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Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 9: St. Petroc's Church, Bodmin
Ruin of St. Petroc's Church
The battle to prove that King Arthur had an existence prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's monumental work, "History of the Kings of Britain," has been fought, over the years, by many different soldiers using many different weapons. Geoffrey has been given credit for (or accused of) single- handedly creating the legend of King Arthur out of thin air. While it is not necessarily the case that his "History" is a work of pure fiction, in the absence of any concrete support for Arthur's existence, much effort has been spent on finding clues that predate Geoffrey. In addition to providing fuel for the true believers' fires, any such finds would tend to vindicate Geoffrey (at least a little bit), in the process.

The rules of this scholarly game require that "before anything can be entered into evidence for the existence of a historical King Arthur, it must be reliably dated before 1136 (the date of publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History"). Anything after that date, no matter how compelling, well attested or far removed in time and space, is considered, by the entrenched scholarly communities who decide these things, invalid and inadmissible, due to Geoffrey's all-pervasive influence after publication of the "History." It may not be fair, but those are the rules.

One tantalizing bit of evidence, that does indeed appear to predate Geoffrey, comes to us from a chronicle, written in 1146 by one Hermann of Tournai. Its Latin title is "De Miraculis S. Marie Laudunensis" or, in English, "On the Miracles of Our Lady of Laon." In the chronicle, Hermann relates certain events that took place in the year 1113. The story goes something like this: a group of nine canons from the church at Laon, France, went on a fund-raising trip to England, taking with them the Shrine of Our Lady of Laon, a collection of miracle-working relics. Their cathedral church had burned down and it was their hope to travel around the country, visiting as many places as their time would allow and to raise money for rebuilding their church, in payment for the "cures and healings" that they said their relics could produce.

In their travels, they visited the town of Bodmin in Cornwall. They were told that they were in the "Lands of King Arthur" and were shown various local sites that were associated with him, such as Arthur's Chair and Arthur's Oven (the fact that there were topographic features named after Arthur also seems to be an indication of a rather strong local Arthurian tradition).

While there, a man with a withered arm came to them looking to be healed of his affliction. In the course of conversation with the man, he said that Arthur still lived. Members of the visiting group from France apparently mocked him for saying such a nonsensical thing. The crowd of onlookers, though, supported the man's contention and a brawl broke out, which required armed force to stop.

So what? The point, here, is that it may very well be, if Hermann of Tournai is to be believed, that prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's writing of the "History of the Kings of Britain" there was a generally held belief, at least in Bodmin, Cornwall, that Arthur was not only a genuine historical figure, but that he was still alive in 1113.

Does that prove Arthur's existence? Not at all. But slender threads like these become lifelines to the credulous (another such lifeline is the famous "Modena Archivolt"). And, if true, it would prove that their credulity is founded on more that just Geoffrey of Monmouth's imagination.

What does all this have to do with St. Petroc's Church in Bodmin? Just this. If the Laon Canons were visiting anywhere in Bodmin, Cornwall, they would visit the local monastic community or the local parish church. It so happens that St. Petroc's is both. John Leland, in 1533, visited Bodmin and said this:
The former Augustinian priory, whose patron and sometime resident was St. Petroc, lay in the churchyard of Bodmin parish church, at the east end. There have been monks, then nuns, then secular priests, then monks again, and finally regular canons in St. Petroc's church, Bodmin.
Present day St. Petroc's parish church, is on the site that the Laon Canons absolutely would have visited. On the east side of the property stands a ruined church, pictured in the photos above. It is possible that in that very building, the event recorded by Hermann of Tournai over 850 years ago, the brawl over a belief in King Arthur, actually took place. If so, then St. Petroc's plays an important role in the Arthurian story.

And, lest we forget the man with the withered arm. . .he never did get his cure.

Next stop: Lostwithiel, Cornwall

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