St Kea: Truth, Legend, and the Rounds at Playing Place

 In the summer of 2021 Kresen Kernow, the Cornish archive centre in Redruth, hosted an exhibition called in Cornish Mes a’n Kemmyn or Out of the Ordinary. Almost certainly for the first time ever four texts were brought together under one roof which played a very significant part of Cornwall’s written and language heritage. The texts were The Cornish Ordinalia, which provided the title of the exhibition, The Creation of the World [both on loan from the Bodleian Library at Oxford], The Life of St Meriadoc or Bewnans Meriasek and The Life of St Kea or Bewnans Ke [on loan from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.]

Exhibition Poster 2021

Image courtesy of Kresen Kernow

This was the first time that all the major dramatic works that survive from Cornwall had been brought together. Together they represented four of the six Cornish language texts, so effectively two-thirds of the remains of the Cornish language.









On the left are the manuscripts of The Ordinalia and The Creation of the World. On the right are the manuscripts of Bewnans Ke and Bewnans Meriasek

Image courtesy of Kresen Kernow


The terms Bewnans and Beunans are both used for these plays.



This exhibition featuring Bewnans Ke provides an opportunity to look at what is known about St Kea, the importance of Glasney College in Penryn, the Cornish ‘mystery’ plays and the function and importance of the many Plen an Gwari or Playing Places in Cornwall, and especially the rounds at Playing Place in Kea. It also provides an opportunity to look at the historical relationship between the people of Cornwall and England, and the ongoing controversy about this relationship.

[Note: the fourth text, The Creation of the World, was an offshoot of Origo Mundi, part of the Ordinalia, it was copied in 1611 probably from an earlier text but is not discussed here.]

The Discovery of the manuscript of Bewnans Ke

In 1999 a distinguished Celtic scholar, Professor J E Caerwyn Williams, died and his widow donated his papers to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. During the cataloguing process in 2000 it was realised that one paper was not in Welsh but in Cornish. It is far from complete, several leaves are missing, including the entire beginning and ending, and it had no title in the text, but after consulting scholars of Cornish it was given its present title. It is a play about the life of St Kea and its existence was entirely unknown until 2000. The discovery proved to be one of the most significant finds in the study of Cornish literature and language.

It is not known where Professor Caerwyn Williams obtained the play, it is not thought he discussed it with other Celtic scholars and though he had transcribed the first seventeen lines he had not taken editing any further.

Bewnans Ke is one of only two known Cornish plays based on a saint’s life; the other being Bewnans Meriasek, the life of St Meriadoc who was the patron saint of Camborne. There is clearly some relationship between the two plays.

A page from Bewnans Ke

Image courtesy of the National Library of Wales














It is believed the manuscript was created in the second half of the sixteenth century by a scribe copying a document dating perhaps to around 1500. In two places the copyist complains about the poor quality of the original. The provenance is entirely unknown, but the language is Middle Cornish, similar to that of Bewnans Meriasek, the only other surviving Cornish play concerning a saint’s life. This and other similarities between the plays suggest that both were composed around the same time and in the same environment, most probably at Glasney College in Penryn. If this is correct, Bewnans Ke may have been performed in the Plen An Gwari at “Playing Place”, a fragment of which still survives.

 What historians know about St Kea

The most recent authoritative study of the early church in Cornwall was written in 2007 by Professor Nicholas Orme of Exeter University and is titled ‘Cornwall and the Cross: Christianity 500 – 1560’. Orme points out that in England most churches were dedicated to well-known national or international saints [such as Mary or Peter]tt, and relatively few to local ones. Whereas in Cornwall, Wales and Brittany most churches are associated with local saints. Orme states that there were at least 185 sites in medieval Cornwall named after, or associated with, people believed to be ‘Brittonic’ saints from Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. The saints themselves numbered 140 as some had more than one site, 78 were venerated only in Cornwall and 62, including Kea, were also venerated in Brittany, Wales, or both, as well as Cornwall. The original identities of these Brittonic saints are generally unknown as the Lives about them were written long after the saints were supposed to have lived, were not based on any historical records ‘but on local folklore and contemporary views of what a saint should be like’. ‘The Lives placed their heroes and heroines in an imagined ‘age of the saints’, which the authors seem to have envisaged in about the 400s and 500s. The saints were visualised as holy men and women who came to Cornwall from elsewhere, usually Ireland or Wales, after which they founded a church and a holy well, and sometimes met a violent death for religious, or other reasons. Little or none of this can be confirmed…No saints are known to have been martyred, and even their personal saintliness cannot be proved…Most likely they were important local people who founded churches or were buried in graveyards that came to be named after them…Their owners could have lived at any period before the tenth or eleventh centuries, not excluding pre-Christian times’. In many of the Lives there is also a hint of pagan practices continuing in the 500s as many saints are shown in a struggle with pagans, notably a wicked ruler called Teudar.

Tradition has it that Kea was an Irish monk who floated across to Cornwall on a granite slab, or a millstone. Claims were made that this millstone had been identified at Old Kea. It is unsurprising that no evidence has been found to support this claim. Indeed, Orme argues that no evidence exists that any of the Irish saints ever came personally to Cornwall or were venerated there in medieval times.

From about 900 the history of the church in Cornwall becomes more clear thanks to a larger number of written records. Orme has identified from these records a dozen churches that existed with land and with communities of clergy by the eleventh century: St Buryan, St Keverne, Kea, Probus, Perranzabuloe, Crantock, Padstow, St Kew, Bodmin, St Neot, Launceston and St Germans. In addition, four churches were recorded as holding land: St Michael’s Mount, Constantine, Goran and Lansallos. Thus, Kea was one of a small handful of churches of some significance.

The Religious Houses of Cornwall in the eleventh century

From Cornwall and the Cross 500-1560 by Nicholas Orme, publisher Phillimore & Co Ltd by kind permission











Orme says ‘Some were religious houses staffed by groups of clergy, others were lesser churches likely to have been served at most by a single clergyman. By this period none of the religious houses was a monastery in the usual sense of the word: a church staffed by monks who were unmarried, lived communally and shared possessions together. Instead, they were churches of the kind historians call minsters, run by groups of clergy described in contemporary sources as canons, priests or clerks. Minster clergy lived in separate houses rather than a common dormitory, and often received a personal share of the revenues of the church instead of using such revenues in common. They might even be married and have families … All these minsters would have also acted as parish churches too, providing worship and pastoral care for the people in their neighbourhoods.’ We don’t know how many clergy each of these churches had in the eleventh century but in the thirteenth century Crantock had ten canons, Probus had six and St Buryan had four.

