The History of Bodmin
The origins of the Cornish town of Bodmin are obscured by time: that the Celts were in evidence in the district in the Iron Age is attested to by Castle Canyke, a hill fort less than a mile distant, and the Romans after them had a fortified camp of some description there to defend what was a strategic position.
What became Bodmin, however, seems to have sprung up around a monastery that existed by the 6th century when Cornwall’s patron saint – though the son of a Welsh king – Petroc moved there from his previous site in Padstow , joining Guren the hermit who had founded it. St Petroc’s monastery became of great importance for the town which grew to be the religious centre of Cornwall, and its principal market and administrative town.
From the 9th century Bodmin Gospels, something of a Rosetta Stone for British linguists in that it is written in Latin, Saxon and Old Cornish, we know that the area had become a mixed one, with Celts and Saxons living together (and holding one another as slaves, as recorded in the document). In 938 Athelstan endowed the monastery with lands, the monks of the formerly Celtic Church having largely transformed their worship in accordance with Roman doctrines. This situation was complete when in 1136 the foundation became an Augustinian establishment dedicated not only to Petroc but also to Mary. In 1177 the monastery at Bodmin was dealt a blow, albeit temporary, when a Canon in dispute with the Prior stole Petroc’s relics and fled with them to a rival religious house in Brittany. The recovered relics were displayed to Henry II in London on their return journey to Bodmin, and accompanied by the Bishop of Exeter to their ancient home.
In 1086 when the Domesday Book was drawn up Bodmin was the only sizeable settlement, and the single market town, in Cornwall. Wool was traded there, and so was the tin mined in the area as it had been for centuries. Edward I in 1285 gave the town the status of a Borough, demonstrating its regional importance. As elsewhere in England the Black Death in 1349 devastated Bodmin, cutting its population in half to about 1500, but by the following century the town had regained its vigour and prosperity to such an extent that it financed the rebuilding of the St Petroc’s Church in grand style, the largest ecclesiastical building in the county after Truro Cathedral .
Bodmin and Cornwall still, however, tended to look backwards for inspiration and allegiance, a characteristic partly behind two rebellions in 1497 in which the town featured prominently, much to its eventual disadvantage. The first in the summer was against Henry VII ’s efficient tax regime; the second in the autumn when the Yorkist cause put up the pretender Perkin Warbeck as Richard IV in a doomed attempt to recapture power.
Henry VIII closed the monastery in Bodmin in 1538, much to the town’s cost in terms of pilgrim traffic and the resources such a place provided and consumed, but the closure went unopposed. In 1549, however, Henry’s heir the convinced and aggressively Protestant Edward VI imposed a new prayer book on the country, leading Catholic Cornwall to rebel again, once more without success.
In 1569 Elizabeth I , perhaps seeking improved relations with the sometimes rebellious town granted it a royal charter. But though wool trading continued, and the town was a noted leather-making centre, its heyday was over. In the following century, though happily it avoided major armed conflict locally, the economic effects of the Civil War (where again Cornwall chose the losing side) and the swingeing taxes imposed to pay for the fighting impoverished the place.
The 18th century saw Bodmin’s remoteness reduced somewhat when a turnpike road across the moors to Launceston improved communications, a trend accelerated when in 1834 Bodmin relatively early joined the railway network. Two years after that the town – which since 1776 had had its famous gaol – became the county town, with the assizes for all Cornwall located there. This status was temporary, however, Truro by the end of the 19th century having overtaken Bodmin as regards administrative signficance. Today Bodmin is a pleasant market town which is a hub for tourists visiting the region and a shopping centre for North Cornwall .