Cornwall, the uttermost southwestern peninsula of England, has a long, fascinating history absolutely brimming with folklore, legends, and traditions. Ancient monuments scatter the landscape, and all around the rugged coastline, traditions of smugglers, pirates and mermaids abound alongside intriguing legends of towns and land submerged by the sea or entombed under massive dunes of sand. Presented here is a brief look at three legendary places that lie buried under the sand or drowned by the sea.
The Drowned Forest And Lake Under Mount’s Bay
Mount’s Bay is home to St Michael’s Mount, a tidal island with a quaint harbour overlooked by a medieval church and a picturesque castle. It is connected to the Cornish mainland by a stone causeway at low tide. At high tide, the sea rises above the causeway cutting the Mount from the Cornish mainland, turning it into an island. According to tradition, St Michael’s Mount is where Jack the Giant Killer began his career by slaying Cormoran the Giant.
In the past, parts of Mount’s Bay were above sea level and home to woods and a body of water named Gwavas Lake. Humans and animals were believed to inhabit this area, and according to legend, on the bank of the lake was a small chapel where a holy man lived. People came to him seeking healing for ailments and agonies of the mind and body, which he cured using prayers and water from Gwavas Lake. Because of his remarkable healing powers, he became venerated as a saint, and his small chapel received a continuous stream of pilgrims seeking his aid.
The tale of Tristan and Isolde became a popular Arthurian tale during the 12th century, though it is believed to go back much further, having connections to Celtic legends. It is a tragic romance that tells of the adulterous relationship between Tristan, and Isolde, the wife of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, making a classic love triangle that sooner or later must be broken by death. In many ways it mirrors the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, though it is believed to be older. The spelling of the names and the names of some characters vary and there are many different versions, but all hold to the same basic structure and story-line. Presented here is a shortened version of their story created from the sources below.
Tristan and King Mark
Tristan was the son of the King Meliadus and Queen Isabella of Lyonesse, but sadly, his mother died giving birth to him. Meliadus loved his son greatly but remarried an evil woman who was jealous of his affections and plotted to kill the boy. Tristan had a devoted servant named Gouvernail, who becoming aware of the plot, took him over the sea to the court of the King of France where he was given sanctuary. As the years passed, Gouvernail sought a place where Tristan could complete his education and took him to the court of King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark was Tristan’s uncle and welcomed him and educated him in all of the knightly manners and fighting skills, at which he soon excelled.
Each year King Mark was obliged to pay tribute to King Argius and Queen Isolde, the rulers of Ireland. To collect this payment, they sent their strongest and most feared knight, Moraunt, the brother of Queen Isolde. Tristan went to his uncle, offering to fight Moraunt if he could be fully knighted. King Mark was very fond of Tristan and feared for him, but his nephew persisted until he reluctantly agreed, and Tristan challenged Moraunt to a duel to the death. After being wounded in the thigh, Moraunt told Tristan his sword was smeared with a deadly toxin and the only one who could save him was his sister, Queen Isolde, who was a skilled healer. In reply, Tristan struck a blow to Moraunt’s head, incapacitating him and notching his own sword in the process.
The servants of Moraunt carried him back to his sister but he died on the way. When his body was finally brought home, his sister found a splinter from Tristan’s sword embedded in his skull. Removing it, she studied it carefully and kept it.
Healing in Ireland
For Tristan, the initial wound was not that bad but the poison was now spreading through his body and the best healers could not find a cure. He decided to seek out Queen Isolde hoping she would heal him. Arriving at the Irish court, and aware of the queen’s relationship with Moraunt, he told them his name was Trantis. Not knowing his true identity, Queen Isolde agreed to heal him, and using special herbal baths and potions she gradually began restoring him to health.
The King and Queen of Ireland had a beautiful daughter, who they had named after her mother. She was known as Princess Isolde the Fair. While Tristan was there, they held a tournament and a knight named Sir Palamedes won the honors on the first day. On seeing Princess Isolde for the first time, he was so smitten he could not take his eyes off her, making no secret of his feelings. Seeing this, Tristan grew jealous and decided he would enter the competition the next day despite still not being fully fit.
In every fight he was victorious and when he fought Sir Palamedes he defeated him and was named champion. Despite Tristan’s triumph, the extraordinary physical effort caused his wound to open and he began to bleed profusely. Princess Isolde took over his care and nursed him back to health, growing to love him more and more every day.
One day while cleaning Tristan’s sword, a servant noticed that it was notched. He had been present when Queen Isolde removed the metal splinter from the head of Moraunt and took the sword to her knowing she still had the splinter. On examination, she found it fitted perfectly together and realized that this was the weapon that had killed her brother. She took the sword and the splinter to the King and, telling him of her suspicions, demanded the death penalty for Tristan.
Instead the King decided to spare him and banished Tristan from his realm. Now healed, Tristan left Ireland and Isolde the Fair and returned to the court of King Mark.