A cult of St Kea existed. He founded a church in Cornwall, he is associated with St Quai-Portrieux in Brittany and the Breton name of the latter is Sant-Ke-Porzh-Olued, and he is said to be buried in Cleder near Roscoff.

A more intriguing Welsh dimension was raised by Professor Andrew Breeze, an expert on the philology of Celtic languages and author of books on medieval Welsh literature. In 2009 in the Journal of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society he looked at some mysteries concerning the early life of St David. The earliest life of St David was written in Latin by a later bishop of St David’s, called Rhygyfarch, who became Bishop of St David’s in 1091. Scholars have long puzzled over the identity of ‘Litoninancam’, where following a dream David’s father, King Sanctus of Ceredigion, was told to lay up a store of food at a monastery in preparation for the birth of his son.  Many suggestions have been made, and a good number believe the last part is ‘Maucan’ which in Modern Welsh is ‘Meugan’. Many believe the monastery lay at Llanfeugan in north-east Pembrokeshire about five miles south of Cardigan. The cult of Meugan ‘was more widespread than that of any other Welsh pilgrim saint’ with churches dedicated to him in several parts of Wales beyond Pembrokeshire, in Brittany and in Cornwall where he is associated with Mawgan-in-Meneage [near Helston] and Mawgan-in-Pydar [near Newquay].  ‘Lives of Irish saints mention their studying at a British monastery called ‘Rosnat’, ruled by a certain ‘Maucennus’ [or St Meugan]. Recent discussion allows us to identify this place as Old Kea, on a creek on Truro river.’ Professor Breeze further argues that Llanfeugan Pembrokeshire, where he argues Meugan was originally based, ‘may thus be linked with Old Kea in Cornwall as sites significant in the sixth century British church’. Breeze’s most interesting claim relates to where a youthful David may have studied. The early life by Rhysgyfarch talks of David studying at ‘Lantquendi’ and Breeze argues ‘There are grounds to take this to be Old Kea, which is recorded in Domesday as Landighe ‘Church of St Kea’, a form lurking behind the ‘lantquendi’ of David’s Latin life’. He sees that before David a seminary and centre of studies existed at Lanfeugan ‘which looked to Old Kea in Cornwall, as well as to Brittany’. Breeze’s paper raises several fascinating questions about Old Kea, not least whether the youthful St David once studied there. Was the ‘Rosnat’ mentioned in the lives of the Irish saints the same as ‘Rosené’ mentioned below?

The Legend of St Kea by Albert Le Grand based on Maurice, ‘vicaire’ of Cléder

The first detailed account of St Kea was contained in the ‘Saints of Brittany’ written in 1637 by Albert Le Grand of Morlaix in Brittany. His source was an undated text written in Latin by a certain Maurice, ‘vicaire’ of Cléder in Northern Brittany, and Cléder is supposedly where the saint died in October 495 and he gave his name to the church.

The story told was that Saint Ké was born in Britain of noble parents, because of his great learning he was admitted to the priesthood and became a bishop, but finding his episcopal office too great to bear he resigned, went to the country of Cambria to become a hermit. He then prayed to ask God to make known his holy will.

Whilst in prayer, God told him he must obtain a bell and journey with it, and the bell would ring of its own accord when he reached a place called Rosené. Ké obtained the bell from Gildas, a famed bell founder who appears in many such saintly stories. Ké, together with other holymen, travelled for several days until when tired they lay down to rest on the grass ‘near an arm of the sea called Hildrech’. While resting, Ké heard a man by the shore calling to a man on the other side of the water asking if he had seen some lost cows, and the other man called back saying he had seen them the previous afternoon at Rosené. Ké thanked God and went down to the shore which became known as ‘Krestann-Ké or ‘the shore of Ké’. He then struck a rock from which fresh water poured and revived his companions, and to this day the sick who drink this water in faith will be cured.

Ké and his companions crossed the water into a thick forest, and the bell began to ring. Ké thanked God and began to build a small chapel for himself and cells for his companions. In a nearby castle called Gudrum lived a wicked king called Theodoric. One day whilst hunting in the forest of Rosené, Theodoric pursued a stag as far as the hermitage where it had fled. Ké refused to help Theodoric find the stag so the enraged Theodoric carried off the seven oxen and one cow which the monks had been using to plough. The next day eight stags appeared and allowed themselves to be yoked to the plough, and the ploughed field is still known as ‘Guestel Guevret or Field of the Stags’.

Ké later visited Theodoric to ask for the return of his oxen, but Theodoric became so angry he struck Ké in the mouth and knocked out one of his teeth. Ké patiently bore this and went to the well of the monastery where he washed out his mouth, and since then the water from this well has been said to cure toothache.

But God punished Theodoric and he fell ill. He sent for Ké who prayed for Theodoric who was cured. In return he gave back the confiscated livestock and also gave him ‘twelve arpents of land’ [French term, an arpent is 0.8 of an acre] which allowed him to build a larger monastery.

Ké then decided to travel to Brittany and left a superior to look after his companions. He crossed to Brittany and built a small monastery at Cléder on the North Brittany coast. This account does say that he did return to Britain where he became involved in the struggles surrounding King Arthur. He returned to Cléder where he died on the first Saturday in October 495. His sepulchre was preserved in a small chapel dedicated to him in the cemetery of Cléder.

Later editions of this book appeared which added little to the life of St Ké but did downplay his involvement in Arthurian exploits.

The Legend of St Kea from Bewnans Ke

[The provenance of Bewnans Ke will be discussed later.]

