St. Buriana’s Banner in the St. Buryan Church, Cornwall. This is the newer banner. Photo taken November 2018 when I visited there.
Celts to the Crèche: Day 39
St. Buriana of Cornwall
St. Buriana (Berriona, Beriana or Beryan) was a 6th-century Irish saint who was a missionary, healer, and anchoress in St Buryan, near Penzance and Land’s End in Cornwall. It is likely that she was the daughter of an Irish king and travelled to Cornwall from Ireland with a large group of missionaries led by St. Piran to help convert the local people to Christianity.
The Exeter Calendar of Martyrology states that St. Buriana was the daughter of a Munster chieftain. One legend tells how she cured the paralyzed son of King Geraint of Dumnonia (also known as Devon, close to Cornwall). There is a town and a church in Cornwall named for her, “St. Buryan” which is located on the B3283 in this West Penwith village in Cornwall. It is only 5 miles from Land’s End at the very tip of England. Interestingly, Cornwall in Southwest England is full of towns named after Cornish saints.
You may desire to continue reading about St. Buriana or scroll down to the Meditation below.
Legend of St. Buriana. There is a Cornish legend that says St. Buriana was desired for her beauty by King Gereint who carried her off by force to his Trevorgans stronghold. St. Piran of the area and some companions rushed to the castle to beg for her release. The king said the only way she would be released was if he would be awakened the next morning by the cuckoo calling in the snow. St. Piran and friends stood all night in prayer outside of the castle while the snow fell. In the morning the cuckoo could be heard within the castle walls. The terrified king begged for their pardon and handed over Buriana. As they left, the king hardened his heart and set out to recapture Buriana, but as he put out his hand to take her, she died. St. Pirian and friends prayed for her and she was restored to life. King Gereint was so impressed that he and his family came into the Christian faith. This is likely the same king whose son Buriana healed of paralysis.
Her Chapel (Oratory). St. Buriana ministered from a chapel on the site of the parish church at St Buryan. She may have established a convent or monastery there on this round Celtic-style enclosure. A church has stood on the current site since about 930AD. There is nothing left of St. Buriana’s small 5thc. prayer oratory (chapel), but a 10thc. stone cross was erected on a monolithic granite base to mark where her chapel likely was inside this Celtic enclosure. The cross shows the crucifixion on one side and the reverse shows five hemispheres, a common symbol for the five wounds of Jesus on the cross.
Interestingly, Baring-Gould in Virgin Saints and Martyrs purports a different idea of where St. Buriana’s oratory was. He says that St. Buriana was known in Ireland as Bruseach the Slender before she came to Cornwall. Even though the St. Buryan Church is likely the place of St. Buriana’s oratory and King Athelstan’s church, Baring-Gould also states that St. Buriana’s oratory is about a mile southeast from the parish church that bears her name and that there are still some ruins there. The ruins are on Bosleven Farm by a rivulet. There are more extensive foundations there that Baring-Gould says may be where Athelstan set up his oratory. This place is called “Sentry” meaning “sanctuary.” (Virgin Saints and Martyrs, p. 13-15)
King Athelstan Builds a Church. In 930AD King Athelstan arrived in the area that would later be known as St. Buryan on his way to fight the Danes on the Isles of Scilly not far from Cornwall. Finding a Christian community there living a monastic life, he stopped to take communion and to pray at St. Buriana‘s little chapel. Athelstan vowed that if he won this battle, he would build and endow a church on the site of St. Buriana’s chapel (oratory). Upon his triumphant return, having subdued Scilly, Athelstan endowed a church in honor of St. Buriana with a charter that established St. Buryan as one of the earliest monasteries in Cornwall. Athelstan’s charter is confirmed by the Domesday Book of 1086 which states that the Canons of St. Berriona held Eglosberrie and it was free from the payment of geld.
11th C. Cross. Outside of the church gateway is a second St. Buryan Cross. This one is an 11th c. cross given to the church by Robert Edmund Tonkin who was the Lord of the Manor of St. Buryan. It may have been a market cross.
Athelstan’s Church is Enlarged and Dedicated to St. Buriana. Athelstan’s church structure was later enlarged and dedicated to St. Buriana in 1238 by Bishop William Brewer. The only part of Athelstan’s church left are the Romanesque arches on the north side of the sanctuary.
Current 15thc. Church. The current beautifully cared-for and still active 15thc. church is the largest of the three churches in the Land’s End Benefice in Cornwall. It is a part of the Diocese of Truro.
This church boasts the heaviest peal of six bells in the world. All of the kneelers in the church have been hand-embroidered and designed by local villagers in memory of a loved one or commemorating a special event or a village way of life. There is a both a recent machine-made banner of St. Buriana (seen at the top of this post) and an earlier 20th c. banner of her. In the banners she is cradling the church she formed in her arms.
Feast Day May 1
A Celtic Blessing to Send You on Your Way is found at the conclusion of the St. Buryan Church Illustrated Guidebook. What an appropriate Blessing for the day before Christmas Eve as this pilgrimage with the Saints is leading us very near to the entrance of the crèche. We are anxious to get a peek into this holy place that will be permeated with the sounds and smells of adoring animals and angels keeping watch all around. This crèche that transforms into a sanctuary where Jesus the Christ will soon be born to Mary and Joseph and also born anew in our lives.
May you lead your life in light-heartedness,
keep hopelessness far away,
May gloom not remain in you,
but may God’s cheerfulness
forever sing out merrily in your life.
Baring-Gould, Sabine. A Book of Cornwall. Google Books.
_______________. Virgin Saints and Martyrs. Google Books.
Blight, John Thomas. Ancient Cross and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall. Google Books.
Fish, Sarah. Female Saints of Cornwall. MA Celtic Studies Dissertation. University of Wales. Trinity St. David. (Excellent information on the female saints of Cornwall)
Olson, Lynette. Early Monasteries in Cornwall. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1989.
Ormer, Nicholas. Cornwall and the Cross:Christianity 500-1560. London: Phillimore and University of London, 2007.
St. Buryan Church: An Illustrated Guidebook, 2018.
St. Buryan Church. West Penrith Resources.
St. Buryan Church. Youtube video. 2016.
Women Saints of Cornwall. St. Buriana. OrthoChristian.com (a good resource)