14 October 2019
A rainy afternoon at
Saint Michael’s Mount
and Marazion in Cornwall
During my few days in Cornwall last week, one of the most spectacular sights I visited was St Michael’s Mount, the small tidal island in Mount’s Bay that has become the picture postcard image of Cornwall.
We had travelled the short distance around Mount’s Bay from Penzance to the small coastal town of Marazion. The blue skies and sunshine we had enjoyed earlier in the day at St Ive’s had turned to grey, the seas had turned from blue to green, and the waves were beginning to churn up.
As the rain threatened, St Michael’s Mount was covered in a slight haze that made it difficult to photograph. By then, there was a high tide, and there was no possibility of walking across from Marazion to St Michael’s Mount along the man-made causeway of granite setts that makes it accessible on foot between mid-tide and low water.
This is one of the 18 unbridged tidal islands in England – others include Lindisfarne – that it is possible to walk to from the mainland. However, the tides and waves put an end to any notions we had of being able to walk across on Thursday afternoon.
Instead, we walked along the shore, enjoying the spectacular sight, and continued to enjoy the view of St Michael’s Mount, with its castle and former Benedictine abbey, from the terraces at the Godolphin Arms Hotel.
St Michael’s Mount is the Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. They share the same tidal island characteristics have a similar conical shape. However, St Michael’s Mount, at 57 acres, is much smaller than Mont St Michel, with 247 acres.
The Cornish language name Karrek Loos yn Koos – ‘the grey rock in a wood’ – may represent a folk memory of a time before Mount’s Bay was flooded, when the mount was set in woodland.
The island was formed when the hazel wood in Mount’s Bay was submerged ca 1700 BC. Some writers suggest the Mount could be the island of Ictis, described as a tin trading centre by the Sicilian-Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca Historica in the first century BC.
According to legend, the island sits on the site of the cave that was the home of Cormoran, an 18-ft giant with an appetite for cattle and children and who terrorised local people. Jack, the young son of a local farmer, killed the giant by trapping him in a concealed pit and bringing down his axe on his head. And so the legend developed of ‘Jack the Giant Killer.’
Local lore also says the Archangel Michael appeared before local fishermen on the Mount in the 5th century AD. St Michael’s Mount may have been the site of a monastery from the 8th to the early 11th centuries. One of the earliest references to the mount is in the mid-11th century, when it was ‘Sanctus Michael beside the sea.’
Before the Norman invasion of England, King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) gave the monastery and the island to the Benedictines of Mont Saint-Michel at Looe Island, also dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
The island became a place of pilgrimage, and pilgrims were further encouraged by an indulgence granted by Pope Gregory in the 11th century. The earliest monastic buildings on the summit and the castle, date from the 12th century. Chapel Rock, on the beach, marks the site of a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where pilgrims paused to pray before ascending the Mount.
Sir Henry de la Pomeroy captured the Mount on behalf of Prince John in 1193, during the reign of King Richard I. But St Michael’s Mount remained a priory of the abbey in Normandy until ‘alien priories’ in England were dissolved houses by Henry V during the Hundred Years’ War.
Henry V gave St Michael’s Mount to the Abbess and Convent of Syon at Isleworth, a monastery of the Bridgettine Order, at its foundation in 1415. However, Henry VI bestowed the mount on King’s College, Cambridge, at its foundation in 1441. But when Edward IV became king during the Wars of the Roses, the mount was returned to Syon Abbey in 1462.
The chapel of Saint Michael, a 15th-century building, has an embattled tower, one angle of which is a small turret that served guide ships.
John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, seized and held the Mount during a siege of 23 weeks against 6,000 troops loyal to Edward IV. Later, Perkin Warbeck, a Yorkist pretender to the throne, occupied the Mount in 1497.
Sir Humphrey Arundell, Governor of St Michael’s Mount, led the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion,’ a popular revolt against the imposition of the English language, in 1549. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Mount was given to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. His son sold it to Sir Francis Bassett.
John Milton used the Mount as the setting for the finale of his poem Lycidas’ in 1637. He drew on the traditional sea-lore that said the Archangel Michael sat in a great stone chair at the top of the Mount, seeing far over the sea and protecting England.
During the Civil War, Sir Arthur Bassett, brother of Sir Francis, held the Mount against the Parliament until July 1646. The Mount was sold in to Colonel John St Aubyn in 1659.