About 3,300 lines exist from what would have been approximately 5,600 lines in total and although large parts are missing the sections follow closely the story told by Albert Le Grand. Will Coleman in his ‘Plen An Gwari: The Playing Places of Cornwall’, has summarised the plot:

  1. Ke arrives in Cornwall: his magic bell rings by itself showing him where to build his chapel [‘Rosewa’]
  2. Ke gets beaten up: Teudar’s torturers knock out three of Ke’s teeth and steal his oxen
  3. Ke performs miracles: he brings water from a rock, tames wild stags and brings a man back to life
  4. Teudar is sorry: Ke asks for as much land as he can ‘empark’ whilst Teudar is having a bath
  5. Ke gets the land: Teudar gets stuck in his bath by the potions of the herbalist, Owbra, whilst Ke magically builds a hedge between two rivers [at Kea]

There is a further section dealing with the story of King Arthur, as there is in the version told by Albert Le Grand, but much of this is missing.

Bewnans Ke – and the geography of the area

Although Bewnans Ke is full of myth and legend it reveals a very deep knowledge of the geography of the part of Kea parish adjacent to the Truro and Fal rivers.

One of the episodes contained within Bewnans Ke describes how Teudar, full of remorse for the injuries he has inflicted on Kea, offers the saint anything he wishes. Kea replies that all he wants is as much land as Kea can enclose whilst Teudar is having his bath, and the King agrees to give Kea this land in perpetuity. Due to a spell cast upon Teudar his bath takes far longer than anticipated and Kea is able to enclose far more land than the king envisaged.

The following is an extract from this section:


Gorthys rebbo Du a nef!

Gans gweras theworts ef

ny rys thymmo bos ameys.

A dyr bryntyn the wonys

teurant re bo confoundys,

hedre vema orth e geya

[prejadow Ke the conoundya Teurant].



Arluth, re by comfortys!

Ema a fyreth wharvethys

gans an loral Ke pur wyer.

ha fos fest bras drehevys.

Pan vo hy culdwethys,

hy a ustun mer a dyer.



Ny gresef awos an bys

bos maner thotho parkys

a dyrath whath’

A’n geffa den in danna,

aban eth a alemma,

ny gressa’ hanter un lath.



Me a wor gwyer hag a’n crys

bos ke thotha drehevys

theworth Kewnans an Velyn

bys in Tremustel Penpol.

A’n mor the gela cowal

pur theffry ef a’n ystyn.

Lorth war e lergh ef a thray

hag e fyth ke bras ha gay

war e lergh, re Syn Turpyn!

[theworth Kewnans an Velyn by Keward

Tremustel Penpol Wartha]



Praised be the God of heaven!

With help from him

I need not be dismayed.

A tyrant has been deprived

of land fine for cultivation

while I have been enclosing it.

[the prayer of Kea to confound a tyrant].



Lord, may you be comforted!

A miracle has occurred

in truth at the hands of the rascal Kea, and a very large ditch has been constructed.

When it is finished,

it will encompass much land.



I do not believe for all the world

that he has enclosed for himself

a manor of land yet.

What a man would have under him,

since he went hence,

I do not believe to be half a yard.



I know truly and believe it

that he has built a hedge

from Kewnans an Velyn

to Tremustel by Penpol.

Wholly from one sea to the other

in very truth it encloses.

He produces a track after him

and there will be a hedge, large and fair,

after him, by St Turpyn!

[From Kewnans an Velyn to Keward

Tremustel – Upper Penpol]

The section within brackets represents additional notes on the manuscript. From Bewnans Ke, The Life of St Kea, A Critical Edition with Translation by Graham Thomas and Nicholas Williams 2007


From Plen An Gwari, the Playing Places of Cornwall by kind permission of Will Coleman and Heidi Ball

The land Kea managed to enclose by a hedge is said to have extended from Kewnans an Velyn to Tremustell by Penpol, from sea to sea. Kewnans is the present day Cowlands. Cowlands is noted by the Cornish historian Charles Henderson in documents dated 1633 and 1653, and Cownance Mill in a document dated 1631.

Penpol [or more recently Penpoll], the head of an inlet, is mentioned in the form ‘penpol woeles juxta Landege’ in documents dated by Henderson to 1309, and as ‘Penpolwartha’ or Upper Penpol in documents of 1464 and 1646. [Unfortunately, the recent major work on Bewnans Ke by Graham Thomas and Nicholas Williams, published in 2007, muddles the Penpol in Kea with the Penpol in Feock. This confuses their argument about the location of Tremustel which they believe lay in Feock parish.]




The Tremustel mentioned in Bewnans Ke is certainly the present Trevaster, first mentioned in 1275. Yet it was spelled Trevalwester in 1416 , Trevalwyster in 1446 and Trewaster in 1577 but Tremustell in Bewnans Ke. So the spelling is certainly at odds with that of Bewnans Ke but its identification is not in doubt.’

The hedge described in Bewnans Ke would have run north from Cowlands through the modern hamlet of Porth Kea and north east to Penpol. Following this route today, via Higher Lanner farm, the present road which takes the route of medieval tracks runs between deep banks which would have existed at the time Bewnans Ke was written, and it may not be fanciful to wonder if it was this feature that gave the author the idea of the hedge which Kea apparently built.

Although Thomas and Williams were confused about the location of Penpol, they are correct about their identification of Rosene where Kea landed. ‘The forest of Rosené in the “Life” in which Kea first settles …is probably to be identified with the rounded hill area, thickly wooded, lying to the north of Old Kea church (and probably extending southwards to include the church enclosure), which forms a spur of land jutting out into the course of the Truro river’.

See Google image below.

The debate about the authorship of Bewnans Ke will be discussed later, but it is very likely it was written by one of the canons of Glasney College at Penryn. Glasney had very close links with Kea. One of the leading figures in Cornwall in the mid-thirteenth century was Stephen Heym  who held important secular posts and at different times was Sheriff of Cornwall and Steward to the Duchy of Cornwall. In addition, he had been granted a papal dispensation to hold several parish livings most of which were in Cornwall. Charles Henderson noted that in 1265 Stephen Heym had been instituted Rector of ‘Landege and Kenwen’ and in 1266 purchased the manor of ‘Landeke’. Heym was one of the original Canons of Glasney and by an undated charter gave the advowson or living of the parish of Kea to the College together with a section of land one perch wide and twenty perches long close to the Sanctuary [or Glebe]. Although the manor of Landegay eventually passed to the Lercedekne family [associated with the castle at Ruan Lanihorne] Henderson noted ‘that the Provost and Canons of Glasney in 1270 persuaded Bishop Bronescombe, their founder, to appropriate to them the church of Landege with its chapels of Kenwyn and Tregefedone [Tregavethan]. This meant that the College thenceforth drew all the great Tithes of the three parishes and nominated a vicar to serve there. To the Vicar were assigned all the Glebe lands and houses and all the Altalage or small Tithes [everything except the tithe on corn] except that of Peas or Beans growing in fields’. Once a year at least one of the Canons of Glasney would have made the journey to Kea to collect the tithes.

