St. Michael’s Mount is an odd mix of house, religious retreat, and fortified castle. It was a pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages, converted first to a fortress, then to a house after the Civil War by the St. Aubin family.
In the years following the Norman Conquest, St Michael’s Mount was granted to the Benedictine monks of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy – a natural choice given the similarities between the two sites. They established a small religious community on the island and Abbot Bernard le Bec built the first stone church there in 1135. The community was briefly disrupted in 1193 when Henry de La Pomeray took control of the island as part of the attempted coup of Prince John (later King John) against his brother, Richard I. That rebellion was defeated but it was around this time the castle on the island was built; perhaps by Henry but more likely after his suicide when Richard returned. It was a significant structure with square towers, a large gatehouse and a substantial curtain wall. Having been restored the monks also fortified their Priory by adding the church tower and courtyard walls.
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After the events of the fifteenth century, St Michael’s Mount returned to being a quiet religious order until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Its remote location and lack of wealth made it a low priority for Royal officials with the site not being formally suppressed until 1548. But the English Reformation continued apace with a New Prayer Book that banned the Latin Mass. This was hotly contested by the Cornish populace whose Celtic background meant they had a better grasp of Latin than English and in 1549 the mount was temporarily seized by rebels during a general Cornish uprising. St Michael’s Mount remained in Crown ownership until 1599 when Queen Elizabeth sold it to Sir Robert Cecil. His descendants sold it onto Sir Francis Bassett in 1640 who garrisoned it for the King during the Civil War. Following the defeat of the Royalist field armies, Parliamentary forces advanced into the South West and besieged the Mount. After its capture Colonel John St Aubyn was appointed Captain of the Mount and in 1659 he purchased it outright. He was allowed to keep the property after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 with the site being modified into his private home. Upgrades were made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (including romanticising the castle).
Castles Forts Battles
It’s thought that during classical times, the island formed a trading centre for the tin industry. More than 2,000 years ago, Phoenician ships may have sailed into the Mount’s harbour and exported Cornish tin to the rest of Europe. The island’s population ebbed and flowed, but by the early 1800s, the Mount was thriving commercially and the village was alive with activity, home to over 300 islanders with 53 houses and four streets. Pubs welcomed sailors and fishermen, a school taught the island’s children, a parish policeman kept the peace, the dairy churned butter and the green saw villagers gather to play bowls. It was said that at times you could walk from one side of the harbour to the other stepping over the boats that were moored there. There were net lofts, stables, a pilchard press and even a Victorian change house, where castle residents could wriggle into their swimsuits for a sea dip.
St Michael’s Mount
Little is known about the village before the beginning of the 18th century, save that there were a few fishermen’s cottages and monastic cottages. After improvements to the harbour in 1727, St Michael’s Mount became a flourishing seaport. In 1755 the Lisbon earthquake caused a tsunami to strike the Cornish coast over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away. The sea rose six feet (2 m) in 10 minutes at St Michael’s Mount, ebbed at the same rate, and continued to rise and fall for five hours. The 19th-century French writer Arnold Boscowitz claimed that “great loss of life and property occurred upon the coasts of Cornwall.” By 1811, there were 53 houses and four streets. The pier was extended in 1821 and the population peaked in the same year, when the island had 221 people. There were three schools, a Wesleyan chapel, and three public houses, mostly used by visiting sailors. Following major improvements to nearby Penzance harbour, and the extension of the railway to Penzance in 1852, the village went into decline, and many of the houses and other buildings were demolished.
This beautiful and romantic spot is situated on the southern coast of Cornwall, immediately opposite the little market town of Marazion, and about three miles and a half from Penzance. The Mount itself 13 about 231 feet above the level of the sea, exclusive of the buildings with which it is crowned. Its magnitude is seen in the most impressive point of view from its base, for when observed from a distance, its form appears trifling, amidst the vast expanse of waters with which it is surrounded. A narrow neck of land, little more than a quarter of a mile in length, connects it with the main land: this natural causeway is passable at low water to foot passengers and carriages, but at high tide is completely covered by the sea.