King Mark was delighted at the return of his nephew and insisted that he tell him every single detail of his adventures. Tristan told him everything, but when he spoke of Princess Isolde he spoke in such glowing terms that his uncle fell in love and became infatuated with her and asked him for a boon.
In the chivalric world a boon was a solemn and serious promise to fulfil whatever was requested, and, because his uncle was his benefactor, Tristan readily agreed. Had he only known what the boon would be he might have refused, because Mark asked him to return to Ireland and bring back Isolde the Fair to be his wife. Bound by the boon and heavy in heart, Tristan changed his armour to disguise himself and set sail for Ireland.
Camelot and Return to Ireland
On route, a storm forced his ship to shore near Camelot where King Arthur was holding a tournament with many of his Knights of the Round Table. Without revealing his true identity, Tristan took part in the tournament, winning many jousts and contests of arms. Coincidently, Argius, the King of Ireland, was at the court to answer allegations of treason against King Arthur made by a knight named Sir Blaanor. Argius maintained he was innocent but cases like this were often settled in combat between the accuser and the accused. Argius was too old to face Blaanor in single combat and sought a champion who would fight for him.
He did not recognise Tristan in his new armour but seeing how well he fought he approached him asking him to be his champion and swearing his innocence. Tristan believed him and revealed his true identity. Despite this, Argius still wanted him to fight for him and promised to grant him a boon should he succeed. Tristan agreed and defeated Blaanor, clearing Argius, who was so pleased he invited him to accompany him back to Ireland, lifting the banishment.
Princess Isolde was also delighted to see Tristan. She was even happier when she learned that her father had granted him a boon, thinking he would ask for her hand in marriage. However, as he gazed upon her radiant face and shining eyes he remembered the boon he had granted to his uncle and benefactor and was torn in two. One selfish part of his soul desperately wanted Princess Isolde for his wife, yet he was bound by the boon. As his trembling voice asked for the gift of the Princess Isolde to be the bride of King Mark, he felt a part of him shrivel and die, watching the radiance drain from her face and her shining eyes fall into darkness.
King Argius agreed and it was decided one of her favourite maids named Brengwain would accompany her. Tristan would escort Princess Isolde the Fair to King Mark to be his bride.
The Love Potion
Before they left, Queen Isolde called Brengwain to her and told her that she still believed Tristan and her daughter were in love. Then she gave her a potion instructing her to secretly administer it to Princess Isolde and King Mark on their wedding night, saying it would make them feel deep love for one another.
Queen Isolde was right. Tristan still loved her daughter and she loved him but she was destined to be the bride of King Mark. On their voyage, the weather was warm and sunny and the two became thirsty. Looking around for something to drink Tristan found the bottle containing the love potion that Brengwain had neglectfully left in view. Taking the bottle to Isolde they both drank from it. When she found out, the shocked Brengwain revealed the truth to them.
King Mark of Cornwall married Princess Isolde and many days of celebration followed. However, they had not taken the love potion as intended; Isolde and Tristan had drunk it instead, and the love they already had was greatly magnified. Tristan could not bear to be part of the wedding celebrations and instead roamed the countryside alone until they were over.
One day Tristan visited Isolde in the privacy of her chamber. They sat at a table with a game of chess in front of them but were more intent on talking to one another. Outside in the passage, a sly knight named Andret passed by. Hearing them talking he looked through the keyhole. He went to King Mark, exaggerating and twisting the words he had heard, words making the King suspicious and jealous. Mark followed Andret to the door, and, looking through the keyhole, flew into a rage at what he saw and banished Tristan from his kingdom. Tristan reluctantly left Cornwall, roaming wherever whim took him. Wherever he went he found danger and adventure and gained great fame and renown, but for all the glory, he yearned deeply to be with Isolde.
Back in Cornwall, Isolde passed her time in sadness and misery pining for her absent lover. She wrote a letter setting out her feelings for him, and gave it to Brengwain, begging her to find and deliver it to Tristan. On receiving the letter, Tristan was overjoyed. He asked Brengwain questions about Isolde and how she fared. He begged her to remain with him until a tournament held by King Arthur at Camelot was over. He intended entering and wanted her to take news of his victories to Isolde.
On the day of the tournament Tristan excelled, and none could match his courage, strength and skill. As a result, King Arthur asked him to join the Knights of the Round Table. This pleased Tristan because Brengwain returned to Isolde telling news of this honour and of his great victories.
The Jealousy of King Mark
Back in Cornwall, King Mark was suffering a brooding depression, fuelled by a most soul-destroying jealousy. Brengwain returned and told of the deeds of his nephew and the great prestige he received at King Arthur’s court. Isolde, on hearing news of Tristan, confessed to Mark her love for his nephew and his jealousy burned hot.
Mark resolved to disguise himself and go to Camelot and kill his nephew, choosing two of his longest serving knights to accompany him. Fearing to leave Isolde behind, he took her with him, along with her servant, Brengwain.
The King had said nothing of his murderous plan to anyone, but when they drew near to Camelot he took his knights aside to reveal his plot to them. They were horrified and told him they would have no part in it, leaving his service there and then. Leaving Isolde and her servant in a nearby abbey, Mark rode on alone.