Kea was only one of the livings that passed to Glasney in 1270, the others were Sithney, Zennor, St Goran and St Enoder.


The Significance of Glasney College in the History of Cornwall

Glasney College was founded in 1265 at Penryn by Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter and was a centre of ecclesiastical power in medieval Cornwall and probably the best known and most important of Cornwall’s religious institutions. Professor Nicholas Orme argues ‘Bronescombe envisaged Glasney as being a smaller version of Exeter Cathedral. He probably saw its role as twofold: providing a model of worship for the Cornish parish clergy and acting as an administrative centre for Church affairs’. [At this time Cornwall was part of the diocese of Exeter.]  The bishop of Exeter already owned the manor of Treliever and Penryn. In an article in the 2016 edition of Cornish Archaeology Dr Joanna Mattingley says that the ‘Establishment of the College was an important part of the development of Penryn, which appears to have been established in the early thirteenth century and obtained a market charter in 1259. In addition to religious motives, the development of the College may have been perceived as a means to stimulate economic activity in the town’. Mattingley continues ‘Glasney was a secular foundation (that is, not monastic), modelled on Exeter Cathedral, with a provost, 12 canons and 13 vicars. Such secular clergy lived in the wider community and were not members of religious (monastic) orders like the regular clergy. Other secular colleges in the diocese of Exeter included St Buryan and Crantock in Cornwall …Glasney was the wealthiest and most important of the Cornish colleges and at its peak may have accommodated 50-70 people within its various walled closes, including chantry priests, choristers, bedesmen [pensioners or almsmen who prayed for their benefactor] and servants’. Nicholas Orme points out ‘The Glasney canons did not all reside continuously. Many held parish benefices or did duties for their bishop, and were allowed to stay away for half the year and still receive their stipends. Nevertheless, the resident members of the college must have numbered at least twenty men and boys, and this allowed them – perhaps uniquely in Cornwall – to stage the newly fashionable Church music called polyphony, sung in harmony by different voices. In 1438 one of the canons, John Michell, owned a booklet of ‘songs of music’, and by 1548 the college employed a clerk of the Lady Chapel who may well have directed the polyphony. The college was also a centre of learned men. Some of the canons were graduates who owned or studied books’ and it is Glasney’s role as the centre of learning which is linked with Bewnans Ke.

Glasney College c. 1580

Image courtesy of the British Library

The College is in the centre of the image, the town or ‘perin borough’ is shown between the two arms of the river, and St Gluvias church can be seen on the bank of the river at the bottom.





Glasney College c, 1580

This drawing was based on a drawing made in 1580.












Glasney today

The process of the dissolution of Glasney began in 1546 with the first surveys of the college but it was not until December 1548 that the building materials were sold off.










Glasney College and the Cornish Plays

[I am indebted to Dr Oliver Padel, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University, and his talks in 2021 and 2022 at Kresen Kernow for much of this information.]

There is no conclusive proof that the Ordinalia, Bewnans Meriasek or Bewnans Ke were written at Glasney but there is much circumstantial evidence which links them to Glasney. The oldest play, the Ordinalia, was written about 1400 and its manuscript today is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and it was given to the Bodleian in 1614. The evidence which links the Ordinalia to Glasney is twofold: first, it is littered with place names from around Penryn; second, it contains many literary references which indicates the presence of a library, and only Glasney held a library together with highly literate people. The reference to local place names would have meant little to people who did not live in the Penryn area. It is not known who wrote it, whether members of the College or lay people associated with the College. It would certainly not have been performed by members of the clergy but by lay people.

Later I will look at where these plays were performed, the playing places. One of the local place names mentioned in several places in the Ordinalia is Bohelland which lies a little to the north of St Gluvias church. Dr Padel has observed that at Bohelland there exists the remains of a circular structure, possibly a round or playing place, and questions if this might have been the location where the Ordinalia was staged.

The remains of the round structure are labelled ‘Camp’ and lie just south of ‘Bohelland’ on this copy of the 1880 Ordnance Survey map.











The origin and the dating of Bewnans Meriasek and Bewnans Ke are much less certain. These plays are unique in that the many medieval plays performed in England during the medieval period were written about the ‘international’ saints which were prominent in the Catholic faith, but both these plays are about local saints both of whom have only a single church dedicated to them in Cornwall. These plays did reflect what was happening in France where over a hundred saints plays survive some from as early as the twelfth century, but more especially what was happening in Brittany where two local saints’ plays are recorded. These Cornish plays reflect a Breton influence and can be seen as an overseas extension of European cultural development.

Both these plays were based on Latin texts about the saints which were circulating in Brittany, the texts were lost but survive in later summaries also made in Brittany. St Meriasek is honoured in several Breton churches and is believed to have been an early bishop of Vannes diocese. St Ke also has several churches dedicated to him in Brittany and his lost life survives as a seventeenth century summary in French, but it contains some English details so the Breton Latin life may have been based on one written in Cornwall, possibly at Glasney. Glasney owned the parish of St Kea so it had reason to be interested in him.

The link between the College and St Meriasek at Camborne is less clear. Yet at various times three provosts of Glasney had been rectors of Camborne and we know that in 1501 John Nans who was provost of Glasney became rector of Camborne by swapping jobs with the then rector who moved to Glasney as provost. The single surviving manuscript copy, now housed in the National Library of Wales, is dated 1504 so was written during the life of John Nans who died in 1508. Glasney’s close contacts with Brittany made it likely that the Latin life of St Meriasek would have been known, yet the links are at best circumstantial. This changed with the discovery of Bewnans Ke in 2000. It became clear that whichever play was written first, the author of the second play knew it well. Glasney owned the living of St Kea parish, was very closely connected with the parish and the play contains much local knowledge. There are many points in common between the plays concerning text and themes. An obvious similarity is they both mention a pagan tyrant, Teudar, living at Goodern in Kea. Both plays came from ‘the same intellectual milieu’.

