History of Truro

History of Truro

Cornwall’s county town and administrative capital, Truro is also the leisure and retail centre of the county with some fantastic high street and boutique shopping as well as a large selection of cafes and restaurants.

Mentioned in the Domesday Book as Trewret and Treurgan, Truro, with its enviable riverside location, is thought to have been settled since prehistoric times. The city has had a Royal Charter since the 12th Century, granted by King John and later renewed by Elizabeth I, giving it the right to hold markets. This tradition continues vociferously to this day with a selection of indoor markets and a calendar of large outdoor events, usually centered around Lemon Quay.

The origins of Truro’s name, like many in Cornwall, are open to speculation, but the best guess is that it stems from Tri-veru, Cornish for three rivers. The Kenwyn, the Allen and the Tinney are now all hidden beneath the streets of the city, although you can catch glimpses of the Allen under St Mary’s Street and behind the cathedral if you look hard enough, whilst the Kenwyn runs under Victoria Square and Lemon Quay. Down stream, the three rivers combine to form the River Truro, which flows into the River Fal. The covering of rivers by roads gives us our first hint that this is a more built-up place than many in Cornwall – and that it is also a place whose history might be explored through its buildings.

A view of Truro at dusk with the lights of the city and the cathedral reflected in the calm water of the river

Once a bustling port, the piazza at Lemon Quay was the spot where ships would have arrived, greeted by dozens of men running down the alleyways and opes. These tiny streets point to the medieval origins of a settlement where a castle once stood, built during the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda soon after the Norman Conquest and demolished around 1154 when order was restored by Henry II. The site of ‘le castel’ was later developed into a cattle market and, since 1984, has been home to the new Courts of Justice, a modern icon of a building in itself, designed by architects Evans & Shalev who also created the Tate building in St Ives.

There was once a Dominican priory here too, founded in 1259 and destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Only remnants now remain of what must have been a magnificent cloistered building and there are questions over its precise location. A closed well in Kenwyn Street is thought to have once been part of the priory, as is a sculpted bas-relief head in the rear courtyard of the Yak and Yeti restaurant.

Boats along the riverbanks in Truro

Truro has been a stannary town since around 1351, its position as a port making it a sensible choice for the weighing, quality control and taxing of tin and copper prior to transportation. Despite a brief period as a virtual ghost town following the Black Death in the 14th Century, populations soon returned and in the late 18th and early 19th Century tin prices rocketed and wealthy mine owners built elegant homes here. The Assembly Rooms on High Cross became the centre of this high society and they still stand today, although only the shell remains. Look for Warren’s bakery near the cathedral where Wedgewood plaques on the exterior of the building depict playwrights Shakespeare and Garrick, and Thalia, the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. The Assembly Rooms were renowned as the location for many grand balls and receptions, and famed for an innovative interior, which incorporated a ballroom that could be transformed into a theatre. The Royal Cornwall Museum holds a section of the border that would have adorned the walls of this magnificent room, but sadly nothing else remains.

The elegant town houses of this affluent era can be seen along Lemon Street where the Georgian architecture is widely regarded as the finest west of Bath. Don’t miss the beautiful arc of terraces that is Walsingham Place, either. Leave the Lemon Street market by the back door and you’ll stumble on this delightfully peaceful street, beloved of poet laureate John Betjeman who described it as ‘mercifully preserved’ in his Shell Guide to Cornwall. The rush of modernisation and development following the war could so easily have swept it up.

The striking ceiling of Truro Cathedral in Cornwall

The cathedral, which now dominates the Truro skyline, is, in fact, a relative newcomer to the scene, its foundation stone laid by the Duke of Cornwall (later Edward VII) in 1880. Cornwall had a bishop at St Germans until the latter part of the 10th Century but after that the diocese was combined with that of Devon and held at Crediton and then Exeter from 1050. In 1877, after 30 years of lobbying, the county was again granted its own diocese – and a new cathedral had to be built. Truro was not the only choice of site, with Bodmin and St German’s also staking a claim. But Truro won out and the cathedral was built on the site of the Parish Church of St Mary, which had stood in the town since 1259. I say town as before this point it was. Truro was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1877. It remains the only city in Cornwall.

Truro Cathedral is a vision of Victorian architecture in the gothic style. Who but the Victorians could have raised the first cathedral built on a new site in Britain since Salisbury in 1220. Architect John Loughborough Pearson even managed to cleverly include the south aisle of the old church in the new cathedral – the old church thus giving gravitas and support to the new one.

A picture of a beautiful sunset in Truro with an orange sky reflected in the flat-calm river

The Coinage Hall (now housing Pizza Express) and Italianate Town Hall (including the Hall for Cornwall theatre) are also well worth a look whilst you are in town and don’t miss the chance to sample a drink or some food in the building that once housed the Old Grammar School on St Mary’s Street (now a bar of the same name). Founded in 1547, the school was one of the oldest in Britain and boasts Humphry Davy, inventor of the miner’s safety lamp, historian Richard Polwhele and missionary Henry Martin as former pupils. You’ll still find a beautifully carved city crest on the interior wall at the back featuring a three-masted ship under sail and two fish.

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