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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

St Neot not St Neots

St Neots is a famous town in Cambridgeshire so it bears pointing out that this post is not about St Neots. This post is about St Neot, a small village in Cornwall that most people have never heard of.

St Neot is named after the Saxon monk, Saint Neot (who also gives his name to St Neots in Cambridgeshire, to where his alleged bones were taken in the early Middle Ages). The northern side the parish includes part of Bodmin Moor.

The manor of St Neot was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) when it was held by Odo from Robert, Count of Mortain; it had been held by Godric the priest before 1066. The Count had taken this land away from the clergy of St Neot. There was one hide of land which never paid tax and land for 5 ploughs. There were 1 plough, 3 serfs, 3 villeins, 6 smallholders, 2 cattle, 2 pigs and 30 sheep. The value of the manor was 5 shillings though it had formerly been worth £1 sterling. The priests of St Neot had only one acre of their former land. There were 4 smallholders, 1 ox, 10 goats and 20 sheep.

Even using my trusty currency calculator which goes back in time as far as 1270 this was clearly not a very wealthy parish. By 1270, 5 shillings was only worth £182 in today's money. A villein was not a thief although no doubt our modern word villain derives from it. Here are the different types of classification for the general population explained.

Villein - (in medieval England) a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land.

Villeins had more rights and social status than those in slavery, but were under a number of legal restrictions which differentiated them from the freeman. Villeins generally rented small homes, with or without land. As part of the contract with their landlord, they were expected to use some of their time to farm the lord's demesne or provide other services, possibly in addition to a rent of money or goods. These services could be very onerous. Villeins might also be required to pay a fine on the marriage of their daughters outside of the manor, the inheritance of a holding by a son, or other circumstances. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord's consent. Except to their own lords, they were free men in the eyes of the law. Villeins were generally able to have their own property, unlike slaves.

Serf- Serfdom was the status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism, and similar systems. It was a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to and differences from slavery, which developed during the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.

Unlike slaves, serfs could not be bought, sold, or traded individually though they could, depending on the area, be sold together with land.

Smallholder - Smallholders formed the second largest group among the peasantry, constituting almost a third of the recorded population. They were recorded in every county.

On average, they possessed 5 acres of land and might have a share in the villagers' plough teams, though their holdings could be more meagre.

In other words life was generally pretty miserable for most people, a bit like activists believe it to be today. Over the centuries these ordinary people, dared to complain, dared to protest and many lost their lives in the process. Many died in prison, many were executed and the really unfortunate ones were sent to Australia, which was so much worse than the terrible place they had left that at the first opportunity, many risked the dangerous voyage to come back.

St Neot Church. In the 11th century a small monastery existed here; the early medieval church building (of which the tower remains) must have been smaller than the one in existence today. Rebuilding in granite was undertaken in the 15th century and the fine stained-glass windows are from about 1500. The stained glass is partly original and partly from a restoration done by John Hedgeland, c. 1830. There are 16 windows of 15th- or 16th-century workmanship. The second most complete set of parish church windows in England.

Nearby is the holy well of St Neot. Legend tells that the well contained three fish, and an angel told St Neot that as long as he ate no more than one fish a day, their number would never decrease. At a time St Neot fell ill, his servant went and cooked two of the fish; upon finding this, St Neot prayed for forgiveness and ordered that the fish be returned to the well. As they entered the water, both were miraculously returned to life.

The known timeline for the church starts in the late 800's when King Alfred visited the church where St. Guerir lay. It wasn't until the early 10th century that Neot appeared in the Cornish list of Saints. From 1460 onwards the stained glass windows were installed. In 1643 a letter of thanks was received from Charles II in gratitude for support from the parish during the Civil War, when most of Cornwall supported the Monarchy.

The ancient Cornish crosses are generally inferior in design to the Irish, Welsh, and the Northumbrian because granite is a difficult stone to work, but the St Neot cross shaft is an excellent example, perhaps the finest in Cornwall. It probably dates from the tenth century. We have documentary evidence of the existence of a college of priests at St Neot at the time of the Norman Conquest, and there can be no doubt that this cross was associated with the college.

The 14th century tower is the earliest part of the church. Oak Apple Day is a 360 year old custom celebrated in St Neot to commemorate the return of the monarchy to England in 1660 and King Charles's preservation after the battle of Worcester in1651. The ceremony, once universal, is held on 29th May every year when a new oak branch is hauled to the top of the tower, seen here below.

High on the north wall is a copy of the letter written by King Charles from his camp at Sudeley Castle to his loyal supporters in Cornwall dated 1643.

The kneeling figures of William Bere and his wife are carved in bold relief on this slate tomb-chest. William's daughter married Sir John Grylls of Lanreath and thus started the Grylls family association with St Neot.

If you, like me, saw Bere and Grylls and thought, that's a coincidence, "I always thought the explorer Bear Grylls had an unusual name", then it may be more than a coincidence. I Googled the question but found no direct mention that Bear Grylls is descended from these same Grylls. What I was able to do though was to go through a number of clicks on ancestry sites clicking "father of" each time, until I ended up with a chain of hits between Bear Grylls and Sir John Grylls of Lanreath. It therefore looks like this couple had a daughter who married a Grylls and by my reckoning eventually the line of the Grylls family runs straight down to the TV Explorer we know today.

The first time I went to this church I admired the font and without much thought took it to be a modern, maybe 1970's retro addition, the carved design being very reminiscent of that era. Maybe something like this?

On my second visit I was shocked to discover that the font was in fact 13th century to 15th century. The Shaft being the earliest part and the carved stone bowl being about 600 years old. Can a design icon like this still be described as Retro I wonder.

There are so many windows, each with multiple panels that I have had to just include a selection here. The subjects of the windows variously show stories from the Bible as well as benefactors who paid for the various windows.

One set features the story of Noah and the flood, dated 1480's.

Information, courtesy of "A Brief Guide to the Parish Church of St Neot" compiled by Elizabeth Neal and Graham Richards.

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