The Plays and The Plen An Gwari

In a pre-literate age, most people got their knowledge from what they saw and heard. The walls of churches had vivid depictions of stories from the Bible. Two of the best surviving wall paintings are in the parish church of Breage in west Cornwall and have been dated to the fifteenth century. On the left is St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, and the image on the right is of Christ pointing to the wound in his side, an image that appears in other Cornish churches and is known as a ‘Warning to Sabbath Breakers’.  

In parts of England in the medieval period there were travelling companies of actors who performed religious dramas, mystery plays [based on their inherent mystery] and miracle plays [based on saints’ lives]. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were mystery cycles in York and Chester. Professor Michelle Brown [Emeritus Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, University of London] argues the Cornish plays sit within a flourishing of vernacular drama but from the early fourteenth century Glasney College used vernacular language  – Cornish – to open-up texts to the broader public via poetry and drama. Professor Brown also argues that ‘this was a time of political and economic meltdown, compounded by the Black Death which by 1349 had killed a third of the population, and of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. People were restless, workers were fewer on the ground, and many were leaving the land and old feudal ties to work in towns. The rural and urban population wished to be distracted and entertained as well and needed to be educated. Such plays offered diversion, provided a context for the instruction and affirmation of faith which extended the experience gained in church services. They also sought to foster a sense of community in which people played as well as worked together, and to explain the relationship between past, present and future, that was embedded within the concept of the communion of saints – the community of all people across time and space – those already in heaven, those doing the work in the world and those awaiting liberation from hell’ Professor Michelle Brown, Out of the Ordinary Symposium, Kresen Kernow 2021.

Glasney’s first major contribution was the three plays known as the Ordinalia, probably written in 1375. The plays were directed by the Ordinary, and in early church services the book of rules that acted as the correct way to worship was known as the Ordinal, and so the Ordinary instructed how the play would be performed. There were three plays all intending to instruct people about Christian worship: Origo Mundi (The Origin of the World), Passio Christi (The Passion of Christ) and Resurexxio Domini (The Resurrection of Our Lord). Although the plays were written in Cornish all the stage directions were written in Latin, a strong inference that the Ordinary would have been a cleric from Glasney. Each play would have been staged on a separate day. Origo Mundi deals with the Creation of the World, the Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, the Ark and Flood and the story of Abraham and Isaac, the history of Moses, and of David. Passio Christi deals with the Temptation of Christ, the Crucifixion and Passion. Resurexxio Domini deals with the Harrowing of Hell, Resurrection and Ascension. Yet running through all is the ‘Legend of the Rood’ which depicts Christ as the second Adam, thus connecting the Old Testament to the New. To make the plays more topical there were many references to local places including arwennek / Arwennack, an enys / Enys, carn suyov / Carnsew and plu vethek / Budock parish.

Apart from their use of the Cornish language, the thing that distinguished the Cornish plays is the manner in which they were performed – in the Plen An Gwari or Playing Place.

Many Plen An Gwari survive in Cornwall – and often the place names reveal their former presence, such as the Plain-An-Gwarry in Redruth or in St Hilary, or our very own Playing Place. Two of the best known existing examples are Perran Round and at St Just in Penwith.

Perran Round


St Just in Penwith Plain-an-Gwarry


The Cornish plays were staged ‘in the round’ as can be seen above, with the actors on the surrounding banks and the audience in the middle.

How it may have looked.

From Plen An Gwari, the Playing Places of Cornwall by kind permission of Will Coleman and Heidi Ball









Both the Ordinalia and Beunans Meriasek come with diagrams to show how each play was staged but, perhaps due to its fragmentary nature, Beunans Ke does not.

                    Stage Directions, Ordinalia with modern transcription 

        Ordinalia image, Bodleian Library Oxford [i]          From Plen An Gwari, Will Coleman and Heidi Ball


In the image of the Ordinalia, celu [Heaven] is at the top (and going clockwise), then epi [Bishops], then abraham, then rex sal [King Solomon], then rex david  [King David], then rex pharaoh [King Pharaoh], then infernum [Hell], then tortores [Torturers].

Stage Directions, Bewnans Meriasek

Meriasek image, National Library of Wales[ii]

In the image of Beunans Meriasek the stage directions are harder to follow but again Celu [Heaven] is at the top (and going clockwise), then Siluest [Sylvester, a Pope in the fourth century], then magist [schoolmaster], then epi [Bishop] kernow, then Dux britonu pater mereadoci [Duke of Brittany, Meriasek’s father], then Rex Conanus [King Conan], then Constantine, then Teudarus Imperator [Emperor Tudor], then Dux Cornubie [Duke of Cornwall], then Comes Rohany [Duke of Rohan], then Exulat [Outlaws], then Infernum [Hell], then Tortores [Torturers].


                                                   Ordinalia Images above and below, Bodleian Library Oxford[iii]

The image on the left shows the list of characters and the number of lines they had: it starts with God who had very many lines, then Adam who also had a good number. The image on the right is the opening of Origo Mundi, with the Latin stage directions set between horizontal ruled lines and the brackets at the end of the lines serving to emphasise the cadence of the verses recited by the players.

Will Coleman has emphasised that this is very much a working document with some stage directions crossed out. He says the stage direction in the margin on the right, in Latin, can be loosely translated as ‘Get the altar ready and God to stand by’.




Professor Brown writes of these plays ‘in the Cornish vernacular, in a striking dramatic, tragedic and comedic format, designed to intrigue, amuse, instruct and engage the Cornish people in participating [just as they did as the audience of the plays, with the staging and action thronging around them] in their individual and communal salvation, amidst the trials and tribulations of this world and the mysteries of the next’. Local people would have taken many of the parts in the dramas as well as acting as the audience, and this was theatre in the round with the spectators standing in the middle and actors coming down from their stations on the surrounding bank to perform amongst them. The spectators would have found themselves in the middle of the action and as Dr Oliver Padel commented ‘If you found yourself part of the crowd that is calling for Jesus to be crucified, it will bring home the enormity of what is being done far more intensely than if you are viewing from the side’.

