St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
St Michael’s Mount stands off the coast of Marazion in Cornwall.
It can only be reached by boat or by a tidal causeway.
The origins of the castle are medieval, it began life as a 12th century monastery. The castle you can see today is formed from this original monastery, but the majority dates to much later. It is run and part owned by the National Trust but still part owned by the St Aubyn family who do still live in areas of the castle.
The origins of the rock itself are even older. The rock of the Mount is one of a number of granite outcrops along the Cornish coast. These are the remains of a granite intrusion that rose up some 300 million years ago and has worn down over millennia to the outcrops you see today. Others in Cornwall include St Agnes Beacon and the Godolphin Hills.
Geology aside, legend has it that the Mount was the work of giants. There are several versions of the tale, but one is that it was built by the giant Cormoran and his wife Cormelian. This particular legend adds that chapel rock, which lies between Marzion and the Mount, fell from Cormelian’s apron as she carried it to the Mount. You can see the rock below.
Other stories tell of the Mount being used in the giants’ sports as a sort of platform where targets were laid to be hit by rocks thrown from Trencrom Hill. Looking at the Mount protruding so dramatically, it is very easy to see why it attracted stories of giants.
The Mount was probably used by the local Celts and has been caught up in Arthurian legends and the Tristan and Isolde myth in particular. It has also been tradition that it was a central point for shipping tin to the continent, but sadly this hasn’t been born out by archaeology.
The origins of the current castle on the Mount are medieval. There was probably secular occupation of the Mount before the 11th century, but in the late 11th century the Mount was granted (possibly by Edward the Confessor) to the monastery of Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. The matching names of the two rocks is not a coincidence (but very confusing), their geographical and geological similarity wasn’t lost on the medieval monks.
Between 1135 and 1144 a church was built on the Mount by Abbot Bernard. It is this monastery which is the core of the existing building. The monastery was fortified in 1193 when it was seized by Henry de la Pomeray who disguised his men as pilgrims. Pilgrims were common on the Mount and the path you follow today runs along the main pilgrim route to the castle.
The Mount was re-garrisoned a number of times through various English-French wars and the War of the Roses. The monastery was a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and came into Crown hands. In 1599 Elizabeth I sold it to Robert Cecil. In 1640 the Mount was sold to Sir Frances Basset and he fortified it for the Crown in the Civil War, the garrison surrendered in 1646 to Parliament and Captain John St Aubyn was put in charge. He bought the Mount from Basset’s son in 1659. It has been in the St Aubyn family ever since. The Mount has seen a number of battles including driving off a Napoleonic ship and being the site of one of the beacons lit to alert London to the arrival of the Spanish Armada.
It was fortified again in World War II against German invasion and Ribbentrop had apparently chosen it as his residence if Germany won the war. In 1954 the National Trust was given part of the Mount and part remains in the ownership of the St Aubyns.
As you can see the Mount has had a long and varied history and any visit to it highlights its complex path. When I was lucky enough to go there in 2012 it was such a wet and miserable day that I certainly got a real feeling of how desolate the Mount can be.
Getting to the Mount is very much tide dependant. Even in the horrific weather, which certainly added to to the drama of my visit, a large number of people were waiting impatiently for the tide to die down enough to cross to the Mount and climb up to the castle.
The castle is very much not alone on the Mount. There is also an active harbour and town. There has been some sort of settlement on the rock for centuries and today 30 people live and work on the Mount.
The buildings that stand at the top of the Mount are collectively known as the castle, but also contain a church and a 19th century mansion. They are all built on the foundations, physical and metaphorical, of the original priory. There is also a Victorian garden clinging precariously to the edge of the Mount. I don’t have any photos of it specifically, it was too wet to get close enough, but you can see the very attractive wilderness in the photo below.
When you reached the castle itself, its immensity is actually quite surprising.
I’m not going to cover every room in the castle, but just highlight some of my favourites.
It was part of the monastic buildings, but from the late 18th century was used by the family for relaxing. What really strikes you as you walk in is how intimate and cosy the room is, especially when you consider the gale which was howling outside.
The Chevy Chase Room:
This area was originally the priory’s refectory, but it became the great hall of the castle. The plaster frieze around the walls is of the medieval hunting ballad the Chevy Chase. The frieze was created some time between the late sixteenth and mid seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored.
The other highlight of the Chevy Chase Room is the stain glass windows which were gathered from chapels and priories from all over Europe.
The Priory Church
It stands on the summit of the Mount and dates back to the original 12th century monastery, though the current building is very much an amalgam of the decades.
Protected inside the church is a truly beautiful 15th century lantern cross. It is carved from one piece of stone, which probably came from Padstow. The pinnacles are part of the nineteenth century restoration. It has four panels which depict: the Virgin and Child, a king who may be Edward the Confessor, the crucifixion and an ecclesiast who is probably one of the priors of the Mount.
The Blue Drawing Room
In complete contrast to the grand hall, library and the church is the Blue Room which is very late 18th-early 19th century
The room would have originally have been the Lady Chapel of the priory, which by the late 18th century had fallen into disrepair and was rebuilt as the drawing room you see today.
There are other intriguing parts of the castle, but what you are left with most after your visit is an impression of time, and in my case the power of the weather. The Mount reflects many eras and it remains in many ways a family home. It is a place steeped in legend as well as history and deservedly holds its place as one of the jewels of Cornwall.
Site visit 2012
Castles and Ancient Monuments of England by Damien Noonan. ISBN: 9781854106216
Cornwall: A History by Philip Payton. ISBN: 9781904880059
The photos are all mine: the rain drops on the lens in some of them were a bit unavoidable.