Since at least 1259, the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin has been located in the centre of the busy port of Truro. It had been rebuilt twice, first in 1504 in the fashionable Perpendicular Gothic style, and then it was re-modelled in 1768, in a Georgian style with a 39metre tall spire.
When Truro was chosen to be the cathedral city, it was assumed that the Parish Church would be completely demolished to make way for the cathedral. However, the architect John Loughborough Pearson, argued and eventually gained permission to keep at least part of it. The final services in St Mary's were held on Sunday 3 October 1880, and it was soon after demolished, leaving only the south aisle, which would be cleverly incorporated into the design of the new cathedral. ‘St Mary’s Aisle’ still serves as Truro’s central parish church.
The site available for the cathedral was cramped. St Mary’s was already an irregular shape with a small churchyard. So several buildings and properties on the northern side of the church had to be bought and demolished. You can see the results of this in the cathedral today as the choir and nave are on different axes.
Two foundation stones were laid. As well as the traditional North East corner foundation stone, another was laid in what was then the churchyard of St Mary’s. This second stone was an act of faith and gave people something to aim for; if sufficient money were raised, it would be incorporated into the cathedral as the granite base of the column in the nave. You can see this today.
Between 1880-1887 a temporary wooden building was constructed where the west end of the nave now stands. This acted as a temporary cathedral during the building works.
However, in 1898, the money did indeed run out, although not before the completion of the quire, transepts and crossings. Fortunately, fund-raising re-started almost immediately, and eleven years later work re-started leading to final completion in 1910
The Diocese of Truro was established in 1876 and its first bishop, Bishop Edward White Benson, was consecrated at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1877.
Truro was not the only candidate for the siting of a new cathedral. Lostwithiel had been the home of the Dukes of Cornwall; Launceston had once been the administrative capital of Cornwall, as had Bodmin. St. Germans, the site of the original see of Cornwall, also put forward a claim but was deemed to be too far east. The vicar of St Columb even offered his large church! Eventually, Truro was chosen, and St Mary’s parish church became the new cathedral.
However, St Mary’s was never going to be large enough and planning started for a new cathedral. The leading architect John Loughborough Pearson, who had experience of cathedrals elsewhere, was commissioned to design the new Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Work began in 1880.
The project was ambitious. Truro would be the first Anglican cathedral to be built on a new site since Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. For over 650 years no one had attempted to emulate the great cathedral builders of the medieval era. As well as this, it was initially uncertain if there would be enough money to complete such a project.
The construction of the cathedral actually took thirty years. Foundation stones were laid on 20th May 1880 by the Duke of Cornwall, later King Edward VII, and work started immediately. There was an eleven year pause for further fund-raising between 1887 and 1898, but when work re-commenced things went ahead well. The central tower was finished by 1905 and the building was completed with the opening of the two western towers in 1910.
Today, Truro Cathedral is seen as a triumph of Gothic Revival Architecture and its magnificent spires can be seen soaring above the city’s skyline, and, are at their best when silhouetted by the bright blue Cornish sky.
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