In 1969 Bristol University Drama Department performed The Cornish Ordinalia at Perran Round.. The programme notes that the production aimed to capture the “popularity…vitality…robustness and colour” of the medieval performances, which were taking place for the first time in over 300 years. This plan by Richard Southern shows the performance area for Day 3 of the production.

Image courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection BDD/D/9/3




We know the Ordinalia consisted of three plays and each was performed on a different day, and Bewnans Meriasek was also in two parts and would have been performed over two days. Bewnans Ke is also in two parts, with the first telling the story of St Ke [as mentioned above] and the second, in which St Ke does not figure at all, deals with many aspects of the tale of King Arthur. Our interpretation of Bewnans Ke is handicapped by its fragmentary nature but the first part, the tale of St Ke, is full of drama and some comedy but the Arthurian second half is very repetitive and quite dull – leading to Dr Padel to speculate whether the second part was ever intended to be performed. Yet the second half is important as Dr Padel argues ‘it is the only dramatic treatment of the international story of King Arthur in any medieval European language’.


Performance of Ordinalia, St Just in Penwith September 2021   Images courtesy of Visit Cornwall

Early account books provide fascinating insights into the performance of these plays. In the St Ives Borough Accounts for 1571 – 1572





Item received the first day of the playe




Item received the second day of the playe which amounteth to




Item received the thirde daye of the playe which amounteth to




Item received the fourthe day of the playe which amounteth to




Item received the 5 daye of the playe which amounteth to




Item received the sixt day of the playe which amounteth to




Item receivyd for drincke money after the playe




Item spent upon the carpenters that yat made hevin




to thomas hickes to deliver mr trenwith things for the playe




Received of Wm Trenwith for six score and three foote of elm boards  in ye playing place




Source: Plen An Gwari, The Playing Places of Cornwall by William Coleman

It is not known which play was being performed, or possibly a sequence of plays.

In St Petroc’s Church, Bodmin there is an ‘Inventory of Church Goods’ dated 1539 which says:

Item one Jesus cote of purple sarcenet

Item 4 tormeteris cotes, ifdnkepying one with John Vyvyan, a noder with Thomas Bligh, the 3d with Nicholas Opy, and the 4th with Richard Corant

Source: Plen An Gwari, The Playing Places of Cornwall by Will Coleman

Sarcenet was a fine, soft silk fabric and purple was an expensive dye colour so this cloak would have been held in high esteem. Was it likely that the same people always played the same role, here that of ‘tormentor’, and were responsible for keeping their costume safe?

In 1602 Richard Carew of Antony published his ‘Survey of Cornwall’. In it he spoke of the ‘Guary miracle’ plays and how the local people ‘would raise an earthen Ampitheatre in some open field…The Country people flock from all sides, many miles off, to heare and see it: for they have therein, devils and devices, to delight as well the eye as the eare’…’the players cone not their parts without booke, but are prompted by one called the Ordinary, who followeth at their back with the booke in his hand, and telleth them softly what they must pronounce aloud’. This was not a first-hand account but it reflects what we already know.

The Plen an Gwari at Playing Place

Playing Place is unusual in that it has two rounds, see extract on left from 1906 OS map.

The southernmost round is believed to be the remains of an Iron Age hill fort and the northern round is a plen an gwari, which gave its name to Playing Place.

The situation is elevated so would have been a typical location for an Iron Age fort, and it may well have been connected in some way to the two Iron Age forts at Roundwood, one by the river which gives its name to Roundwood and one on the brow of the hill above Roundwood. Roundwood was a site of great importance for the export of tin in the Bronze and Iron ages.


In various parts of Cornwall there is evidence that Iron Age forts were in use as rounds for entertainments. Will Coleman has argued that it may have been that the round based in the old Iron Age fort proved inadequate and that a new round was built during the medieval period.

Very little remains of the Plen an Gwari at Playing Place, just a curve in a hedge next to a footpath. The rest has been ploughed out and no trace of it can be seen in the adjacent field which is still called Round Croft. The remains of the hedge are about a metre tall and archaeologists have estimated the round had a diameter of about fifty metres.

There was no settlement at Playing Place, the alms houses were not built until 1726, and the only dwellings were the nearby farms – Lanyew, first mentioned in 1260, and Tregullas, first mentioned in 1334. A holy well probably existed near the presently-named Holywell House.

Kea was one of the largest parishes in Cornwall and stretched from the river Fal as far as Three Burrows on the modern A30. Kea then included the parish of Kenwyn, and the latter included much of Truro. The church at what is now called Old Kea was very distant from the majority of the parish’s population, to the extent that Henry VIII consented to a petition to knock it down and build a more centrally-located church, something that was delayed for about 300 years.

Playing Place Rounds   Images author 

The photo looks towards the north-west and shows both rounds with the site of the Iron Age round in the foreground and the Plen an Gwari to the right.



Adjacent to the footpath which runs to the east of Old Coach road are a bench and a plaque, both erected by Kea Parish Council, which commemorate the rounds. The inscription on the plaque reads ‘The Rounds. In the field beside this footpath are the remains of two round enclosures. One is an Iron Age settlement and the other is the Plain An Gwarry or Playing Place after which this village is named. Plays celebrating the life of St Kea would have been performed here in medieval times’.

This photo shows the view to the north-east, and before the wood was planted along Old Coach road there would have been a similar view towards the west. The Plen An Gwari was built in a very elevated position, it would have stood out in the then open landscape and been a focal point for travellers.




Thus the Plen an Gwari at Playing Place was most certainly not at the centre of the parish’s population, in marked contrast, for example, with the one at St Just in Penwith. But it was situated next to very important routes. It was only two miles from Truro and was adjacent to the road from Truro to Penryn. Neither Falmouth existed in the medieval period nor did the causeway at Devoran so the then main road turned off towards Carnon Gate as it left Playing Place [see map left]. The Plen an Gwari was also situated very close to the highly important road to King Harry ferry. In the medieval period, very many people went on pilgrimages and St Michael’s Mount was an important pilgrimage centre in its own right but many pilgrims came through Cornwall on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, preferring the perils of a sea crossing to the long and dangerous route through France and over the Pyrenees. King Harry was a key point on what was called the great southern road which brought travellers across the river Tamar, then across the river Fowey, and finally across the river Fal.

