Dominating Mounts Bay is St Michael’s Mount, which rises majestically almost 230 feet from sea level to the tower, chapel and battlement of the castle. Situated approximately 500 yards offshore the Mount is reached by small ferry boats which ply between Marazion and the Mount's harbour.
Mount’s Bay was previously a marsh forest. Around 2000 B.C. it was flooded by the sea and caused St Michael’s Mount to become an island guarding the entrance to the Land's End district of Cornwall. The English Mount was known as a port and trading post (for tin and copper) from as early as 350 BC. Following the defeat of the seafaring merchants who controlled the Mount by the Roman Julius Caeser in 56 BC, the small island was abandoned to hermits and mystics. Legends tell of a visit by St. Keyne and a spring that miraculously gushed forth when she set foot upon the rock in 490 AD. The event that most clearly stimulated Christian pilgrimages to the Mount however, was an apparition of St. Michael to a fisherman in 495 AD. According to different versions of the legend, St. Michael was observed either high upon a rocky ledge or walking upon the waters of Mount Bay. Whatever the case, the Mount quickly became an important sacred site that would continue to draw pilgrims from throughout England for 1500 years. Recently discovered graves on the Mount believe to be dated back to 900 A.D. indicate a possible Saxon religious settlement on the island.
In 1075, following the Norman Conquest, the Mount was granted to the French at Mont St Michel. Their Abbot, Bernard, had a church built on St Michael’s Mount in 1135 which was consecrated by the Bishop of Exeter in 1144.
In 1193 the priory was seized by Henry de la Pomeray with his men disguised as pilgrims. He immediately begins to build the castle, however he took his own life when Richard the Lion heart returned to England after the Crusades as he feared the consequences of his actions.
Between 1262 and 1263 there were four miracles witnessed in the church which needless to say helped to encourage the growth of pilgrimages. It took till 1385 however before we installed Richard Auncell of Tavistock as the first non French prior. Henry VI confirmed the grant of the priory to Svon Abbey in 1424, following its appropriation from Mont St Michel in 1414 as an alien priory.
In 1472, during the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford takes and holds the Mount through a siege of six months. In 1497 the Cornish uprising against Henry VII's taxation to pay for his war against the Scots took place. The taxation was a curtailment of Cornish constitutional rights under the Stannary law Charter of 1305 (that no tax of 10ths and 15ths may be raised in Cornwall). Resistance, particularly at St. Keverne under the leadership of Michael Joseph An Gof, gains momentum at Bodmin when taken up by lawyer, Thomas Flamank. They lead a march to London, are joined by Lord Audley en route, but are confronted by 10,000 of Henry's men under Lord Daubeney. On 16th June the Cornish force, armed only with country weapons, are routed. Audley, Flamank and Joseph are executed. The Cornish are resentful... On September 7th Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne, lands at Whitesand Bay (Porthcurno), near Land's End. Warmly welcomed, he refortifies the Mount and leaves his beautiful wife Katherine there for safety as he undertakes his ill-fated campaign for the throne after he is proclaimed King Richard IV at Bodmin.
In 1535 steps are taken towards the dissolution of monasteries, eventually in 1548 the clergy of St Michael’s Mount are pensioned off. In 1549 a gang of bloodthirsty Cornish rebels capture the Mount, where a number of local families had taken refuge. All the hostages were released intact when the Prayer Book Rebellion was defeated in Exeter. This uprising was in protest against the imposition by Edward VI of the use of the Book of Common Prayer in English. This spells the end for the use of Cornish language.
In 1588 the first beacon was lit to warn of arrival of the Spanish armada. There was also a Spanish raid on Mounts Bay in 1595. Four Spanish galleys slipped into Mount's Bay and dropped anchor off Mousehole, where they ferried ashore a force estimated at 200 pike and shot, which burnt the village and some surrounding hamlets, including the village of Paul. The Spaniards now re-embarked, and moving slightly East wards, landed their full force of 400 men at Newlyn, and sent an advance guard of about 50 men on to the hill above the village, from where they could look down on the scenes of confusion and lack of preparedness in Penzance. Covered by fire from the guns aboard the galleys, the full Spanish force advanced along the shore towards the town.
The Spaniards put Penzance to the torch. As Penzance went up in flames, local troops retired in haste about 2 miles eastwards around the Bay to the village of Marazion, intending to defend the causeway leading to St. Michael's Mount. At that point British reinforcements arrived, and the Spanish withdrew without any further action.
From 1642 to 1646 new fortifications were installed during the Civil War by Sir Francis Basset before the Mount capitulates to parliamentarians in April 1646 after a valiant defence. In 1659 Colonel St. Aubyn purchases the Mount, and his descendants still live in the castle twelve generations on.
In 1726 one of his descendants sees that the Harbour was rebuilt, this generated economic activity for next 150 years until Penzance improved its own port. The village on the Mount became revitalised, reaching three hundred people at its peak.
In 1812 a French pirate ship was disabled under fire from the South East battery and its cannons were stripped from the deck of the ship and placed on the Mount.
In 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made an impromptu visit while cruising on the Brittannia, and in the absence of the family are entertained by the Housekeeper in the blue drawing room!
From 1873 to 1878 the East Wing was built by John St. Aubyn, later made Lord St. Levan, with his cousin Piers St Aubyn, as architect.
In 1902, King Edward VII visits, and Lord St. Levan closes the St Aubyn Arms pub (now No. 1 Harbour View) when a tipsy fisherman spits at the King’s feet!