At the abbey, Isolde took to walking in the forest with Brengwain. Not far from the abbey she found a beautiful fountain where she would rest and think of her missing lover. An evil knight named Breuse the Pitiless was riding nearby and hearing her sweet voice singing, dismounted and crept up and hid behind bushes to spy.
Leaping from his hiding place he grabbed Isolde who screamed and fainted. As Brengwain screamed, Breuse dragged Isolde back to his horse. A passing knight heard the screams and spurred his horse towards them to see what the cause was. Breuse had to leave Isolde and quickly mount his horse. The knight lowered his lance and charged: Breuss was unhorsed and lay flat upon the ground as if he was dead. The knight then left off the fight to attend to the stricken ladies. With his adversary’s back turned, Breuse jumped up and quickly mounting his horse, rode off.
As the knight approached, Isolde looked up and saw it was none other than her beloved Tristan, who was overjoyed to see her again. The two then spent three days in happiness together at the abbey and then Tristan escorted her to Camelot to meet up again with her husband.
The two knights of King Mark had reported the plot to King Arthur who had placed Mark under arrest and in prison. Mark had confessed to his intended crime but because it had not actually been committed, Arthur did not impose a punishment, on condition that he ceased all further hostility towards Tristan. He also made Mark promise this before the entire court of Camelot before he would allow him to depart for Cornwall, taking Isolde with him, while Tristan remained.
With Isolde gone, Tristan now felt alone and hopeless, believing that he would never again find happiness. Therefore, to distance himself from his beloved, he crossed the sea to Brittany to the court of King Hoel. At the time Brittany was under attack and Tristan volunteered to lead the army of the Bretons. This proved a great turnaround in fortune for King Hoel, whose army was almost defeated. With Tristan’s might in arms and his courage and inspirational leadership the Bretons rallied behind him and achieved a great victory.
Isolde of the White Hands
In gratitude, King Hoel offered his beautiful daughter to him in marriage. She bore the same first name as Tristan’s first love, Isolde the Fair, but she was known as Isolde of the White Hands. Tristan found himself in conflict with his heart. Although he loved Isolde the Fair with all his being he knew they could never marry or live happily together. After much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion this was his only chance to fill the void in his soul and agreed to the marriage.
Indeed, it seemed that they had been destined for one another and they enjoyed many months in peaceful happiness in each other’s company. Yet even in happiness the world turns, and the enemies of King Hoel once again waged war against his kingdom. Tristan drove the enemy back, but as he led the attack on their last stronghold, he was caught a blow on the head by a rock that the defenders were throwing down on the attackers.
He was knocked insensible and fell to the ground but the battle was won and he was carried home to his wife, Isolde of the White Hands. Being skilled in healing, she would let no one other than herself attend and administer to him. Under her loving hands, Tristan slowly began to recover and with her caresses and kisses, his love for her grew. Her devotion and skill appeared to be returning him back to full health, but then a dark malady took hold of him. It could not be driven out or cured, and as it took hold, its grip could not be broken. With each passing day his health and vitality slipped away. At last in desperation he called his wife to him. He told her how Isolde the Fair had once cured him and that he believed in her lay his only hope and asked his wife to send for his former lover.
Isolde of the White Hands reluctantly agreed and sent Gesnes, the best mariner in the kingdom, to sail to Cornwall and request that Queen Isolde the Fair return with him to Brittany. Before he left Tristan called Gesnes to him and gave him his ring to give to her so she would know him, saying,
“If she agrees to come, before you return fit your ship with white sails and then we will be forewarned of her arrival. Should she refuse, hoist the mast with black sails for then my death will be near.”
As soon as Gesnes reached the Cornish shore he disembarked from his ship and made his way quickly to the court of King Mark. Showing the ring to Queen Isolde the Fair, he told her Tristan was near to death and she was the only one who could save him. Without question or hesitation she agreed to go to Tristan’s side. Therefore, as soon as they boarded ship Gesnes ordered the unfurling of the white sails and sailed with Queen Isolde to Brittany to her stricken lover.
During this time Tristan’s health continued to deteriorate rapidly. He charged a young girl servant with the task of looking out from a high cliff over the sea to report the return of Gesnes, hoping all the time that he would be displaying the white sails.
The Deception of Isolde of the White Hands
Isolde of the White Hands had known about the intimacy of Tristan and Isolde’s previous relationship and feared their passion would revive and wreck her own happiness. She still believed she had the skill to save her husband. When the girl on the cliffs saw the white sails of Gesnes on the horizon she ran to tell the news to Tristan. However, Isolde of the White Hands stopped her and, when told the sails were white, ordered her to tell her husband that the sails were black. When Tristan was told the sails were black, he believed his time had at last come and taking his last breath said, “so it comes to pass that we shall never see one another again, goodbye my love, goodbye.”
As Isolde the Fair set foot ashore, the news of the death of Tristan was given to her, and in grief, shock and sorrow she was taken to his body. Lying down next to him and taking him in her arms she too gave her last breath and died.