It is not known if the Plen an Gwari existed before Bewnans Ke was written but there is no doubt that Bewnans Ke would have been performed in it and people would have come many miles to witness the two-day spectacle.

The Plays and Their Significance in the History of Cornwall

The significance of the plays in the history of Cornwall is still highly contentious.

In both Bewnans Ke and Bewnans Meriasek the tyrant King Teudar has a significant role. Tales of tyrannical Teudar featured in earlier works and he was associated with the persecution of the early saints who were part of the mission of St Breaca [Breage] who entered Cornwall via the Hayle Estuary around 500. In Bewnans Meriasek, the Duke of Brittany is portrayed as a hero fighting to save Cornwall from the evil King Teudar, and St Meriasek is portrayed as resisting King Teudar’s bad government. Teudar appears again as the tyrant who oppresses St Ke in Bewnans Ke, but eventually Ke turns the tables and gets the better of him. In both plays, and for the first time, Teudar is given a royal residence at Goodern in the parish of Kea. We don’t know why the playwrights of Glasney chose to have Teudar living at Goodern. It was one of the only two manors in Kea to appear in the Domesday book and probably of more significance as a great earthwork is found there suggesting Goodern was once an important centre of rule.

Image courtesy of Historic Environment Record, Cornwall Council

Goodern farm lies to the left and Carrine to the right. It is thought that the name Carrine is from the Cornish ‘Ker-Yeyn’ or ‘cold round’ a possible reference to the Iron Age round in the centre of the photograph. To the lower right of the round are the remains of a Bronze Age barrow. Clearly this was a site of some significance in earlier times. The site lies within a medieval field system.

The size of the earth work and the surrounding bank can be seen below. Much of the earth bank is stone faced, in places about four metres wide and two metres high on the outside and one metre high on the inside.

Image below author                                                                        Image below courtesy of Oliver Padel



 One of the questions that excites historians is the coincidence that at the same time as the plays were written the Tudors had emerged to rule England. So, was the tyrannical King Teudar intended as a parody of King Henry VII after his crushing of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497?

Will Coleman, in his fascinating study of the Plen An Gwari, announces to the reader ‘You may be reassured that, unlike so many relentlessly pro-English commentators, I have no pretensions to being ‘neutral’!’ He quotes with enthusiasm from Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historica of 1539 ‘the whole Countrie of Britain…is divided into iiii partes; whereof the one is inhabited of Englishmen, the other of Scottes, the third of Wallshemen, the fowerthe of Cornishe people, which all differ emong them selves, either in tongue, either in manners, or ells in lawes and ordinaunces’..

Coleman incorporates a map of Britain drawn up by the German historian Sebastian Munster in 1550 which reflects the writings of Vergil – see left.





Dr John Cooper, who is now Reader in Early Modern History at the University of York and Research Director of the Society of Antiquaries, wrote his seminal study Propaganda and the Tudor State, Political Culture in the Westcountry in 2003 – though when he wrote he would not have been aware of the existence of Bewnans Ke.  He writes ‘The suggestion that Bewnans [Meriasek] had anti-Tudor resonance may be dated to a rather diffident remark in a paper by Henry Jenner, the man principally responsible for reviving academic interest in the Cornish language in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Jenner pointed out that ‘There is just a possibility that the name of Teudar, given without any regard to chronology to the villain of the piece, was a sly hit at the reigning King’, in light of the recent insurrections against Henry VII. More recently a political and anti-English reading of Bewnans Meriasek has found an advocate in the Institute of Cornish Studies. Philip Payton [the then Director of the Institute] sees the play as evidence that Cornwall in the early Tudor period was ‘restless and – from the perspective of a “centre” that had already been challenged seriously by the Cornish – in need of a renewed “accommodation”’. Payton goes much further than Jenner, arguing that Bewnans spoke of Cornwall’s need of a set of special constitutional privileges’. Cooper further argues that Payton’s work ‘in turn has influenced Mark Stoyle’s account [West Britons: Cornish Identities and the Early Modern British] of the ‘fierce sense of distinctiveness’ of the Cornish people, and their racially determined ‘propensity for rebellion’’. Clearly Cooper’s criticism of the Institute of Cornish Studies did not go unnoticed. In a review of Cooper’s book written in 2003 by Bernard Deacon, of the Institute, Cooper is referred to as a ‘Kernowsceptic’ historian whose argument is ‘fatally flawed’ and that ‘Cooper writes from a recognisably English nationalist position that is well ensconced at Oxford University, from where this book emanates’. Deacon seems to be unaware that Cooper grew up in Truro and studied at Truro School [where the author taught him for A-level History].

The relationship between the Cornish and England, particularly the Crown, is very complicated. For example, a cult of Henry VI ([1421-1471] grew up in England but spread to Cornwall where pilgrims visited his relics at St Michael’s Mount possibly having crossed the river Fal at King Harry ferry, named after a chapel standing at the side of the river dedicated to St Mary and King Henry, and still standing in 1528. Cornish churches are full of Royal coats of arms, Tudor roses and the like. Many new boroughs, together with seats in the House of Commons, were created by the Duchy in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as the Cornish were seen to be supporters of the Crown. The role of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Stannaries leads to further complications in that the miners were granted many privileges and looked to the Duchy for protection, yet in other ways appear to have been subject to a large degree of control. There is no doubt that during the Civil War it was the Cornish who were among the Crown’s most loyal supporters. It is difficult to square all this with the view that the Cornish had a racially determined propensity for rebellion.

And yet we cannot escape the fact of the Cornish Rising of 1497 and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549. The imposition of the English Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and the banning of religious processions and pilgrimages, all part of the Protestant Reformation, were widely resented, particularly in areas of traditionally Roman Catholic religious loyalty such as Cornwall and Devon. Yet some of their slogans, such as “Kill all the gentlemen” hint strongly at social causes. The West Cornish, outraged by the introduction of English in their 1549 services, wrote the Demands of the Western Rebels, the eighth Article of which states: “…and so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh”. Responding to this, however, Archbishop Cranmer asked why the Cornishmen should be offended by holding the service in English rather than Cornish when they had before held it in Latin and not understood that. He did have a point, indeed the evidence suggest that many languages would have been spoken in Cornwall. The use of English was spreading from the east of the county, most would have been familiar with both languages, and given the trading links with Brittany there would have been a familiarity with Breton in coastal areas – as the Plays suggest.

