Launceston (St. Mary Magdalene)

LAUNCESTON (St. Mary Magdalene), a borough, market-town, and parish, and the head of a union, in the N. division of the hundred of East, E. division of Cornwall, 20½ miles (N. E. by E.) from Bodmin, and 213 (W. S. W.) from London; containing, exclusively of those portions of the borough which extend beyond the limits of the parish, 2460 inhabitants. The original name of Launceston was Dunheved, "the Swelling hill:" it was also called Lanstephadon, or "Church Stephen Town," the word Llan signifying a church in the British language. Its present appellation seems to be a contraction of Lancester-ton, or "Church Castle Town." The manor and honour, which had a very extensive jurisdiction, belonged from time immemorial to the earls of Cornwall, who had their chief seat at Launceston Castle; they were given by William the Conqueror to his half-brother, Robert, Earl of Montaigne, whom he made Earl of Cornwall. The church of St. Stephen (within which parish is the borough of Newport, adjoining to Launceston, and considered as part of it,) was made collegiate, before the Conquest, for Secular canons; and King Henry I. gave it to the church of Exeter. Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, was a great benefactor to the college, and used all his influence with King Stephen to remove the see from Devonshire to Cornwall, and constitute this the cathedral; but the attempt was successfully opposed by William Warlewast, Bishop of Exeter, who, being then resident at Lawhitton, on his first triennial visitation suppressed the college of Secular canons, and in its stead founded a priory of Augustine monks, in the parish of St. Thomas, about half-way between St. Stephen's and the castle.

The castle of Launceston passed with the earldom, and was annexed to the duchy of Cornwall by act of parliament. Hubert de Burgh, who had large possessions in Cornwall, was made governor of the castle, and sheriff for the county, by King John. It eventually passed by grant into the hands of the dukes of Northumberland, who were thereupon invested with the office of constable of Launceston. From its strong position, and its situation at the entrance into the county, this castle was an important post during the civil war of the 17th century. It was at first in the hands of the parliament, and under the governorship of Sir Richard Buller, who, on the approach of Sir Ralph Hopton with the king's forces, quitted the town and fled. In 1643, Sir Ralph was attacked by Major-General Chudleigh, without success. In August, 1644, the place was surrendered to the Earl of Essex, but it fell into the hands of the royalists again, after the capitulation of the earl's army. In 1645 the Prince of Wales sojourned for some time in Launceston. In November of the same year, the town was fortified by Sir Richard Granville, who, being at variance with Lord Goring, another of the king's generals, caused proclamation to be made in all the churches of Cornwall, that if any of Lord Goring's forces should come into the county, the bells should be rung, and the people incited to drive them out. Shortly after, Sir Richard, having refused to take the chief command of the infantry under Lord Hopton as generalissimo, was committed to the prison of Launceston. Colonel Basset, being then governor, surrendered the place to Sir Thomas Fairfax, in March, 1646. In the time of the Commonwealth, the castle and park were put up to sale by the government, and purchased by Robert Bennet, Esq., but on the Restoration they reverted to the crown.

The Town, which is highly interesting to the antiquary, is pleasantly situated near the western bank of the Tamar, on a steep ascent, at the foot of which is the little river Kinsey. On the summit of a hill is a conical rocky mount, partly natural and partly artificial, upon which stands the keep of the ancient castle, with a Norman gateway, and part of the outer walls. Traces of the wall that surrounded the town yet exist; and the old South gate, still remaining, is used as a place of temporary confinement for prisoners, before their removal to the county gaol at Bodmin. Over the entrance to the White Hart inn is a fine Norman arch, said to have belonged to the priory. There are many good houses, and the town is rapidly improving and increasing, but the streets, which are macadamized, are in general narrow. It is lighted with gas; and the inhabitants are well supplied with water, which is brought by pipes from Trenibbett, or Dunheved Green. On the north side of the church is a pleasant promenade, shaded by an avenue of trees, and commanding a fine prospect over the adjacent country; there is another walk on the green below the castle. Two book clubs and three subscription libraries are supported. Some years since a philosophical institution, with a good apparatus, was established; and lectures are given during the winter, in a public subscription room at the head of the town. In the centre of the town is a room of large dimensions, occasionally used for concerts, &c. An extensive manufacture of serges was formerly carried on, but it has for several years been on the decline. A branch of the Bude canal has been brought within four miles of the town, and promises materially to improve the general trade; in 1836, an act was procured for making a railway from Tremoutha haven. The markets are on Wednesday for butcher's meat, and on Saturday for corn and provisions of all sorts. Fairs are held on Whit-Monday, July 5th, Nov. 17th, and Dec. 6th, for cattle; and on the first Thursday in March, and the third Thursday in April, for cattle of all sorts, free of toll. There are likewise three cattle-fairs in the parish of St. Stephen, on May 12th, July 31st, and September 25th. An act for erecting a market-house, and for the regulation of the markets, was passed in 1840.

