Joseph of Arimathea

Looe Island

It is well known that Christianity was bought to Cornwall by the saints, but in Looe Town they know different.

Long ago in Roman times when trade routes spread up from the Mediterranean as far as Britain, a vibrant and sociable Middle Eastern man called Joseph of Arimathea went on an expedition to trade saffron for tin. Joseph liked to make the most of being a seafaring merchant so he always invited a party of friends and family to join him on his adventures. On this occasion, Joseph had on board the boat many members of his family including his great nephew, Jesus of Nazareth. When Joseph's boat reached the last headland of Brittainy and he could see the Channel he decided to leave most of his fellow travellers on the mainland to explore while he sailed across the Channel to Cornwall with the child Jesus. As they approached the coast Joseph spotted an island safe, secluded and sheltered by the headland. There he settled Jesus on the sandy beach and instructed the child to mind their belongings whilst he sailed into Looe harbour. Looe was a hustle with traders. The tin was carried down through the valleys on pack horses and traders all gathered around laughing and shouting out their wares. Joseph loved the banter of the sale; he knew he had to be shrewd as the Cornishmen were a very sharp witted folk. Although he felt he could be in luck for he had come such a distance to this rugged land where tin was aplenty and saffron a rare extravagance. Joseph soon swopped his saffron gold for Cornish tin, and set off heavy laden back to the island. He found Jesus playing happily on a sandy beach. A seal swam in the waves before the child and many fish filled the waters as Jesus spoke softly to the wild sea life all about him.

A group of tinners had invited Joseph to supper. Joseph persuaded Jesus to help him to pack up the boat and anchor off Looe. On the beach a large group of tinners gathered about a good fire. They shouted for Joseph and the boy to join them. Jesus stepped out of the boat in bare feet and paddled ashore. The men were merry enough and cooked a good meal of fish on a circle of hot stones. When they were full, the talk turned to wolves - not the howling wolves that prowled Bindown at night but the wolfram which rose when they were smelting the tin.

'It makes itself known when foam appears on the surface when we are smelting the tin,' explained one tinner.

'It tears away the tin and devours it like a wolf devours sheep,' said another.

There was much grumbling and complaining amongst the men who worked hard sifting the streams for the ore, only to lose a large proportion of it to the wolf in the rock. As the men continued to bemoan the hidden predator that consumed their hard won metal Joseph held up his hand and grinned. He told the tinners a secret he had learned on his travels: the secret of how to rid the ore of wolfram and harvest all the tin. The men of Looe were enormously grateful to Joseph for sharing his knowledge and if you look upon the Looe Town crest today, you will find a picture of Joseph of Arimathea with the child Jesus on their boat at Looe.

Joseph and Jesus then journeyed on to Glastonbury, where Joseph planted his staff which grew into the Glastonbury thorn tree. An abbey was founded in Glastonbury, and monks from it retraced Joseph and Jesus's steps to Looe Island and built a chapel there. It was a small chapel just like the chapel that still sits on Glastonbury Tor, just like the chapel that crowns Rame Head. Pilgrims used to swim out to Looe Island to visit the chapel - no ferry in those days. Many were lost so the monks moved the chapel to Lamorna, up on Hannafore Downs - the chapel fell down long ago but its stones remain.

So that is just what the people of Looe know different. Most of the Cornish think the saints bought Christianity to our rocky shores, but the people of Looe know that Jesus came to Cornwall himself.

retold by Anna Chorlton

  • Looe