It is true that the Protestant Reformation effectively killed off the Cornish Plays. Glasney College was suppressed in 1548, and the smashing and looting of the Cornish colleges at Glasney and Crantock brought an end to the formal scholarship that helped sustain the Cornish language and the Cornish cultural identity, and played a significant part in fomenting the opposition to cultural ‘reforms’ that led to the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549. 

Cooper has a measured conclusion ‘In the final analysis, it cannot be denied that Bewnans Meriasek [and by extension Bewnans Ke] might have had political overtones to an audience in and around Camborne when staged after the uprisings of 1497…Even if the play pre-dated the Blackheath and Warbeck rebellions [of 1497], its performance in subsequent years could have acquired a new subtext…Concentration on the politics of Bewnans Meriasek [and Ke] risks missing the main point of the play. It needs to be set in the context of other Cornish drama written to convey some basic understanding of the Catholic faith…We should not let our own political preconceptions distort our reading of this rare text…As the audience enjoyed the drama of St Meriasek…they were being instructed in the practice of the one true faith, from justification through good works to the snares and delusions of the devil. The message would have been reinforced by the censers and crozier-bearers which made the play akin to the open-air liturgy of Rogationtide. In short, Bewnans Meriasek [and Ke] has more to do with the age of saints than the age of the Tudors’.

In 1558 Elizabeth I forbade all religious drama but we know some plays continued to be performed, for example at St Ives in 1571. No strong evidence exists for any performances after that until their performances in the second half of the twentieth century.








Footnote : Thomas Lercedekne

People in Kea on occasions fell out with the canons of Glasney. The Lercedekne family (also spelled L’Arcedekne) was one of the important landowning families in this part of Cornwall and their principal base was eventually at Ruan Lanihorne where in 1334 they built a castle. This extract from a sixteenth century map of Falmouth Haven [Image courtesy of the British Library] shows the castle. Yet in 1274 and 1277 Thomas Lercedekne was recorded as buying land in the manor of Landegay, and even in October 1334, when at the ‘Feast of St Denis’ at ‘Truru Marche’ Thomas le Ercedekne signed a property agreement, he was described as ‘de Treworthouwal’ or Trethowell, a farm near Calenick.


 There was a long running dispute between the influential Bodrugan family, whose principal residence was at Bodrugan near Goran, the less powerful Lercedekne family, and the Bloyou family. Such families were often connected by marriage, with Ralph Bloyou’s mother being a Bodrugan. At the end of the thirteenth century the dispute was overtly about the wardship of an heir, Hugh de Treverbyn.


In December 1300 Henry de Bodrugan took his ward to a house of one of the canons of Glasney, William Bloyou [who in 1313 became provost of Glasney].   For reasons that are not clear on 13 December ‘Ralph Bloyou together with others unknown, came to the house of Thomas Lercedekne on the said Friday at LandegyHaving had conference there, armed themselves with padded tunics, and military tunics and other arms, taking with them swords, knives and lances etc and then rode armed with the others to Wiillam Bloyou at Glasney and in the night by force and arms wounded and maltreated him and seized the said heir from his custody, and abducted the heir to the house of Thomas Lercedekne at Landegy’. Henry de Bodrugan said he had been assaulted by Thomas Lercedekne ‘with force of arms, namely with barded horses [‘barded horses’ were horses with armour on their breasts and flanks], swords and lances and other arms’, and that he had been badly injured. James Whetter identified ‘the house of Thomas Lercedekne at Landegy’ with Churchtown Farm at Old Kea. The present farmhouse dates from the nineteenth century so this is unlikely, and it is uncertain where Lercedekne’s house lay, unless it was at Trethowell. The case is well documented as it came before the Assize courts in the summer of 1301, and at the trial the judge took a very poor view of what had happened, both Lercedekne and Bloyou were imprisoned at Launceston castle, though Lercedekne was released on the payment of 100 marks in compensation to Bodrugan. The trial had been delayed due to Edward I’s campaign against the Scots in which Lercedekne, Bloyou and Bodrugan had all participated. Bloyou was soon pardoned by the King due to his service in the campaign against the Scots.

Image of Knights courtesy of Brad (CC BY )

This image shows knights from a century later, the fifteenth century, but it still gives a clear idea of what these men looked like on their barded horses. It is difficult today to imagine meeting these on the road from Old Kea to Penryn, or imagining travelling with such heavy armour from Cornwall to Scotland, and back again.



Bad blood continued between these families, Bloyou broke the terms of his pardon and continued to take action against the Bodrugans, this led to Bloyou being adjudged to suffer penance ‘Peine fort et dure’. This was usually used when a defendant charged with a capital offence refused to plead in order to avoid forfeiture of property. If the defendant pleaded either guilty or not guilty and was executed, their heirs would inherit nothing, their property escheating to the Crown. If they refused to plead their heirs would inherit their estate, even if they died in the process. The punishment involved being put on the ground in a shirt, and laden with as much iron or stone weight as the victim could bear, being fed one day with poor bread but allowed no water, and the next day being allowed only foul water and no bread. Essentially the victim was crushed to death. James Whetter comments ‘It is not known exactly how he died but clearly he had a miserable end’.

The manor of Landegay passed through the female line from the Lercedeknes to the Courtenays in about 1425 and then to the Carews of Antony in about 1463. Landegay remained in Carew ownership until it was sold to John Tregian probably by the family of Sir Wymond Carew soon after his death in 1549. [ The History of Parliament: Sir Wymond Carew ]

The above Footnote owes much to the late James Whetter’s book The Bodrugans: A Study of a Cornish Medieval Knightly Family 1995



Propaganda and the Tudor State, Political Culture in the Westcountry by J P D Cooper 2003


Cornwall and the Cross  Christianity 500-1560 by Nicholas Orme 2007


Bewnans Ke, The Life of St Kea, A Critical Edition with Translation by Graham Thomas and Nicholas Williams 2007


Plen An Gwari, The Playing Places of Cornwall by Will Coleman 2015


The Word and the Shaping of Cornwall Before the Reformation by Michelle Brown 2021


Nigel Baker 2022



[i] Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 791

[ii] Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

[iii] Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 791




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