the advantages of the second and third best ways.
  20. Keast, H. The Catholic Revival in Cornwall 1833–1983, p 9. Helston, Catholic Advisory Council for Cornwall, .