Until the early 18th century, that there were a few fishermen’s cottages on the shore. After improvements to the harbour in 1727, St Michael’s Mount flourished as a port.
Following the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, a tsunami to hit the coast of over 1,600 km away. The sea rose 2 metres in 10 minutes at St Michael’s Mount, ebbed at the same rate, and continued to rise and fall for five hours.
The structure of the castle was romanticised in the 18th and 19th centuries.
There were 53 houses and four streets on the Mount by 1811. The pier was extended in 1821 and the population peaked that year, when the island had 221 people. There were three schools, a Wesleyan chapel, and three public houses, mostly used by visiting sailors.
The harbour was enlarged in 1823 to accommodate vessels of up to 500 tonnes deadweight, and Queen Victoria disembarked from the royal yacht at St Michael’s Mount in 1846, and a brass inlay of her footstep can be seen at the top of the landing stage.
The architect James Piers St Aubyn (1815-1895) made additions to the South Court for his cousin, Sir John St Aubyn, in 1850. But the village went into decline following major improvements to nearby Penzance harbour and the extension of the railway to Penzance in 1852, and many of the houses and buildings were demolished, although a short underground, narrow gauge railway was built in Victorian times.
The causeway linking the Mount and Marazion was improved in 1879 by raising it by 30 cm with sand and stones from the surrounding area. Several houses are built on the hillside facing Marazion. Elizabeth Terrace, a row of eight houses at the back of the village, was built in 1885.
In the late 19th century the remains of an anchorite were found in a tomb inside the domestic chapel.
The Mount was fortified during World War II. The former Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, frequently visited Cornwall when he was Ambassador to London and planned to live at the Mount after a German conquest.
Mount’s Bay stretches from the Lizard Point to Gwennap Head. In winter, onshore gales present maritime risks, and there are more than 150 known wrecks from the 19th century in the area.
The town of Marazion (population 1,440) on the shore of Mount’s Bay is 3 km east of Penzance and is a thriving tourist resort with an active community of artists.
At an early period, this was a centre for tin smelting, and Marazion prospered because of the pilgrims who visited St Michael’s Mount until the Reformation.
Although Marazion was not recorded in the Domesday Book in 1088, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain and Earl of Cornwall, granted lands and liberties to St Michael’s Mount opposite Marazion, with a market on Thursdays.
These markets were known as Marghasbighan (Parvum Forum or ‘small marketplace’) and Marghasyewe (Forum Jovis, ‘Thursday Market’ or ‘Marketjew’). The names Marketjew and Marazion have given rise to erroneous stories about Jewish origins for the town. Three fairs were also held, on the two feasts of Saint Michael and at Mid-Lent, and the Priors of St Michael’s Mount held three markets. Later, markets were held on Mondays, with a three-day fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of Saint Andrew at ‘Marghasyon.’
Marazion was plundered twice in the first half of the 16th century, first by the French and later by Cornish rebels.
Queen Elizabeth granted Marazion a charter of incorporation in 1595. The corporation consisted of a mayor, eight aldermen and 12 capital burgesses.
As neighbouring Penzance developed as a borough, Marazion was eclipsed in the 17th century marginalised Marazion. A new parish church, All Saints’ Church, was designed for Marazion in 1861. He had been involved in earlier designs for the castle on Mount St Michael, and he was the architect of the parish church in the village of Saint Agnes.
The corporation was dissolved in 1835. From 1894 to 1974, Marazion was part of West Penwith Rural District and then from 1974 part of Penwith District Council. Marazion regained its town status in 1974, with the right to elect a Mayor from the Marazion Town Council.
Meanwhile, Francis Cecil St Aubyn (1895-1978), who succeeded as 3rd Baron St Levan in 1940, gave most of St Michael’s Mount to the National Trust in 1954, along with a large endowment fund. The St Aubyn family retained a 999-year lease to inhabit the castle and a licence to manage the public viewing of its historic rooms. This is managed in conjunction with the National Trust.
Today, St Michael’s Mount is managed by the National Trust, but the castle remains the home of the St Aubyn family and Lord St Levan. For local government purposes, St Michael’s Mount forms its own civil parish, with a parish meeting chaired by Lord St Levan. The chapel is extra-diocesan and continues to serve the Order of St John by permission of Lord St Levan.
Part of the island was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1995 for its geology. The east side of the bay centred around Marazion and St Michael’s Mount was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone in January 2016.