St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

The rocky outcrop, crowned with a large castellated mansion, is an unmistakable landmark of the Cornish coastline. Surrounded by legend, the long history of the island and the building are indeed fascinating. In AD495 the Archangel St Michael was apparently seen standing high above the sea on a ledge of rock by some passing fishermen, and the Mount was dedicated to him. After that the rock became a place of pilgrimage and, in 1135, a small Benedictine priory was established at the summit, built by the Norman Abbot of Mont St Michel. During the late 12th century a fort was also in existance, but all traces of that building have disappeared. The priory remained a cell of the French abbey until Henry V granted the Mount to Syon Abbey in 1424, but a century later the monastery was stripped of its treasures and became the property of the Crown.

The original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275, and the church seen today was rebuilt largely in the 14th century. Following the Reformation, there is no documented history of the church until the time of the Civil War when, in Royalist hands, it was used as an ammunition store. So badly in need of repairs, the church was ordered to be demolished in 1645 but it managed to escape that fate and was restored as a private chapel when St Michael's Mount became the family home of Colonel St Aubyn in 1660. Subsequent alterations and restorations of the beautiful little church have taken place at various times but it retains an atmosphere of monastic calm.

With increasing raids on Cornwall by French pirates in the 15th century, some military defences were put in place, and a castle was built adjacent to the priory church, some 200ft (60.6m) above sea level. The structure was a group of battlemented towers, now quite difficult to distinguish as they became incorporated in the private house. Several conversions were instigated to make St Michaels's Mount more comfortable, and a Victorian wing was added to the castle to provide more accommodation. Members of the St Aubyn family continue to live in the ancestral home which is an architectural delight, combining as it does the various features from all its past lives.

A visit to St Michael's Mount makes for quite a different experience. Beginning with a walk across the medieval causeway at low tide, the visitor arrives at the daunting entrance to the harbour and the 'village'. With a little imagination it is easy to conjure up the colourful scenes that were commonplace in ancient times when this island was an important trading centre, exporting Cornish tin to Mediterranean communities. Alternatively, you may wish to contemplate the story that this island was built by a giant called Cormoran, who met his death at the hands of a small Cornish boy now famously revered as 'Jack the Giant Killer'. After climbing up the steep rock to reach the castle, you may indeed be contented with the wonderful views and the pretty terraced gardens stretching down to the craggy shoreline.


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