Standing at the heart of the city centre, Truro Cathedral appears at first glance to be another of England's fine medieval churches. In fact, it was built largely during the late Victorian period but its magnificent architecture embraces a true medieval influence. The reason for its late development resulted from the creation of the new see for Cornwall in 1876, when the first Bishop was eager to build a grand new cathedral from which to administer the diocese of Truro.
Christians had been drawn to this site since Saxon times, and it is likely that some form of religious building had existed for the community. Since before the Norman invasion Truro had come within the diocese of Exeter in Devon and, as there seemed little possibility that a new see would be established for Cornwall, no cathedral was ever constructed. However, a large parish church was erected during the mid-13th century and this remained the focal point of the community for the next six centuries.
Throughout this time there was much debate about the logistical difficulties of having a county without its own centre for religious administration, but a solution was not forthcoming. Meanwhile, the parish church of St Mary's was undergoing a major rebuilding programme during the early years of the 16th century. Then, after more than 800 years, Cornwall finally achieved its 'independence' from Devon, and the new Bishop was duly enthroned in St Mary's in 1877.
Had Bishop Benson's original plans for a cathedral been fully realised, nothing of St Mary's parish church would have survived. In his enthusiasm for an entirely new beginning for the diocese, the community, and himself, Benson decided that St Mary's should simply be 'swept away' to make room for his splendid cathedral. John Loughborough Pearson, the architect, had plans to incorporate at least part of the old church into his innovative design for Truro Cathedral, and his scheme was eventually adopted. The south aisle of St Mary's was retained as the cathedral gradually sprang up around, and over it. Today, even though it is an integral part of the cathedral, St Mary's Aisle serves as the parish church for the community. Notwithstanding the obvious age difference, this part of the church has retained its own glory - a beautiful medieval timber barrel roof, now adorned with colourful carved wooden bosses.
Work commenced in 1880 with the laying of two foundation stones by the Prince of Wales and, within 30 years Truro Cathedral was substantially complete. Built from local granite, with dressings of Bath stone, the structure presented a spectacle of imagination and 'gothic' mysticism externally and, on the inside, a welcoming place of elegance and light. Lavishly enhanced with teak, mahogany, several kinds of marble, and an abundance of Bath stone, the interior décor can equal the richness of any much older cathedral in England.
Not surprisingly, there are few relics to be found that pre-date the cathedral but the two 14th century Breton statues are well worth discovering, as is the massive alabaster and marble memorial to the Robartes family. They lived at nearby Lanhydrock for over 300 years, and their memorial formerly stood in St Mary's church. Despite Bishop Benson's attempts to 'bury' what had gone before his 19th century building, there would always have been very strong links between the site and the townsfolk. Pearson had probably understood this better than the bishop (a relative newcomer to the area), and his ingenious plan to incorporate both old and new into the final design has proved to be a resounding success.