Abbeys, castles, and ancient halls of England and Wales”, John Timbes, 1872
The hill is crowned with an ancient building originally founded by Edward the Confessor as a priory for Benedictine monks, and which in after years was fortified. . . A steep and difficult path leads up to the summit, defended midway by a battery, with another battery at the top. The church crowns the crest of the hill, surrounded by the old monastic buildings. On the centre tower is a turret once used as a beacon for sailors, and on the S.W. angle of this, overhanging the sea, is the famous seat called St. Michael’s Chair. The whole structure has for long been the property of the St. Aubyn family (Lord St. Levan), and has been adapted to form a comfortable modern dwelling. It is a castellated house, retaining much of the monastic masonry, but great alterations were made in it during last century ; the dining-room was the refectory of the convent, and the chapel has been fitted up in the Gothic style.
The castles of England, their story and structure, Vol II”, James Mackenzie, 1896
For seven hundred years the Mount retained its purely ecclesiastical character, but, in 1194, it began a military career un- der the following circumstances :
While Richard 1. was crusading in Palestine, Henry de la Pomeroy, a man of large possessions in Devonshire and Corn- wall, had espoused the cause of the King’s disloyal brother, John, Earl of Cornwall. When Richard came home and heard of Pomeroy’s treason, he sent a serjeant-at-arms to arrest him at his castle of Berry Pomeroy, in Devonshire. Pomeroy, however, stabbed this officer, and then fled with some followers to St. Michael’s Mount, where he had a sister living as a nun. Under pretence of visiting this sister, Pomeroy got admitted with his retinue into the convent, which he promptly seized and fortified.
The King sent a force to reduce the Mount and take Pomeroy, under the command of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In these days we should hardly look upon this as a very fitting selection ; but his Grace justified the King’s confidence in his military talents, and Pomeroy, despairing of a successful resistance, bequeathed some of his lands to the monks to pray for his soul, and bled himself to death. By doing this he assured to his son the inheritance of his property, which would have been forfeited had he been convicted of high treason. The King put a force into ” Pomeroy’s fort,” as it was called, and it continued to be regarded as a fortress and to be occupied by a garrison for nearly five hundred years. It was still, how- ever, a monastery as well as a fort.
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About 1425, one of these chaplains, William Morton, began to build the first harbour of which there is any record, being assisted by Bishop Lacy of Exeter, who granted an indulgence of forty days to all who should contribute to its erection. How- ever, in 1427, the funds for the purpose being still found inade- quate, Morton appealed for help to the King, Henry VI., who granted him certain dues to be levied on ships anchoring near the Mount, and on “foreign boats fishing for hake during the season.”
Other famous homes of Great Britain and their stories”, A. H. Malan, 1902
The buyldinges that are on the topp of this Mount auntient all of freestone verie stronge and permanent wherof muche was erected by Willm Moriton, Nephew to Willm the Conquerour, who had muche lande in this Countrye. It was sometimes a Cell of munckes but since fortefyed for defence. It hath bene muche resorted unto by Pylgrims in deuotion to St Michaell whose chayre is fabled to be in the mount on the south syde of verie Daungerous access. The ascente unto the mounte is steepe curuing narrowe and rockye and that but one waye in the north syde. John Earle of Oxforde surprised this mount by pollicie and kepte it by force againste king Edwarde the 4. but with noe profitable or prayse worthy success for he was violently depryued of it. But some write that he surrendred it upon conditions. It is a place of noe greate importance hauinge small receyte of meanes to keepe and defende it longe At the foote of the mount is a peere of Stones wherin boates are harbored and from Marca-iew there is a causwaye or passage that leadeth to the Mount on foote at a lowe water.
“Speculi Britanniae Pars: A Topographical and Historical Description of Cornwall”, John Norden, 1728 , p.39