The History of Launceston
The town of Launceston has a history spanning over a thousand years. Its name is of a mixed Saxon and Celtic origin and means ‘The Church of St Stephen’. The town received this name from the former monastery of St Stephen which was nearby. Launceston was already a well established and important settlement by the time the Normans came in 1066. It was the site of the earliest known mint in Cornwall, during the time of Ethelred II ; which operated on a small scale and has only one known surviving specimen. The Normans built a castle of the Motte and Bailey design at Launceston in 1067; the substantial remains of which can still be seen today, providing the town with its best known and most visible landmark. The castle (and its dungeons), were once known as ‘Castle Terrible’ and it was the centre of a vast feudal estate. Launceston was an important border town in the struggles against the Welsh for many centuries and was the centre of Cornish government for over seven centuries and was the County Town of Cornwall until it was replaced by Bodmin in 1835.
Launceston Technology College, whose former pupils include Roger Moore , was first established in 1409. Originally a Boys’ Grammar School with a boarding house, it is now a Comprehensive school. A small Abbey was built at Launceston in the early 12th century, which operated for several centuries before being closed by Henry VIII . Sir Henry Trecarrel dedicated 13 years of his life to the project of building the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the early 16th century, following the death of his wife and son. Later, in the same century, Launceston was ‘incorporated’; which involved the creation of a town corporation and Mayor.
One of the most shameful episodes in the history of Launceston must surely be the treatment of the Catholic martyr Cuthbert Mayne. Having been born to a protestant family and been ordained a protestant minister he met some catholic friends whilst at Oxford and converted. He was caught up in the struggles of the time between the two Christian factions and had to flee to France, where he was ordained as a Catholic priest. He then returned to England and was eventually arrested and imprisoned at Launceston gaol. He was tried and convicted despite a lack of any real evidence; the judge directing the guilty verdict saying ‘where plain proofs were wanting, strong assumptions ought to take place’. Cuthbert was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. He refused a pardon offered if he should renounce his Catholicism and was executed at Launceston on 29th November 1577. Cuthbert was made a saint in 1970. The Roman Catholic Church that had been built in 1911 was dedicated to St Cuthbert in 1977.
During the Civil War , Launceston was fighting for the Royalist cause, but in 1646 the castle was captured by the Roundheads. In 1656 the castle was making news again when George Fox , the leader of the Quaker movement, was imprisoned at Launceston.
At the beginning of the 19th century Launceston was quite large by Cornish town standards, with a population of 1500. The Railways came in the late 19th century during a time when the population was growing rapidly. Unfortunately, the railway only lasted 80 years in Launceston and was closed in 1963. Launceston today still has a population of only 7000 and despite not having a market anymore, is still a picturesque town which attracts many visitors. Its main attractions today are the National Trust owned Lawrence House , which is a museum, the Launceston Steam Railway and the Tamar Otter Park .
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