Before he died Tristan had asked that his body should be returned to Cornwall along with his sword and a letter he had written to King Mark. In the letter he explained about the love potion and reading it King Mark at last understood and was sorry. He commanded that the two should be buried in his own chapel.
A short while after the burials, from the grave of Tristan, there grew a most beautiful vine that spread along the wall and reached down to join with the grave of Isolde the Fair. No matter how many times it was cut down or pruned, the plant returned. Even in the coldest of winters or hottest of summers it retained its lustrous green colouring, and so ended the tale of Tristan and Isolde the Fair.
The story of Tristan and Isolde remains one of the great love stories of the Arthurian world, having been portrayed in many works of art, songs, poems and stories, opera and films, in many languages and many countries around the world. It is one of those evergreen stories that, like the vine that sprang from Tristan’s grave, returns again and again and does not die.
There was once a an old woman who was deeply skilled in the arts of necromancy and lived in a tiny hamlet called Treva in Cornwall. She could make powerful, spells, incantations and charms and people in the neighborhood were terrified of her.
Nevertheless, although the local people held her in fear and awe her husband remained singularly unimpressed by her witchery and refused to believe in such things. Instead he was more concerned about the housekeeping and the cooking especially when he came home from work when he would demand his dinner the instant he came in.
One day after a hard day’s work he came home looking forward to a good dinner which he expected to be cooked and ready, on the table for him to tuck into as soon as he walked through the door. Imagine his shock and annoyance when he discovered there was no dinner. In fact there was no meat, no vegetables or potatoes or any other kind of food in the house at all.
First Published on the #FolkloreThursday, web site, February 17th, 2016 under the title: Cornish Smugglers: The Notorious Cruel Coppinger
One of the most extraordinary and fearsome figures in Cornish folklore and legend was Cruel Coppinger. He is thought by many to have been a real person who attained semi-legendary status from his brutal, criminal behaviour and leadership of a ruthless band of smugglers and pirates.
Pixabay – Image by natureworks – CC0 Public Domain
According to Cornish legend Coppinger was himself a victim of a shipwreck by a massive storm wrecked his ship off the Cornish coast. As was the practice the local people gathered at the shore to see what they could claim when the storm died down. They watched the doomed vessel sinking and the lightning flashes revealed the dark figure of a huge man leaping from the ship and striding through the wild waves to the shore. On reaching the shore he grabbed the cloak from an old woman, roughly shoving her to the floor and then leapt on the back of a horse a young woman had ridden down to the shore. With her still sat on the horse and him behind her shouting furiously in some unknown language, the terrified steed fled and naturally made its way to its home with them both on its back.
The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions. For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing. As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet. To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.
Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain
Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall. According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea. This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.
Brave Tom Bawcock
According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done. Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him. He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish. When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.
These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village. They called the dish stargazy pie. In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water. Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve
Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten. But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.
The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain
There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.
The origin of Tom Bawcock
There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated. One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.
Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man. So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village. It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.
The Devil in a Pie!
There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall. According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies. Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back before they decided to place him in one!
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legendary Gwendolen, became the first queen regnant, reigning over the Britons in her own right. TheHistoria Regum Britanniae (History of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells how Gwendolen is betrayed and humiliated by her husband, King Locrinus, the legendary ruler of Loegria. His public rejection and humiliation of her in favor of his lover, Estrildis, spurred Gwendolen to take swift and dramatic action. Although Geoffrey’s work was accepted as fact up to the 17th century, today it is largely dismissed as a historical record by historians. Nevertheless, it still has its fascinations and many think he was influenced by older myths and legends. This work introduces the main characters of her story and tells how betrayal and rejection motivated her into wreaking a terrible but calculated revenge on those who had wronged her and put the future peace and stability of Britain at risk.
Locrinus, son of Brutus of Troy
King Locrinus was the eldest son of Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder and the first king of Britain. Brutus was the descendant of Aeneas, the Trojan commander, who survived the fall of Troy and after escaping went on to found the Aeneads, who were said by Virgil to be the progenitors of the Romans. It is this hereditary link with Troy and Rome that supposedly provides the ancient authority to rule for the descendants of Brutus and supposedly elevates the historical status of Britain and its rulers in medieval and later times.
Gwendolen, daughter of Corineus
Gwendolen was the daughter of the legendary Corineus, the first ruler of Cornwall, a companion and commander to Brutus of Troy. Corineus was a towering figure at the time, a mighty warrior and highly respected for his military skill and bravery.He was commander of his own band of followers who had joined up with Brutus and his army to conquer and settle Britain. Corineus had killed Gogmagog, the last King of the race of Giants that had ruled Britain before the arrival of the Trojans in a fight to the death.
