The town of St Ives stands at the north-western extremity of St Ives Bay, on the north coast of Cornwall about twenty miles distant from Land’s End. The Bay, from Gwithian on the north-east around by Hayle, Lelant and Carbis Bay to St Ives itself, has been newly designated one of the world’s most beautiful bays. It is fringed by a series of golden beaches which, with the deep blue of the sea in summer and the soft green of the grass-covered towans behind, makes a truly wonderful setting. Here, in the shallow inshore waters, the seine fishermen used to cast their nets to capture the huge shoals of pilchards which frequented these coasts during the autumn, the fish then being cured in salt and exported by sailing ship to the Mediterranean. The pilchard industry is now dead, and today the beaches are annually thronged with thousands of holidaymakers on whom the town mainly depends for its livelihood.
St Ives takes its name from St Ia, an Irish princess and missionary who sailed over during the fifth century, reputedly on a leaf, and built an oratory on the site of the present parish church. Soon after her martyrdom at the hands of Theodric, King of Cornwall, the small fishing village began to be called after her, the name gradually changing from Sancte Ye, Seynt Ya, Seynt Iysse, Seynt Iees, and other variants, into the modern form of St Ives. The name has no connection with St Ive in east Cornwall, or St Ives near Cambridge, which were both named after St Ivo, a quite different saint.
Until the fourteenth century the village remained an obscure place, overshadowed by its far more prosperous neighbour, the seaport of Lelant at the head of the Bay. About that time, Lelant began to decline owing to encroachment by the sands; the trade it lost was transferred to St Ives, which then began to grow in importance. However, the inhabitants, having no building in the town where divine service could be read, were obliged every Sunday and holy day to go to Lelant church three miles distant, where their children had also to be taken to be baptised and their dead to be buried. Considering this a great hardship, in about 1408 they petitioned Lord Champernon, lord of St Ives, to intercede with the Pope to license a chapel to be built in the town. In 1410 Pope Alexander V issued his bull for this purpose. This resulted in the present parish church being begun in the reign of King Henry V and finished in the reign of King Henry VI – it took sixteen and a half years to build.
The splendid church therefore symbolises St Ives’ emergence as a township with a strongly marked community spirit, but it is worth remembering that the population at that time still numbered only about 500; so that the amount of labour and money involved in erecting the church must have made considerable demands on the community. A further important advance took place in 1488, when Lord Broke, who had acquired the manor of St Ives through marriage with the heiress of Lord Champernon, obtained a charter for a weekly Saturday market, with two annual fairs. A market house was erected in 1490, this being replaced by the present structure in 1832. Lord Broke is also credited with building the castle for defending the town from seaward attack – a very necessary precaution in those troublesome times; some remains of the castle may still be seen at the landward end of Smeaton’s Pier.