Cornish Folklore: The Bells of Forrabury

There are many legends and folktales from around the world that tell of sunken bells that have either been sunk in the sea or in a lake inland.  This folktale comes from Boscastle, Cornwall in England, which is a fishing village and harbor and part of the civil parish of Forrabury and Minster and tells how the bells of Forrabury Church were lost to the sea. According to the legend there was once a degree of rivalry between the church of Forrabury and the nearby church of Tintagel whose bells were said to have pealed merrily at the marriage of King Arthur and most solemnly when he died.

The Captain and the Fisherman

The church of Forrabury had no bells and the parishioners decided that their church should also have a fine peal of bells and so they commissioned a Spanish foundry to cast a set of bells that would surpass their neighbor’s.  When the bells were cast they were blessed and carefully transported to Forrabury on a ship under the command of a Spanish captain.  The ship sailed under fair winds from Spain to England then along the rugged coast of Cornwall under the guidance of a local fisherman who was familiar with the dangers of the coastline and a good safe voyage was made.  When the ship arrived the bells of Tintagel rang out a welcome.  The pilot on hearing them realized they were safely at their destination and went down on his knees to give thanks to God for their safe keeping and the speed of their journey.

The captain was a surly fellow and laughed at the pilot, mocking him and calling him a superstitious fool.  He told the pilot that their safe and swift journey was down to a combination of his own knowledge,  the skill and hard work of his captaincy, and the hard work of the crew. He told him that soon they would come to a happy and successful end to the voyage thanks to themselves alone and pored scorn on the idea of any divine intervention.  As he finished berating the fisherman he uttered an oath and profanity to end his speech.

The fisherman told the captain to moderate his language and show gratitude to God for their safe voyage.  The captain swore and laughed and continued to insist that the only one to thank for their safe and speedy voyage was themselves and uttered a string of expletives and mocked the fisherman mercilessly.  The fisherman shook his head and said, “May God forgive you!”

The Weather Changes

Now, the seas off the Cornish coast can be changeable.  A ship’s captain may believe that because the voyage has encountered mild seas and favorable winds all will be well the entire journey.  However, a wise captain will wait until he is safely ashore before judging the quality of the voyage and will always treat the sea and weather with respect knowing they at the bidding of God.  So when the seas and weather suddenly changed within sight of the harbor this would have come as no surprise to an experienced mariner such as the fisherman and change it did.   As the weather changed and the seas grew dangerously wild a huge wave rampaged towards the ship carrying the Forrabury bells.

The Bells of Forrabury

A vast throng of local people had come out to the harbor to welcome the bells.  As the captain was uttering his profanities they watched in awe and fear as a great swell in the sea far out beyond the ship formed into a massive wave.   This then swept towards the shore catching the ship bearing the bells tossing it to and fro and finally overwhelming it and sinking it close to the shore.  As the vessel sank the horrified watchers from the shore heard the sound of the bells muffled by the water like a death knell and indeed it was.  The only person who survived the sinking of the ship was the good fisherman with the captain and everyone else on board going down with the ship.  And so it is said that when the storms rage and the wild waves race across the sea to batter that part of the Cornish coast the dull clanging of the bells can be heard rising from the depths of the foamy ocean.  Their muffled tone, though dulled by the water, ring out a warning  to the wicked and the profane to change their ways. The church of Forrabury did not get its fine bells to better those of its neighbor and perhaps there is another lesson in that.

© 01/11/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 1st, 2016 zteve t evans

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