The death of Brutus
When Brutus died his kingdom fragmented and was divided into three parts with his three sons, Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber inheriting a share each. The kingdom of Locrinus was known as Loegria which was roughly equivalent to England. Albanactus ruled Albania ,or Albany, which was roughly equivalent to Scotland and Kamber ruled Cambria or Kambria which was roughly equivalent with Wales. Corineus still ruled Cornwall which Brutus had given him as his own in reward for help in subduing Britain.
Locrinus inherits Loegria
When Brutus died and Locrinus his eldest son, became ruler of Loegria, Corineus was still alive and as ruler of Cornwall was still a much respected and powerful ruler. Locrinus now ruled over a powerful kingdom so a marriage with Gwendolen would have made a great deal of political sense for both him and Corineus. There were still many enemies in the world so an alliance with the powerful Corineus would have been highly desirable and Locrinus made a pact with Corineus to marry his daughter.
One of those enemies were the Norsemen led by Humber the Hun who attacked Albany killing Albanactus in battle and forcing his people to retreat. Locrinus and Kamber joined forces and met Humber in battle near one of the main rivers of Britain defeating him. umber was said to have drowned in the battle in the river which was named the River Humber after him.
After the battle Locrinus captured Humber’s ships and as well as a good deal of treasure found Estrildis, the daughter of a German king who was being held hostage. Locrinus fell in love with her and set her free, but he was betrothed to Gwendolen the daughter of the powerful Corineus who he did not want to upset.
Corinius was not happy that Locrinus had fallen in love with the German princess and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms. Rather than risk upsetting him Locrinus married Gwendolen despite his love for Estrildis. Wanting the best of both worlds he took Estrildis as his mistress, but secretly kept her hidden in a cave below Trinovantum, now London, the city Brutus built as his capital. There she remained for seven years. She was looked after by her servants and gave birth to his daughter, Habren and stayed there until Corineus died.
With the death of Corineus, Locrinus promptly divorced Gwendolen and married Estrildis. This proved to be a costly mistake and the old adage of hell knowing no fury like a woman scorned, rang true for him. Gwendolen, being the daughter of the great warrior Corineus took swift and decisive action.
She returned to Cornwall where the people were still loyal to her and her family and raised an army which she led against Locrinus. Not only had she inherited her father’s courage but also his decisiveness and skill in war. The two armies met at the River Stour which in those days was the boundary between Loegria and Cornwall. Gwendolen was victorious defeating Locrinus who was killed by an arrow. This made her the undisputed ruler and queen of both Loegria and Cornwall, becoming the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time.
She wasted no time in disposing of Elstrildis and Habren having them both drowned in a river which by Gwendolen’s decree was named after Habren. Habren was also known asHafren who became the eponym of the river. The latinized form was Sabrina which became Severn and was possibly influenced by earlier gods or spirits and sometimes she was known as Sabre and the river became known as the Severn.
The River Severn was named after Habren, not Elstrida, to emphasize and make known that a heir and potential rival to the British kingdom had been killed just as the River Humber was named after the Hun leader to emphasize his death and the ascendancy of the British rulers to any potential outside challenge. Elstrida did not get a river or place named after and was deliberately allowed to die in ignominy. The killing of Estrildis and Habren was more than just the revenge of a woman scorned. It was also a political act that strengthened her power and that of her son by Locrinus, Maddan, and when she abdicated the throne of Loegria went to him.
The attack on the country by Humber the Hun had been a typical invasion by men at arms who fought to control the land and the people. The danger from Estrildis was more passive but potentially dangerous and subversive to the ruling order of Britain at the time and in the future. The infatuation of Locrinus with a foreign princess threatened the future line of Brutus to the undisputed kingship of Britain. Any possibility of a foreign heir to the throne potentially threatened the stability of Britain with the possibility of further invasions from Germanic rulers who may have believed they had a claim to Britain.
If Habren married outside of the British ruling community then an outsider is brought into future equations about who rules Britain. With them out of the way Gwendolen reduces considerably the potential for foreign interference in the ruling elite of Britain. Although other invaders did come after her time her action brought peace and stability during her reign and the reign of her successor. She ruled her realm wisely and peacefully for 15 years and then abdicated. Her son by Maddan, by Locrinus, became king and she retired to Cornwall.
Legacy of Gwendolen
Gwendolen’s decisive action against Locrinus demonstrated the potential power and influence that women could wield. It especially demonstrated how her gender was not a disadvantage to her use of power which she used to her advantage and to the benefit of those she ruled. She was prepared to go to the extreme lengths of war and violence when she believed it necessary to protect her own realm acting and leading with decisiveness, wisdom, courage and military skill and foresight.
St. Michael’s Mount is a tidal island that lies just in Mount’s Bay, off the coast of Cornwall and a short distance from the town of Marazion. At high tide it becomes an island and when the tide goes out it can be reached from Marazion by a short stroll across a stone causeway. Looking very much like the scene from a fairy tale the mount rises up out of Mount’s Bay and is crowned with a castle. Below the castle lies a cluster of houses and a small harbour where the causeway runs from Marazion connecting it to the Cornish mainland.
