History

 

By the fourth century BC, St Michael's Mount was the site of thriving international trade. Cornish tin was a much sought after commodity and was exported to continental Europe and beyond. It is probable the mount was the island port known as Ictis that was referenced in Greek records. By the first century BC, the dominant traders at St Michael's Mount were the Veneti tribe from Southern Brittany. In 56 BC they fought and lost a major sea battle with Roman forces under Julius Caesar which, coupled with the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, ended this lucrative trade at St Michael's Mount.

 

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.

 

Over the subsequent centuries St Michael’s Mount would continue to have an active religious community. An English Prior was appointed in 1385 and the site was later transferred to the ownership of Syon Monastery in Middlesex (a Bridgettine Order institution founded in 1415 by Henry V). However it could not avoid national politics and became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrian Henry VI had been deposed in 1461 with his court fleeing abroad to France. One of his key supporters was John de Vere, Earl of Oxford who had joined the Lancastrian court in exile and in 1470 participated in the invasion and overthrow of the Yorkist Edward IV. When that King returned with an army in 1471, Oxford led the right wing at the Battle of Barnett (1471) but was defeated. He fled to France and, with the Lancastrian cause seemingly lost and reconciliation with the Yorkists impossible, he resorted to privateering. In desperation on 30 September 1473 he seized St Michael's Mount. A large Edwardian army was dispatched to besiege him there under John Fortescue and on the 15 February 1474, after a four and a half month siege, he was compelled to surrender. Imprisoned at Hammes Castle near Calais, he escaped and fled into exile to join the Court of Henry Tudor whose army he would later lead to victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). But the links between St Michael's Mount and the Wars of the Roses did not end here for in 1497 Perkin Warbeck - claiming to be Richard, Duke of York (one of the Princes in the Tower) - landed at the Mount before moving inland to (unsuccessfully) challenge Henry VII.

 

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). The site was re-fortified in 1940 with a number of machine gun pillboxes as part of the South Coast defences against possible German invasion. In 1954 it was gifted to the National Trust.

 

Bibliography

 

Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.

Creighton, O.H (2002). Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England. Equinox, Bristol.

Emery, A (1996). Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, Vol 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gravett, C (2009). English Castles 1200-1300. Oxprey, Oxford.

Johnson, P (2006). Castles from the Air: An Aerial Portrait of Britain’s Finest Castles. Bloomsbury, London.

King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.

Salter, M (1999). The Castles of Devon and Cornwall. Folly Publications.

Spreadbury, I.D (1984). Castles in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Redruth.

Taylor, T (1932). History of St Michael's Mount. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

What's There?

Visit Official Website

St Michael's Mount is owned by the National Trust. It includes the remains of a medieval castle that was extensively modified into a stately home in the Victorian era. Also visible are a number of gun batteries and three World War II pillboxes.

Seventeenth Century Gun Batteries. Two gun batteries built in front of the castle to protect the sea approaches to Penzance.

World War II Pillbox. A number of defences were built during the invasion scare of 1940.

ST MICHAEL’S MOUNT

A major port during the Iron Age, St Michael’s Mount was later granted to the Benedictine monks of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. However, despite its religious community, the strategic location of the site saw it embroiled in national politics including action during the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War.

Getting There

St Michael's Mount is a major tourist attraction. For car parking use one of the sites within Marazion (not National Trust) and then walk across the causeway (at low tide) or get the ferry to the Mount.

Car Parking (Marazion)

TR17 0EG

50.126082N 5.478348W

St Michael's Mount

No Postcode

50.116772N 5.477942W