During its long history after the apparition, the Mount has been a church, a priory, a military fortress, and a private castle of the St. Aubyn family. Since 1954 St Michael’s Mount is given to the National Trust with a large endowment fund while the St. Aubyn family retain a 999 year lease to live in the castle and operate the visitor business.
Myths and legends of St Michael’s Mount
Then there was Jack the Giant Killer, a farmer's son from near Lands End at the time of King Arthur. Cormoran, the Giant of St Michael's Mount was terrorising the surrounding area and was stealing cattle. Jack decided to earn the reward being offered for killing Cormoran. He dug a pit near Morvah, disguised the pit with sticks, and lured the giant to the pit by blowing his horn. The giant fell into the hole. Jack dispatched him with a blow from his pickaxe, then filled in the hole. Even today there is a large stone near Morvah church marking the Giants Cave, and sometimes voices are heard coming from it.
A fascinating matter that presents itself to the student of St. Michael’s shrines in Britain is the extraordinary linking of those shrines by straight lines, lay lines, running for hundreds of miles across the countryside. One example of a lay line, originating at St. Michael's Mount, goes on to pass through the Druid sacred site of ‘Cheesewring’ on Bodmin Moor, through the St. Michael's churches at Brentor, through the Neolithic mound of Burrowbridge Mump, and on to Glastonbury Tor, and then continues straight to the stone rings of Avebury.
Prussia Cove, 7 miles E of Helston, home of the most famous smugglers of the Mount's Bay area, and perhaps of all Cornwall. John Carter was the self-styled 'King of Prussia', and together with two brothers, Harry and Charles, he ran an efficient and profitable smuggling operation that continued for many years.
John Carter is said to have got his nickname from boyhood games in which he regularly claimed to be the King of Prussia. The cove was formerly called Porthleah, but gradually became known as 'the King of Prussia's Cove', and later just Prussia Cove or King's Cove on account of the Carter family's association with the area. The family used three small inlets for their business: Pisky's Cove on the west side, Bessie's Cove (named after the brewers who kept a beer shop on the cliff above) and King's Cove.
The spot has considerable natural advantages: it is ...'so sheltered and secluded that it is impossible to see what boats are in the little harbour until one literally leans over the edge of the cliff above; a harbour cut out of the solid rock and a roadway with wheel-tracks, partly cut and partly worn, climbing up the face of the cliff on either side of the cove, caves and the remains of caves everywhere, some of them with their mouths built up which are reputed to be connected with the house above by secret passages — these are still existing trademarks left by one of the most enterprising smuggling gangs that Cornwall has ever known'
Certainly some of the fame of the family can be attributed to the autobiography written by Harry Carter. This was penned after he had seen ‘The Light’, given up smuggling and retired as a preacher. The book is short, but still makes for heavy reading, rambling on for pages in the best traditions of Wesleyism. Nevertheless, Carter describes in the course of the narrative some hair-rasing scenes.
One Ill-fated smuggling trip took him to Cawsand — and almost to his death. As he guided the boat into the harbour, he assumed that the two small boats that came alongside were preparing to unload the contraband. Too late he realized they were from a man-of-war, and a fierce battle ensued. He was struck down, severely wounded, and left for dead, but after several hours his body was still warm although 'his head is all to atoms' as one of the guards observed. Despite his injuries, he was able to crawl across the deck and drop into the water. Once in, he found — not surprisingly — that his stout swimming skill had deserted him, and he was forced to pull himself along ropes at the ship's side, until he could touch the bottom and crawl out of the water. On land, he was picked up, half dead, by local men...
'My strength was al lmoste exhausted; my breath, nay, my life, was all moste gone....The bone of my nose cut right in two, and two very large cuts in my head, that two or three pieces of my skull worked out afterwards'
There was a bounty on Carter's head by now, and he fled from one safe house to the next, eventually taking refuge at Marazion and the farmhouse at Acton Castle. He lit fires only by night, so frightened was he of discovery, but recovered from his wounds in three months. That he even lived — let alone recovered — seems extraordinary when you remember that the incident took place in 1788.
Even before he took up the cause of Methodism, Harry Carter was an upright, honest and godly man, and the rest of the family appear to have been from a similar mould. Swearing and unseemly conversation was banned on their ships, and when living in exile in Roscoff, Harry Carter held church services every Sunday for the group of English smugglers in town. John Carter had a reputation for honest dealing. A favourite story tells how he broke into the Penzance custom house to rescue some confiscated tea stored there. His comrades were reluctant to help in such a risky venture, but John explained that he really had no choice. He had promised to deliver the tea by a certain date, and if he failed to fulfil his side of the contract, his reputation for honest dealing would be called into question. The excisemen, returning next morning to find the place ransacked, are said to have commented 'John Carter has been here, and we know it because he is an upright man, and has taken away nothing which was not his own.' Clashes with the excisemen occur in abundance in the book, naturally enough, but the most spectacular was probably an incident in which the smugglers fired a fusillade of shots at a revenue cutter, from a battery of guns impudently stationed between Bessie's and the King's cove. No damage was done, though the cutter returned fire.
Smuggling continued for some years after the King of Prussia had quit the throne. One later story tells of two men from the cove who were rowing home their small boat — the wind having dropped. They put in at Mullion, only to encounter a couple of excisemen on the beach. Offers of bribes were fruitless, so the rowing continued to Prussia cove itself. Here, hidden from the preventives by Cuddan point headland and Rinsey headland, they traded cargo with a fisherman hauling in his pots, and when met by the excisemen, were able to show a clean hand.