Many centuries ago Mount’s Bay was above water and once home to a forest that. It is not known exactly what happened but the forest is now under the sea. Whether the land sank or the sea rose is not known, but this land is said to have been drowned by the sea in an event that was possibly similar to a tsunami. The petrified remains of the trees can sometimes still be seen after storms.
Cormoran the giant
Many years before the flood the forest was said to be the home of birds, animals and probably humans. But there was also giants and the biggest of all was Cormoran and there are many tales concerning him and many versions of the same tale but in Cornish folklore it is Cormoran, with the help of his wife who built the Mount with the name “St Michael’s” added later from a different legend.
In the middle of the forest was one huge white rock and one day while roaming the forest Cormoran came across it and taking a liking to the place decided to built a high hill of white rocks and to make it his home. His idea was to look out from the heights of the hill over the countryside keeping an eye on what was going on all around.
Building the Mount
It was a mammoth task he had set himself but he knew just what he wanted and he cut, shaped and sorted the slabs of granite using only the white. Those that had a tinge of green, grey or pink he rejected. Cormoran had a wife by the name of Cormelian who was a very conscientious and hard working giantess. Now Cormoran was a lazy fellow and he made poor Cormelian carry all the blocks of granite from the quarry to the site while he put his feet up and went to sleep.
Now Cormelian worked at the task conscientiously putting each slab of white granite in her apron, carrying it to the site and putting it in place. She soon found it to be very hard work and began thinking that the slabs of green, grey or pink granite would look much prettier than just white. They were easier for her to get to and not so far to carry and she was beginning to get tired and bored with carrying slabs while her husband snored and slept. She grew increasingly frustrated and resentful and the work was taking days and days. One day while Cormoran snored she picked up a huge green slab and placing it in her apron and carried it to the growing mound of stones as quickly as she could lest he should wake. Just as she was about to put the stone in place Cormoran opened one eye saw what she was doing.
He was furious with her but instead of raging and shouting crept up behind her and struck her such a blow on the back of her head that she staggered. Her apron string broke and the huge green slab fell to the ground. There it remains in that exact same spot today and no human could ever move it. The sea rose or the land sank and the area became inundated with the sea and is how we find it today on the beach.
Cormoran and the Lord of Pengersick
Cormoran had a very hideous appearance. As well as being very ugly he only had one eye and that was situated in the middle of his forehead. He had a large mouth with a few yellow, broken teeth left, but most were now gone. His hideous appearance and sheer size made the local people terrified of him. He was also the most habitual thief taking whatever he wanted from anyone.
All the local people and farmers were frightened of him and he knew it and used to his advantage. When he was hungry he would stride the short distance from the Mount to the mainland and steal the best sheep, pigs and cattle, throwing them over his shoulder and striding home to enjoy eating them. The local farmers suffered sorely from this thievery but were helpless to prevent it.
Now it came to pass that one day Cormoran met his match, well more than his match. The estate of the Lord of Pengersick lay nearby and it was well known that his lordship was away in foreign lands in the east. Cormoran would take advantage of this raiding the estate for the best sheep, pigs and cattle in all of Cornwall. One day Cormoran thought he would raid his lordships livestock so setting out from the Mount he strode across to Pengersick Cove which was the nearest and quickest way to the estate.
In the past Cormoran had stolen a great deal of livestock from Pengersick and had no fear of any confrontation with the local people or the lord. His sheer size and hideous appearance had always frightened them off and he laughed at the thought of it. He feared no human. He had no time for any of them only had respect for giants like himself, but especially the giant of Trecrobben Hill who was his friend.
Now it just so happened that the Lord of Pengersick had returned from his travels in the eastern lands where he was said to have learned much of the ancient arts of magic and sorcery. It is told that by the use of these arts he knew Cormoran was coming and was ready for him. His servants had told him about the giant’s thieving and his lordship resolved to teach him a lesson.
So Cormoran waded ashore thinking he would quickly snaffle a sheep or a cow for an easy meal and stride home to enjoy his ill gotten fayre. Now as he stepped ashore a funny thing happened to him that had never happened before. He began to feel really queasy in the stomach and his head went all funny inside and he felt confused and bewildered. He thought perhaps the strong sun had affected him but others say it was the Lord of Pengersick who through magic arts was watching his every move and had thrown a spell on him, but Cormoran had no inkling of this. All Cormoran knew was he felt decidedly peculiar and unwell but things were about to get very strange indeed.
Forcing himself to keep his mind on his goal of stealing his dinner he decided to catch one of his lordship’s cattle that were peacefully grazing nearby. Still feeling decidedly wobbly he crept up to one and tried to grasp it round the neck. To his surprise the cow was as slippery as an eel and he began floundering around trying to grasp it but it kept slipping out of his grip.
Cormoran was now feeling really woozy and very confused and bewildered. He began losing his temper and gave up trying to catch the cow. Instead out of desperation and spite he grabbed its calf, which although also slippery, was smaller and he managed to master it. Tying its legs together he threw it around his neck and and tried to hurry home to the Mount for a good dinner.
