Cornish Folklore and Legends

Cornish Folklore and Legends

Kernewek Henhwedhlow

Nothing but the truth! - honest


Cornish legends centre on Giants and Piskies. It is thought that the tales have evolved from the meeting of the tall Celts (the Giants) with the small Bronze Age peoples (the Piskies). St. Michael's Mount is said to have been constructed by a Giant.

Another fabulous Giant was Bolster, whose stride spanned six miles and who fell in love with the beautiful St. Agnes, only to be betrayed and fooled into killing himself. He was a bad tempered man, who terrorised the countryside. She asked him to prove his love for her by filling up a hole in the cliff at Chapel Porth with his own blood. She knew the hole was bottomless, he did not. He died of the loss of blood, and even today the sea at Chapel Porth is stained red with his blood.

Then there was Jack the Giant Killer, a farmer's son from near Land's End at the time of King Arthur. Cormoran, the Giant of St. Michael's Mount was terrorising the surrounding area and was stealing cattle. Jack decided to earn the reward being offered for killing Cormoran. He dug a pit near Morvah, disguised the pit with sticks, and lured the giant to the pit by blowing his horn. The giant fell into the hole, jack dispatched him with a blow from his pickaxe, then filled in the hole. Even today there is a large stone near Morvah church marking the Giants Cave, and sometimes voices are heard coming from it.

Perhaps the most wicked of the giants was The Wrath of Portreath. he lived in a huge cavern known to sailors as his cupboard. he would wade out to sea, grab whole ships and take them back to his cupboard tied to his belt. And the stones that he hurled at ships trying to avoid him can still be seen at low tide forming a dangerous reef off Godrevy Head. Once back there he would devour the sailors for his supper. The cupboard lost its roof in recent times, but can still be seen near St. Ives.

Mermaids form another cornerstone of folklore, as you might suspect for a seafaring people. The Mermaid of Padstow is said to be responsible for the Doom Bar outside the port, upon which hundreds of ships have foundered. Another famous mermaid is from Zennor. Matthew Trewella, the son of the local squire at Zennor, was a chorister in the church. One day a beautiful woman in a long dress came and sat at the back of the church. She came regularly and one evening she lured him to the stream that runs through the village, and from there down to Pendower Cove. he was never seen again. But some years later a mermaid approached a ship at anchor in the cove, and asked the captain to remove his anchor which was resting on her front door. She said she wanted to return to their husband Mathey and their children.

Perhaps the most famous character is this man, Jan Tregeagle, whose ghost is hunted across Bodmin Moor by the devil and his hounds.. Jan was an unjust and dishonest land steward of the Lord of Lanhydrock, who both robbed his master, and extorted unfair rents from the tenants. The story appears to be an amalgam of the lives of five generations of Tregeagles. Tregeagle was sentenced to a number of tasks, which culminated with having to bale out Dozmary Pool, near Bolventor with a limpet shell with hole in it. One of his many other task was to carry sacks of sand from Porthleven to Marazion, and drop them in the mouth of the Cober River, so creating the Loe Bar.

Fairies, Piskies, Knockers, Spriggans and other Small People

The Piskies were all identical little old men, no higher than an inch tall. The wore red caps, white waistcoats, green stockings, and brown coats and trousers. On their feet they wore brightly polished, buckled shoes. The Piskies were good people who helped the old, but they were mischievous and played pranks on people.

Then there were the Spriggans, they were ugly and were feared. They had large heads on small bodies. They stole babies, raised whirlwinds to damage the crops, and terrified the lone traveller.

The Knockers were elfin creatures that lived in the mines. The miners treated the knockers with respect. they left food out for them. it was believed that anyone who was disrespectful to Knockers would suffer bad luck When a mine closed, the Knockers lived on in the abandoned mine.

The Lost Land of Lyonesse buried by the sea to the west of Land's End

It is said that there was a vast area to the west of Land's End, and that a huge storm on 11th November 1099 flooded it all. This land was Lyonesse, said to contain 140 churches and some fine cities. Only the mountain peaks of Lyonesse are now visible - these are the Isles of Scilly. Only one man survived the flood, he was called Trevilian, and he managed to ride a white horse to the high ground at Perranuthnoe. It is said that the unearthing of human bones in the sand at Crantock is also from this lost land.

There are many tales of the church bells from the lost cities being heard. The Seven Stones Rocks to the west of Land's End are believed to be the remains of a great city. Fishermen called it the Town, and have dragged up doors and windows in their nets in this area. Sailors tell of hearing the church bells below the sea also in this area.

In the 1930's a journalist from the News Chronicle was staying on the coast, and was woken by muffled bells in the night, which his hosts told him were the bells of Lyonesse. Yet with the coming of aqualung diving, no one yet has found Lyonesse.

