A saint, a hermit on high, and a cousin

I HAVE OFTEN VISITED my cousin, Peter, who lives near Bodmin in Cornwall. On my way to see him, I have always noticed signs pointing to roads leading to Roche. It was this year, only on our most recent visit to the area, that we first visited the small village about 6 miles southwest of Bodmin.  Roche, pronounced as in ‘poach’, and is French for ‘rock’, is known as ‘Tregarrek’ in the Cornish language, which means ‘homestead on the rock’, which is a suitable name for the place, as I will explain.

Hermitage at St Roche, Cornwall

Unfortunately, the parish church was closed when we stopped in Roche. It is dedicated to St Gomonda, one of the many saints barely known outside Cornwall. Robert Meller, who is compiling a fascinating multi-volume, encyclopaedic account of Cornwall, wrote of Gomonda:

“Precisely nothing is known about this female-sounding saint and in reality, she might have been Saint Gonand, a male saint.”

Nothing is known about St Gonand. It is also possible that the church was dedicated to Bishop Conan, the first bishop of St Germans, appointed in the 10th century. The church itself has a Norman font (which we were unable to see) and a mediaeval tower (15th century). The rest of the church was rebuilt between 1820 and 1822 in a style typical of older churches in the area.

St Gomonda’s churchyard, which we entered by crossing over a stile made of granite slabs, contains a weathered Cornish cross, a primitive-looking monolith about six feet in height. The stone is covered with man-made indentations or carvings. One of these depicts a sword, which according to Meller, is an unusual image to be found on a Cornish cross. There have been standing stones, menhirs, such as the cross at St Gomonda, since before Christianity arrived in Cornwall. The crosses with Christian symbolism date from the 5th century onwards. It is therefore possible that the one we saw at Roche was pre-Christian with later Christian carvings, but here I am merely guessing.

About 420 yards southeast of the parish church, there is a ruined early 15th century, two-storied hermit’s chapel. Like many holy Hindu shrines in India and the monasteries in Greece’s Meteora district, the chapel perches high above the land around it. It can be seen 60 feet above its surroundings on the top of Roche Rock, whose presence inspired the naming of the village near it. Built in 1409 and dedicated to St Michael, the chapel used to be accessed by an iron ladder. At some stage, the cell beneath the chapel (on the upper floor) was occupied by a leper, expelled from his village because of his illness. He survived because every day, his daughter, Gundred, carried him water from a well about a mile and a half away. For her compassion and kindness, she was sanctified, becoming yet another of the saints of Cornwall.

Roche Rock and its chapel figure in various folk legends, including “Tristan and Isolde”. Meller wrote that when King Mark was chasing the lovers, Tristan and Isolde:

“… they took refuge in Roche Chapel to escape capture …To escape capture from the soldiers, Tristan jumped out of the chapel window – referred to as ‘Tristan’s Leap’”

Putting aside legends, the Roche Rock is an exceptional geological feature. Geologists consider it to be the finest example of quartz-tourmaline rock in Britain. It is composed of quartz and black tourmaline, which is a type of granite also known as ‘schorl’. Schorl is extremely hard and resistant to being worn away by the weather. Over the millions of years since this large lump of stone was formed, the surrounding terrain has been worn away, leaving the prominent rock that we see today.

I doubt that I would have thought twice about visiting the place had my cousin not lived nearby. I first met Peter in the early 1980s or late 1970s. Then, I got to know him and his family as friends. In the late 1990s, I began researching my family history, a process that included filling in gaps on family trees. A relative in New Zealand provided me with much information about a branch of my mother’s extended family. You might be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered from this information what Peter and I never knew before – that we are related; we have a common ancestor. We found out that apart from being friends, we are also members of the same family. Peter and I are doubly related because my mother’s parents were second cousins once removed. Peter and I are not only 4th cousins but also 5th cousins.

Our first visit to Roche proved interesting. Small as it is, Roche contains several things to see, which are some of the many features that help to make Cornwall attractive for visitors. Although one might not want to stay there, it is worth making a small detour from the main A30 road to explore the place briefly.

