Originally the Mount was known as the ‘Grey Rock in the Wood’ until sea levels rose, perhaps as early as 2000 BC, when the Mount became a tidal island accessed by foot only at low tide, as it is, along with Mont St Michel in the present day. This rise in sea level is also believed to be when the ancient land of Lyonesse was overwhelmed, leaving us only with the beautiful and magical Scilly Isles. Interestingly Guinevere, the legendary bride of King Arthur was known as the Princess of Lyonesse and perhaps resided on St Michael’s Mount when it was believed to be an ancient citadel.
There is some evidence from ancient classical texts of the Romans that Marazion was a significant centre of the tin trade back to Phoenician times. It is hard to imagine now the hussle and bustle of peoples from the Mediterranean gathering on the beach and carrying out trade which then travelled around the classical world of Socrates, Aristotle and the great Roman empire. Perhaps the amazing number of visitors to St Michael’s Mount is but a continuance of both the pilgrimage and the trade that went on through the history of our beautiful island.
The Norman Conquest
The half-brother of William the Conqueror, Robert Count of Mortain was made Earl of Cornwall following the Norman invasion. At that time the Mount became the property of Mont St Michel. In 1144 the church started in 1135 was consecrated by Robert, Bishop of Exeter. In 1193 an ally of Prince John, Henry de la Pomeray, seized the Mount. On his return from crusade Richard the Lionheart sent a great force to beseige the Mount. On seeing that his cause was hopeless de la Pomeray had himself bled to death, an action under the law which ensured that his will was valid. This included a bequest to the monks of St Michael’s Mount.
September 11th is a significant date, and not just for the destruction of the twin towers in New York. On that date in 1275 an powerful earthquake hit the Mount and is also known to have destroyed St Michael’s church in Glastonbury and many other buildings.
During hundred years war with France the grip of the French monks lessened over the Mount and by act of parliament in 1414 Henry V took over control of alien priories including St Michael’s Mount which he transferred to the Brigettine convent of Syon Abbey. Henry VI granted the Mount to King’s College Cambridge in 1442. When the Yorkist Edward IV overthrew him it was given back to Syon Abbey.
In 1473 the ‘Earl of Oxford captured the Mount and withstood a siege of 6000 fighting men for six months. He eventually surrendered and was imprisoned at Calais but returned to help Henry Tudor overthrow Richard III. The last clergy on the Mount were pensioned off in 1548 as a result of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
The Spanish armada kept clear of the Mount during their attempted invasion of 1588 fearing it to be strongly fortified (a mistake it turned out as they only had two guns!). Instead they invaded at Mousehole and destroyed all but one building before returning to their ships and their defeat. The Mount was sold by Elizabeth I to the Earl of Salisbury in 1599. During the civil was the Mount was heavily fortified by the 2nd Earl and after his death his brother Arthur surrender the Mount in 1646 as the Royalist cause was lost.
The St Aubyn family, who live there to this day, bought the Mount in 1720 from Sir Francis Bassett and in the 18th century repaired the church and rebuilt the harbour which heloped to revitalise the village.
In 1755 a 3 metre tsunami hit Marazion due to the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1st November. In the 19th century Piers St Aubyn’s design for the renovation of the Mount was described as amongst the greatest achievements of 19th century architecture. It certainly is a most beautiful site and the Mount looks completely different depending on from where you are viewing it.
The 3rd Lord St Levan gave most of St Michael’s Mount to the National Trust but has the family have retained a 999 year lease for the St Aubyn family to live in the castle. Upgrading and renovation are continuing still today.
Images courtesy of West Cornwall Photos a unique photo blog of West Cornwall.