Tristan and Iseult

Tristan was a nephew of King Mark of Cornwall who was based at Castle Dore, and Iseult was an Irish princess betrothed to King Mark. Because of the hazards of travel in the 6th century Tristan was sent by his uncle to fetch Iseult. On the journey back from Ireland to Castle Dore she and Tristan fell in love and, inevitably, the human triangle was upset by the discovery of the lovers in compromising circumstances. Tristan fled to France where he was received with respect and he married the daughter of a local chief, another Iseult, but could not forget his first love. Wounded while hunting he became seriously ill, and sent a ship to Cornwall with a message for Iseult to come to France to nurse him back to health. He instructed his sailors to hoist black sails if their journey had been in vain, and white if she was aboard. His wife, discovering the plan, reported to Tristan that the sails were black whereas in fact they were white. Tristan died and, when Iseult arrived she too died and was buried beside her lover. Out of the graves grew two saplings, the branches of which became intertwined and it is said that 'in death they were united although parted in life'.

Beside the A3082 a short distance outside Fowey, in a convenient lay-by, the repositioned Tristan Stone stands on a modern base nearly 7 feet high. A Tau cross is carved in relief on the back of the stone, whilst the front has an inscription running down the stone: 'Drustanus Hic Lacit Cunomori Filius' (Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus (King Mark)). Mark was the son of King Felix. It is thought that the stone (or rather the inscription) dates to the 6th century and that Drustanus may be the famous Tristan of Tristan and Iselda. Sadly, the first name on the inscription is now almost totally worn away. A now missing third line was described by the 16th century antiquarian John Leland as reading CVM DOMINA OUSILLA ('with the lady Ousilla'). Ousilla is a Latinisation of the Cornish female name Eselt, otherwise known as Isolde. The disappearance of this third line may be as a result of the stone being moved several times over the past three centuries.

The connection between Tristan and Iseult and the Arthurian legend has been expanded over time, and sometime in the first quarter of the 13th century Tristan is quoted as a Knight of the Round Table.

Other tales from the past

The Spire of Towednack Church
Towednack church, not far from St. Ives, has a very squat tower. the story goes that it was the devil himself who prevented the tower being taller. Apparently after each day's work by the medieval stonemasons, the devil came in the night and removed the stones that they had added that day. In the end they gave up the struggle, and capped off the tower at the low height you can see today. Another, unrelated tradition at Towednack is the annual Cuckoo Feast on April 25th. It all goes back hundreds of years to a man putting a log on his fire, and out flew a cuckoo from a hole in the log. He caught and kept the bird, and apparently resolved to commemorate the event with a cuckoo feast each year.

Poundstock and its Pirates
The church of St. Winwaloe in Poundstock, near Widemouth Bay, has had more than its fair share of rogue vicars. In the 14th century, the curate was a member of a gang of pirates who attacked ships sailing off Widemouth Bay. This Rev William Penfold fell out with the gang, and in 1357 the gang tracked him down to the church, and burst in while he was holding a service. Penfold was brutally murdered at the altar, and his ghost still haunts the church. A later vicar was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in a murder, and yet another hanged for leading a revolt in Tudor times against the changes being made in the Book of Common Prayer.

St. Catherine's Church at Temple on Bodmin Moor
Before the passing of the Marriage Act of 1753, which forbade clandestine marriages, St. Catherine's had a dubious reputation. It is a tiny church, built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar. it was designed as a refuge on Bodmin Moor for travellers going to the Cornish ports further west. The church was granted the right to conduct marriages without the need for Banns to be read. This led to the church being used for marriages of convenience, and it developed a very bad reputation

Boscastle's Ghostly Bells
There are no bells in the tower of Forrabury church, but it is said that they can be heard ringing beneath the waves where they came to rest. Three bells were ordered by William, Lord of Bottreaux Castle, to ward off the plague in the Middle Ages. The bells never reached the church, as the ship carrying them sunk in the bay just offshore. Lord William was struck by the plague and died. And the ghostly peal of the bells can still be heard when a storms sweeps across the bay.

Jan Tregeagle
Jan Tregeagle was a magistrate in the early 17th century, a steward under the Duchy of Cornwall, and was known for being particularly harsh; darker stories circulated as well, that he had murdered his wife or made a pact with the Devil. As a lawyer, he was a peculiarly evil agent, and very hard upon the tenants.

Many legends have grown up around him, and he has evolved into Cornwall's version of Faust, having bargained his soul for power, fame and success. One story goes that sometime after his death, a case was going through the courts in which the defendant had illegally obtained some land. The defendant, sure that the dead Tregeagle could not testify against him, cried, "If Tregeagle ever saw it, I wish to God he would come and declare it!" To the court's astonishment, Tregeagle materialised in the witness box and testified that he had forged some crucial document or other. Justice having been done, the court would not countenance sending him back to Hell, and so set him a series of impossible tasks to while away the time until Judgment Day. He was set the task of dipping the water out of Dozmary Pool with a limpet shell, but decided to escape to Roche Rock before being set another task, weaving ropes from the sand of Gwenor Cove.

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