ABC and a London school

I WAS HAPPY TO find a reprint of “History and Antiquities of Highgate” by Frederick Prickett, first published in 1842. He wrote in detail about the early history of Highgate School, which was founded in 1565 and which I attended between 1965, when the school celebrated its 400th anniversary, and 1970. While not wanting to reproduce all he wrote, I will present several aspects of his history of the early years of my ‘old school’, which attracted me.

Part of Highgate School

The story of Highgate School begins at Muswell Hill, one and a third miles north of Highgate. In mediaeval times, there was a holy well located there in what was an outpost of the central London Parish of Clerkenwell. Also, there was an image of Our Lady of Muswell, to which many pilgrims were attracted. The chapel associated with it was established in 1112 by the then Bishop of London. Pilgrims travelling from London to Muswell Hill would have had to ascent the steep slope of Highgate Hill. At the summit, there used to be a chapel or hermitage established some time before Robert de Braybrook (died 1404), Bishop of London, gave it to the poor hermit William Lichfield in 1386. Pilgrims could stop at the chapel to say prayers or rest in a small room attached to the chapel.

In 1531, Bishop John Stokesley (c1475-1539), the Roman Catholic Bishop of London and opponent of Lutheranism who christened the future Queen Elizabeth I, granted the hermitage/chapel to William Forte, the last hermit of Highgate. In 1565, the firmly Protestant Bishop Edmund Grindall (c1519-1583), who was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1576 and 1583, granted the chapel and “ houses, edifices, etc., gardens and orchards”,  to the ‘Grammar School’. It is at this point that we need to meet Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565).

According to Prickett, Sir Roger:

“…turned his attention to the law, and so effectually that he became successively reader in Lincoln’s Inn, a bencher of that society, serjeant at law, king’s serjeant, chief baron of the exchequer, and, finally, chief justice of the Kings Bench.”

Disaster struck when Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558) came to the throne. Sir Roger was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in drawing up the will of King Edward VI and for signing Lady Jane Grey’s instrument of succession as queen, and his daughters were disinherited. On his release, he settled in Hornsey, did not resume any of his former governmental positions, and worked as a barrister.

Sir Roger was a self-made success, not having relied on parental assistance. Out of gratitude to God, he:

“… he entertained the desire, participated in by many other pious and distinguished Protestants, of endowing a public grammar school, for the diffusion of knowledge and maintenance of true religion …”

He founded what was to become Highgate School in 1565, shortly before his death that year and left money in his will to support its existence.

In December 1571, the school’s six governors, one of whom was Sir Roger’s son, Jasper Cholmeley Esq., signed the school’s rules, laws, and statutes. There were thirteen of these regulations, the first of which included the words:

“ … there be an honest and learned schoolmaster appointed and placed to teach the scholars coming coming to this free school; which schoolmaster that so shall be placed, be Graduate of good, sober, and honest conversation, and no light person, who shall teach and instruct young children in their ABC and other English books …”

The ‘ABC’ mentioned was not, as I first thought, a simple introduction to the alphabet, but, as Prickett points out:

“… a black letter book, called the ABC with the Catechisme: that is to say, an instruction to be taught and learned of every child before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop…”

Prickett wrote that the “ABC with the Catechisme” was written by King Henry VII and then reprinted in the reign of Edward VI. Ian Green suggests that the text in this booklet first appeared as a section in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and then later separately (https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/03-3/rev_bru2.html#).

The school is no longer a ‘free school’ and has not been so for a long time. By the 1820s, the school, like many others in England at that time, had declined considerably, both materially and pedagogically. New classrooms and school buildings were built.  Then, in 1824, the statutes were modified considerably. Forty scholars chosen by the governors, and no more than this, from Highgate, Holloway, Hornsey, Finchley, Kentish Town, and other close areas, were to be admitted free of charge. Boys had to be between 8 and 18 years old. Each pupil, on being admitted to the school, had to pay twenty-one shillings (£1.05) towards the library. In addition to the forty scholars, other boys could attend the school for an annual fee of £12 and 12 shillings (£12.60).

How times have changed, Today, the school admits children between the ages of 3 and 18, both boys and girls. Sir Roger de Cholmeley would be pleased to learn that recently the school he founded has been recognised as the winner of ‘The Independent School of the Year 2020’ award. However, he might be shocked to learn that the annual fees for his ‘free school’ are in excess of £21,000