Launceston was constituted a free Borough in the reign of Henry III., by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who granted various privileges to the burgesses, and a piece of ground on which to build their guildhall, to be held of him and his heirs by the annual tender of a pound of pepper. The town subsequently received several charters, and those by which it was governed until the passing of the Municipal act, were bestowed by Queen Mary and Charles II., the former in 1556, and the latter in 1683. By the above act, the control is vested in a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors; the mayor and late mayor being magistrates for the borough, concurrently with the county justices. Launceston first returned members to parliament in the 23rd of Edward I.: under the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, it now sends one: the mayor is returning officer. Petty-sessions for the Northern division of the hundred of East are held here on the first Friday in every month. The powers of the county debt-court of Launceston, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Launceston. The assizes for the county, once held wholly in this town, and for more than half a century here alternately with Bodmin, were in 1838 entirely removed to the latter place. A private house was purchased by the corporation in 1810, for the transaction of public business, and is now called the Mayoralty Room.

The parish comprises by computation 1100 acres: the soil is generally of a loamy quality, and in the neighbourhood of the town the meadows are rich; the subsoil is rock, alternated with clay, and from the prevalence of mineral springs, an opinion was once entertained that mines existed, but every attempt to find them has failed. The Living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £116; patron and impropriator, the Duke of Northumberland, whose tithes have been commuted for £34. The church was erected about the year 1540, by the munificence of Sir Henry Trecarrell, Knt., on the site of a decayed chantry, and was made parochial in the early part of the sixteenth century. The body of the edifice is in the later English style, built with square blocks of granite, and covered with a profusion of beautiful ornaments; the tower is of different materials, and apparently of much greater antiquity. A series of square blocks of granite is continued round the building on the outside, upon each of which is a single letter, on a shield, the whole forming the following congratulatory dedication: "Ave Maria gratiæ plena, Dominus tecum. Sponsus amat sponsam; Maria optimum partem elegit." "O quam terribilis ac metuendus est locus iste ! vere aliud non est hic nisi domus Dei, et porta cæli." On the south side is the principal entrance, over which are the figures of St. George and the Dragon; and St. Martin on horseback, cutting off the skirts of his coat with his sword, to clothe a cripple who is represented as begging and with crutches. At the east end, within a recess on the outside, is a recumbent figure of Mary Magdalene. The interior of the church is light and uniform, and the altar is embellished with two superb paintings, representing Moses and Aaron; there is a fine organ, and the ceiling is ornamented with elaborately carved oak. Of the numerous stately and interesting monuments, is a splendid monument of marble in the north aisle, reaching from the floor to the ceiling, and displaying a profusion of chaste and elegant sculpture, to the memory of Granville Piper and Richard Wyse, Esqrs. There are places of worship for Independents, Wesleyans, and other dissenters. The grammar school was founded by Queen Elizabeth, and endowed with £16 per annum, chargeable on the estates of the duchy of Cornwall, to which an augmentation of £10 per annum was made in 1685, by George Baron, Esq.: after having been shut up for some years, it was lately re-opened. Here was an hospital for lepers, dedicated to St. Leonard; the income, amounting to about £25 per annum, is vested in trustees for charitable uses. The poor-law union comprises twenty-one parishes or places, of which nineteen are in Cornwall, and two in Devon; and contains a population of 16,746. Launceston gives the title of Viscount to the reigning sovereign.—See the articles upon Newport, St. Stephen's, and St. Thomas'.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.