He was still feeling strange and funny in his head but as he staggered home he noticed something else strange that was happening. For his long legs the distance back to his home was not great and he usually managed it with ease but now something was happening he could not explain. No matter how fast he tried to walk, or how long he made his strides he did not seem to be getting very far.
Looking around him the countryside appeared different and peculiar, but he could not say why, or was even sure of where he was. He was becoming exhausted and seemed to have got nowhere but at last he saw Pengersick Cove, but in the sea was a great black rock which he could not ever remember seeing before. Confused and bewildered he thought he must have taken a wrong path and he tried to turn around and go back the way he came.
To his shock and growing horror he found he could not turn around and could not even walk backwards. he found himself being dragged towards the black rock by some invisible force. He laid down and dug his heels in the ground but the rock still dragged him towards it closer and closer. Soon the invisible force had dragged him near enough for him to stretch his arms out thinking to hold himself from the rock, but he found his hands were now stuck fast to it. No matter how hard he tugged and pulled and twisted he could not free his hands from the rock. He was stuck fast and now he was panicking.
To make matters worse the calf he was carrying around his neck was also panicking kicking him and bellowing and soon he was covered in cuts and bruises but his hands were stuck to the rock and could do nothing to free the calf or fend it off. Soon he could feel himself turning cold. His hands on the stone started to stiffen followed by his arms and his back and then his legs. Soon all his body felt as rigid and as solid as stone, but all the while his senses grew keener enhancing his fear. Fear gripped him as he thought he would now become petrified solid.
It is said the Lord of Pengersick with his magic arts saw all this and was well pleased with the spell he had put on Cormoran and decided to leave him there till the next morning to teach him not to go thieving his livestock. So Cormoran was left to stand as still and rigid and cold as stone in the bay with the calf kicking and bellowing until morning. The tide came in and the water rose up to his neck and he feared he would drown but he did not and then the tide went out again.
In the morning Cormoran was still well and truly stuck to the stone and could not pull or twist his hands free. The Lord of Pengersick, thinking he would teach him another lesson arrived on his horse and began berating Cormoran and gave him a severe tongue lashing making the giant quake. However his lordship was not finished with Cormoran and dismounting from his horse gave the giant a severe thrashing with his stick.
So severely and so viciously was Cormoran beaten that he screamed and writhed in agony. He struggling so hard that he pulled the skin from his hands to get free from the rock that had held him and ran into the sea striding rapidly through the waves to his home on St Michael’s Mount. There he nursed his hands in misery for many a day until they healed. Never again did Cormoran steal livestock from his lordship’s land though he still raided the other farms in the area.
Cormoran’s hands eventually healed up but during that time he made the life of his poor wife, Cormelian, a proper misery. As well as having sore hands and bruises and weals across his back, his pride had been hurt from the lesson the Lord of Pengersick had given him. He was mortified about what the other giants would think and poor Cormelian had to endure his bad temper for many a day to her dismay.
The death of Cormelian
Now Cormelian was a very kind and good-natured giantess and was always working hard looking after the home and her grumpy, bad-tempered husband. It was thanks to her that the worst of his bad behaviour was curbed. Her one weakness was her excessive inquisitiveness. She was not really nosy and she never did anyone any harm, but her curiosity always seemed to get the better of her and this was to prove tragic.
Cormoran was great friends with the Trecrobben Hill giant on the mainland and they would borrow things and lend things of each other as is the way with good friends. Now when one of them wanted to borrow something they would shout across to each other and one would simply throw the other what was required, which would sail for miles high in the air for the other to catch.
Cormoran wore hobnailed boots on his great big feet and one day he could feel a nail sticking in his foot. He shouted across to his friend to throw him his cobbling-hammer. His friend duly obliged and lobbed the hammer high in the air.
Cormelian was busy working in the house and hearing Cormoran shouting ran out in her inquisitiveness to see what was happening. Running out from the dark house into bright sunshine her eyes were dazzled. Although Cormoran shouted a warning she did not see the hammer coming and it struck her full on top of her head killing her instantly. She fell down in front of Cormoran who let out a great howl and the giant of Trecrobben Hill raced down to see what had happened.
The two giants wept and hugged each other and hugged and shook poor Cormelian trying to bring her back to life but she was as dead as stone. They wailed and cried so much that they caused a gale that wrecked two ships upon the sea and blew the roofs of many of the houses in Marazion but all to no avail and all that was left to do was bury her.
Now although Cormoran was a grumpy old giant and very often mistreated Cormelian he loved her in his own way and was never the same after he lost her. His friend from Trecrobben Hill was also devastated as he had never intended anyone should get hurt let alone killed. Together the two giants buried Cormelian, but where the grave may be is not known for sure. Some say it was on the Mount in the courtyard, others say the two of them lifted up Chapel Rock and laid her to rest underneath, but others say they gave her to the sea.
