The Saint Neot and King Alfred 

 

King Alfred ruled Wessex from 871 to 899, when Cornwall was becoming incorporated into it; the last known king of Cornwall, Dungarth, died in 875-6, but his kingdom was already under the control of Wessex. He may be the man commemorated on the Doniert stone in St Cleer parish.

 

In 885 King Alfred invited Asser, a Bishop from St Davids in south Wales, to come to Wessex to help Alfred in his attempt to revive Anglo-Saxon learning and religion. Alfred put Asser in charge of the monastic church at Exeter, and later made him Bishop of Sherborne, which at that time was the diocesan cathedral for all of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Asser died in 908-9, ten years after King Alfred. In 893 he wrote a biography of his king, the famous Life of King Alfred — a very unusual idea at that period (we haven't got Lives of any other Anglo-Saxon kings).

 

In his Life of King Alfred, Asser describes (chapter 74) how Alfred came hunting in Cornwall, at some time before he became king of Wessex (therefore before 871, and while Dungarth was still sub-king in Cornwall). Alfred had been suffering from a debilitating illness, and while in Cornwall he came to pray at the shrine of a saint called Gueriir, and thus obtained relief from his illness. St Gueriir is otherwise unknown, but we are also told, 'And now St Neot also lies there', so the shrine where King Alfred came to pray, and received relief from his illness, was at St Neot.

 

Nothing at all is known of St Gueriir; it is very curious that gweres in Cornish means 'to heal', like French guerir. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century 'Guerrier-stoke' was invented by an antiquarian as a former possible name for the village, based on the saint's name plus the Old English stoc or stow, as in Domesday's Neotestov or Neotestou (which appears as Neotestoc in the eleventh-century Life of St Neot).

 

If Asser was himself responsible for the additional words, 'And now St Neot also lies there', then St Neot must have died and been buried here at some date after about 865, when King Alfred visited St Neot, and before 893, when Asser wrote the Life of King Alfred. This would make St Neot a contemporary of King Alfred, and he was so portrayed in later medieval writings. However, it has been suggested that this clause was a later addition to the Life; if so, it was made anyway before about the year 1000 (when the only known manuscript of the Life was written), and was soon to become untrue, since St Neot's body was removed from Cornwall to Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire in around 980 when a monastery was founded there (renamed St Neots in his honour).

 

 

Part of St Neot Window

 

In the earliest Life of St Neot (written in the mid-eleventh century, perhaps by a Cornishman, but anyway for St Neots in Huntingdonshire), the saint is portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon, who studied first at Glastonbury, then retired to Cornwall to become a hermit. It is this Life which first tells the story of King Alfred and the Cakes, in Somerset (a story which is not in Asser's Life of King Alfred). Although St Neot is here said to have been a Saxon, nothing is known for sure of his actual origin. All that we know is that he was buried at St Neot, probably between about 865 and 893, and that his remains were later taken to St Neots in Huntingdonshire.

 

One other point arises concerning King Alfred. The one thing which is sure is that he actually visited St Neot and remained grateful for the relief from illness which he received through praying at the shrine of St Gueriir here. This happened before he became king of Wessex (while one of his three elder brothers was still on the throne), but while the sub-king Dungarth was still ruling Cornwall, who may be commemorated on the stone in St Cleer parish nearby. One of Dungarth's courts would have been at Liskeard, of which the name implies a court (Cornish lys), possibly 'of stags' (Cornish kerwys, older kerwyd); in the later Middle Ages there were two royal deer-parks in Liskeard parish. King Alfred was on a hunting visit when he visited St Neot. Was he on a royal visit to the sub-king Dungarth, staying at Liskeard and being entertained there?

 

The cross of Doniert and the large cross outside the door of St Neot church are both in the new style of ornamented cross, introduced into Cornwall in around 900. This means that the one would be of about the right date for 'Doniert' to refer to King Dungarth (it is a variant spelling of the same name); and the other would be of the right date to have been presented to the church by King Alfred in gratitude for the help that he received from St Gueriir's shrine there. If St Neot died during King Alfred's reign, he might already have been living at St Neot, and might have shared in the king's gratitude. So it is possible that this cross at the church was given to us by King Alfred.

 

The stone cross that Alfred reputedly gave to St Neot situated in St Neot Churchyard

 

Early religious sites in St Neot parish 

 

We may assume that the Church and its associated holy well were the focus of settlement at the time of Domesday Book, and presumably before that. There is every reason to think that the pre-Norman church and community of the 'priests of St Neot' was situated in the present village, probably on the site of the church and vicarage. Since the site has been continuously occupied and rebuilt, traces of that pre-Norman 'monastery' (in loose terms) have not survived, though they could still be present below what we see today.

 

Of other possible early (pre-Norman) religious sites in the parish, the most promising is St Lukes, three-quarters of a mile south-east of Bolventor. Although now known as a former Methodist chapel, in the later Middle Ages it was a sub-parish within St Neot — sometimes called 'the parish of St Luke' (in 1439 and again in c.1520). The Norman font which was formerly here is now in Tideford Church (moved there in 1830) — but it would be odd for the sub-parish of St Luke to have had baptismal rights in the twelfth century, so was it originally at St Neot, and moved to St Luke after St Neot acquired its new font in the fourteenth century? At any rate the Tideford font deserves note as a twelfth-century font from St Neot parish. St Lukes was presumably created as a chapel-of-ease for the tinners working in the upper Fowey valley in the Middle Ages; its existence (as a chapel) is implied before about 1200-1300, since the adjacent farm (in Altarnun parish) is called Carneglos 'church tor', so the chapel existed while the Cornish language was still spoken in that area (i.e. before about 1200-1300).

 

Other sites? Lampen and perhaps Lestow are possibilities for additional (early Christian sites, because of their names (Lampen and possibly Lestow both might contain Cornish lann, which means an early church-site; and Lestow possibly containing Old English stow). However, in both cases there could be alternative explanations for the names, and there is no other evidence suggesting either of them as chapel-sites.

 

No other early chapels or other religious sites are known in the parish. There was a late-medieval chapel of St Neot near Trevenna but there is no reason to think that there was any earlier religious site there. (The name of Trevenna, Treworvena in the 13th century, is 'farm on the hill', Cornish tre war veneth; but it looks like 'farm of monks', Cornish tre venegh, and that resemblance may have given rise to the idea that there was once a monastery there.)

 

 

St Neot in Domesday Book  

 

Clerici Sancti Neoti tenent Neotestov et tenebant Tempore Regis Edwardi. Ibi sunt .ii. hidae, que nunquam geldauerunt. Ibi sunt .iiii. bordarii. Valet .v. solidos. Totam hanc terram, preter unam acram quam presbiteri habent, abstulit comes ab aecclesia. Odo tenet de eo, et ualet .v. solidos; prius ualebat uiginti solidos.

 

The clerics of St Neot hold 'Neot-stow', and held it in the time of King Edward (= until 1066). There are two hides (of land) there, which have never paid tax. There are four 'bordars' there (= cottage-tenants, villeins). It is worth 5 shillings (= yearly?). All this land, except for one acre which the priests hold, the Count (of Mortain) has taken away from the church. Odo holds it from him, and it is worth 5 shillings; formerly it was worth 20 shillings.

 

See Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great (1983) Pp   88 – 9 254 -5   (notes141 -2)  51 – 3 (on Asser)       

 

Dr O Padel © 2011