I’ve got a painting at home of St. Michael’s Mount under a moonlit sky, and to me it represents a classic Cornish seascape. I can almost hear the monks at prayer in their monastery and the sound of waves gently lapping the shore, but I can also imagine the Spaniards attacking the coastline and the smugglers offloading their barrels of brandy.
This painting was conceived from the artist’s imagination of course, but if you can be here when all the other visitors have gone, then it’s still possible to get a feel for the centuries of history that lie behind this evocative Cornish landmark.
Being Cornwall, it’s inevitable that this small rocky island half a mile offshore from Marazion, has attracted its fair share of myths and legends: Tales of seafarers being lured onto the rocks by mermaids were followed in the 5th century by an apparition of the Archangel Michael by local fishermen.
St. Michael (who is regarded as a protector from evil) is, amongst other things, the patron saint of fishermen, and his ‘appearance’ was seen as a vision to help keep the fishermen safe from harm.
Three centuries later St. Michael made another appearance – this time off the north coast of France at an island known as Mont Tombe: Although the Cornish tale is unreliable, the witness to the Normandy vision, St. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, was so convinced of what he saw that he built an oratory on Mont Tombe – or Mont St. Michel as it’s now called.
It’s no wonder that some people get confused between these two tidal islands because apart from their geographical similarities, there is also a historical connection.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, Mont St. Michel had a Benedictine Abbey and it’s more than possible that the Cornish island had its own religious community too, but a story about Edward the Confessor giving St. Michael’s Mount to its more illustrious counterpart is probably untrue. It’s more likely that the Abbey’s support of William’s claim to the English throne saw it benefit when the Norman duke became King of England.
Whatever the truth is, St. Michael’s Mount came under the control of the Norman Abbey, and in 1135 a church and priory were built on the top of the island – buildings that still lie at the heart of the castle today.
I say castle because in 1193 it was fortified by Henry de la Pomeroy who was on the side of Prince John in an unsuccessful attempt to dethrone his brother, Richard the Lionheart. Apparently, he captured the priory by disguising his men as pilgrims.
The Mount was once again embroiled in a battle for the crown of England when it was taken by the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford in 1473 during the Wars of the Roses, but he was forced to surrender after a siege lasting five months.
As if all these stories about claims to the English throne aren’t enough, then there’s another even more intriguing one.
In 1497 King Richard IV landed in Cornwall and captured St. Michael’s Mount, but as any follower of English history will tell you, there was never a King Richard IV. The imposter was a man named Perkin Warbeck who used the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower to claim that he was Richard, Duke of York. He was crowned by his supporters on Bodmin Moor, but it wasn’t long before the real king, Henry VII, caught up with him, and King Richard’s ‘reign’ was over.
Things quietened down for a while and the island reverted back to being a religious community, or at least it did until Henry VIII wielded his axe on the monasteries: Even then, the Mount was the subject of another attack, this time in 1549 by the local Celtic population who objected to the new prayer book banning mass in Latin.
During Elizabeth I’s reign the island was the location of the first beacon to be lit warning of the approaching Spanish Armada, but in 1599 the Queen sold it to her Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil: In 1640 his descendants sold it on to Sir Francis Bassett, the Vice Admiral of North Cornwall, who garrisoned it for the Royalists in the Civil War. After its capture by the Parliamentarians, Colonel John St. Aubyn was appointed ‘Captain of the Mount’, who then proceeded to purchase it for himself. Even though the monarchy was restored a year later in 1660, he was allowed to keep it.
Ever since then, successive generations of the St. Aubyn family have gradually transformed it from a priory and castle into a family home: In 1954 it was given to the National Trust under an agreement which included a 999-year lease allowing the family to continue living here and run the visitor business.
If you intend being one of the 300,000 visitors who come here each year, then it’s worth knowing a thing or two before you arrive. Firstly, it may sound as though I’m stating the obvious, but as it’s an island you need to plan your timing accordingly as the tide will dictate how you get here. As a general rule, it’s possible to walk (or paddle) over the causeway up to mid-tide, but at other times you’ll need to get the ferry.
It always amazes me how many people time their visit to cross over the causeway on foot, but if you’re anything like me and want to wander around the castle in relative peace and quiet, then it’s worth forking out a couple of quid for the ferry when the tide is in: When the tide recedes and people start to wander across the causeway you can walk back and leave them all to it.
It goes without saying that there’s a charge for visiting the castle, although it is possible to wander around the small village and harbour without paying a penny if you can’t manage the Pilgrim’s Steps that lead up to the top.
For those with pushchairs and mobility problems who would find it difficult to get up there, you might be pleased to hear that the inside of the castle is more of a family home than a medieval fortress, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not worth the effort or expense if you can. Apart from seeing the buildings up close, there are, as you might expect, some spectacular views from the terraces and turrets to Lamorna and The Lizard.
You can find all the practical information for visiting St. Michael’s Mount here https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/st-michaels-mount, but before you go I can recommend a visit to the Godolphin Arms at Marazion.
Part of the St Aubyn Estates, it’s a great place to finish up with a drink and bite to eat on the terrace overlooking the Mount. I can’t promise that you’ll see a Spanish Galleon or barrels of brandy floating ashore under a full moon, but it’s more than possible to see dolphins frolicking in the bay under a cloudless sky – and you don’t need any artistic license to imagine that.