Jack the Giant killer
Cormoran met his own death some years later at the hands of a local lad who came to specialize in killing giants and became known as Jack the Giant-Killer. After the death of his wife Cormoran had no one to rein him in and although he avoided the Lord of Pengersick’s livestock he raided all the other farms in the locality all the more. One day the local farmers became so annoyed with him they convened a meeting in Penzance to discuss what they should do.
After a great deal of arguing and talking an idea was proposed that they all accepted mainly because none could think of anything better. Over the years Cormoran had accumulated a great deal of treasure that he had stolen from the neighbourhood. It was proposed that anyone who could get rid of Cormoran for ever would be given this considerable treasure trove as a reward. Although no one believed anyone would be foolhardy enough to fight the giant, or strong enough to defeat him. Certainly none of them were brave enough to try. Nevertheless they put out advertisements searching for such a person but no one seemed interested or had the courage to try.
Eventually just as they were giving up on the idea to their surprise and amusement a simple farmer’s boy by the name of Jack volunteered to have a go. Although no one had faith that he could accomplish the task they were desperate so they agreed and he took up the challenge.
That night Jack took a small boat and paddled over to the Mount while Cormoran was asleep. Working fast but quietly he dug a deep pit on the path the giant used everyday that ran down from his home. As dawn broke he stood outside the giant’s door and blew three loud notes on his horn. Waking with a start, Cormoran rushed outside to see what all the commotion was. As soon as he steps out the door Jack starts shouting at him and taunts him. Furious Cormoran chases Jack down the path, but the rising sun dazzles him and he does not see the pit Jack had dug.
Jack, knowing where the pit is leaps over it as Cormoran is about to grab him and the giant blinded by the sun falls into it to his surprise. Turning quickly Jack drives his pickaxe into the skull of the giant killing him instantly and that was the end of Cormoran the Giant of St Michael’s Mount. But for every ending there is a beginning. Jack claims his reward and that is how he began his career as the famous giant-killer.
Return of the giants
These days there are no more giants in or around Mount’s Bay though tales of them remain. Perhaps one day the water will recede from the bay and the forest will return and giants will again live in it and on the Mount, but I don’t suppose the local farmers would be very pleased!
Cormoran the Giant has many legends associated with him but he is probably best known as the giant who some say, with the aid of his wife, Cormelian, created the tidal island of St Michael’s Mount which lies a few hundred yards off off the coast of Cornwall, near the town of Marazion. He is said to have built the island by carrying blocks of white granite across the sea from the mainland. Cormelian was said to have helped by carrying the granite blocks in her apron.
From here he would wade across the short stretch of sea to the Cornish mainland to steal the sheep and cattle of the local farmers. In one version of the legend Cormorant grew weary carrying the blocks and took a rest falling asleep. His wife carried on working but decided to fetch green stones instead of white granite because they were nearer. Cormoran woke when she was halfway across. Seeing she was bringing different blocks of stone he grew angry and kicked her. This caused her to let go of her hold on her apron which allowed the stoned to fall into the sea forming Chapel Rock. Read moreContinue reading →
Jan Tregeagle is a name that is known all over Cornwall. In Cornish folklore he is considered the wickedest man that ever lived. His cries and wails can be heard when the wind howls through the trees and woods, across the bleak, cold moors and along the rugged coasts as he struggles to complete the task allotted to him. Like the Wandering Jew who is doomed to an eternity of endless, restless wandering, Tregeagle must work to complete hopeless tasks until Judgement Day when he will be brought before the Almighty for for release, or endless condemnation as the Lord shall see fit.
Around the world there are many legends and stories from diverse cultures that tell the story of how a person sells their soul to the devil in return for riches, power or long life. To begin with things go well as the seller reaps the benefits of the Faustian pact. However, the devil does not forget and there comes a time when he has to be paid. The story of how of Jan Tregeagle, a Cornishman, sold his soul to the devil is one such story. As is often the case with legends there are a number of different versions that vary by location and who is telling the story and this version is influenced by others. Even so the Faustian theme of a person selling their soul to the devil and the reluctance of the seller to honor the bargain when the time comes remains, as well as the setting of a series of impossible tasks to keep that person on earth until the Judgement Day. Many people think Jan Tregeagle was a real man who was a magistrate who may have lived and worked in 17th century Cornish town of Bodmin. By evil means, including cheating an orphan from their rightful inheritance, he had acquired great wealth and to help him fulfill his desire for riches he made a pact with the devil.
Cornwall in the extreme west of England is a peninsula with a long, rugged coastline with many towering cliffs, hidden coves, harbors and small fishing villages. The Cornish people around the coast for centuries made their earthly living from the sea and took their spiritual guidance from the church and these two themes often mix with old pagan beliefs which became woven into local folklore and legend.
By H.J. Ford, illustrator – Public Domain
Is there a hidden meaning?
The legend of the Mermaid of Zennor is certainly quaint with more than a touch of romance, but could any part of it be true? There are many folktales and legends from around the British Isles that have deeper meanings than often seen apparent. They often have a hidden moral or warning of some kind hidden in the symbolism and have parallels or links to other legends from other parts of the world. Is there a hidden meaning in the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor? Read more