It was a fateful night sometime in the 5th century AD; the moon was high in a cloudless sky when two fishermen were visited by an apparition of the Archangel Michael. Lost and stranded out in the cold Atlantic Ocean, the angel guided them to the shores of a small island, a sanctuary away from the harsh currents of the freezing waters.
That island, which provided safety to those two fishermen, would transform itself through the centuries to become arguably one of the UK’s most unique and spectacular heritage sites – St Michael’s Mount.
What is instantly apparent with this Cornish gem, whether it be through the tale of two fishermen or a grumpy giant killed by a young boy ironically named Jack, it is that St Michael’s Mount has a varied and complex history which delves into both the fantastical and fundamental DNA of Cornwall.
Situated just off the coast of Penzance, the home of the St Aubyn family is connected to the fishing town of Marazion by a man-made cobbled-stone causeway, submerged at high-tide. And whilst a majestic castle sits atop the mount today, a monastery was believed to have been first built in the 8th century.
The site was then gifted by Edward the Confessor to the Benedictine order of Mont-Saint Michel, though its association resolutely ended after the war in France under the reign of Henry V in 1424.
Throughout St Michael’s Mount’s earlier conception and as the old medieval monasteries’ fell away, other monastic buildings took their place. Yet in 1275 an earthquake would destroy the original Priory Church leading to the current building being constructed in the late 14th century. That priory still stands today.
As history would unfold, the mount would pass from ownership to ownership until eventually being sold to Colonel John St Aubyn in 1659. His descendants remain seated at St Michael’s Mount and have both evolved and maintained the island for future generations. That maintenance has also unearthed elements of the island’s history which without exploration, would have remained undiscovered.
One of these was the remains of an anchorite, found in a tomb within the domestic chapel. This further cemented St Michael’s Mount as a place of religious pilgrimage and holy divinity, and as no historic transcripts gave any indication of a ‘living saint’ residing on the island, it highlighted the unique history of this beguiling place.
Like most buildings across the coast of Great Britain, at the time of the Second World War, the Mount was fortified. It is also believed that if Britain had lost the war the former Nazi Foreign Minister and one-time ambassador to London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, would have lived at the mount after numerous visits to Cornwall in the 1930s.
Thankfully Britain would defeat the Nazis and instead St Michael’s Mount would be gifted to the National Trust in 1954. Though that castle would still be inhabited by the St Aubyn family after a 999-year lease was agreed.
With its complex history and evolution, St Michael’s Mount has become an icon of British culture. It was here, silhouetted by a lunar eclipse, that the mount and Marazion were plunged into darkness in the middle of the day. Used as the backdrop to Frank Langella’s Transylvanian Castle in 1979s Dracula, and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again, St Michael’s Mount has been transformed into much more that just a castle on an island.
But documented history doesn’t just envelop this Cornish icon. Numerous legends and myths call St Michael’s Mount their home, and their folklore evidence exists even today.
The ascent to the castle – the Pilgrims Walk – hides the tale of ‘Jack the Giant Killer.’ A well sits halfway between the castle and harbour said to hold the bones of Cormoran the Giant. He was believed to have lived in a cave beneath what is now St Michael’s Mount, and after terrorising the local village a young farmer’s son named Jack killed the gigantic terror by trapping him in a concealed pit, and with his axe ended Cormoran’s reign of fear.
Giants seem to be a running theme when concerning the mount, as legend also tells the tale of King Arthur battling a giant on its shores. It is also thought that St Michael’s Mount was the eastern border of Lyonesse, the famed country in Arthurian Legends said to have sank beneath the waves. The forestry surrounding the castle is strongly believed to be a natural relic of the mythical country.
Like most ancient buildings, there are echoes of their pasts still existing today and St Michael’s Mount is no different. Whilst many of the structures and historic relics survive, there are some of the more supernatural varieties that walk the island. The spirit of the aforementioned anchorite has been seen by both residents of the island and tourists visiting. Though perhaps two of the most famous ghosts said to haunt the waters of St Michael’s Mount are the Grey Lady and Sarah Polgrain.
The latter’s story is perhaps the most unsettling as Sarah was tried and executed for poisoning her husband. It is stated that she called out to her lover, Yorkshire Jack, whilst standing on the gallows and begged him to promise to marry her. The unwitting Jack whispered “I will… I will.” After her death, Yorkshire Jack became a tormented man, and whilst sailing home one night into Mounts Bay he heard the footsteps of a woman approaching on the deck of the ship. Terrified, his crew watched in horror as Jack threw himself from the ship whispering “I will… I will,” and was never seen again. Throughout the year’s fishermen have pertained to hearing the ghostly whispers of Yorkshire Jack and have even seen his ship with the silhouette of a woman hanging from its sails.
For a curious few, the haunts of St Michael’s Mount are an excuse to visit, but for most the picturesque landscape make the site one of the most visited in Britain. And whether it be the public or even royalty themselves – both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth have graced the island’s shore – there is a magnetic draw which keep tourists coming back.
St Michael’s Mount is a physical reminder that history is a concoction of reality, innovation and a touch of magic. It’s a small island with a larger than life character than resonates long after its iconic causeway falls beneath the waves.
Centuries ago those two fishermen were guided to this haven’s shores by St Michael himself, and today the same allure continues. However, now it isn’t an archangel or apparition which shepherds those who visit, but this regal island itself. With every step along its causeway, every room you walk through, every story told throughout the years, St Michael’s Mount has continued to offer that same ethereal sentiment – sanctuary.
The mount has an angelic quality which is befitting of the saint it is named after. It’s emblematic grace and evolution has never discarded its foundation which has captured the hearts of pilgrims around the world, the imaginations of storytellers, the hearts of those who visit, and even those two fishermen centuries ago. For St Michael’s Mount has a distinctive quality that truly sets it apart, the innocence and grandeur of that most noble Cornish magic.
Thanks to The National Trust, St Aubyn Estates and St Michael's Mount and their wonderful staff for all their help!