During half-term in February I managed to spend a couple of days in Cornwall visiting various places. The main one that I’ve had on a “to do” list for quite a while was St. Michael’s Mount in west Cornwall, near Penzance. The photographs and pictures of this place are incredibly evocative, creating the sense of a fairy tale castle. Furthermore, I recently wrote about the castle whilst researching the capture of it by the Earl of Oxford in 1473; but without visiting it, there remained a certain distance between my understanding and how I visualised this event of history.
Last year I became a member of the National Trust, which has undoubtedly pushed me to visit more places of historical significance (especially with my curious four-year old daughter). Devoted readers of his blog – yes, you do exist, I’m sure – will no doubt have understood the link with the category ‘the undiscovered country of nearby’. And yet, St. Michael’s Mount remained the big one. The big one for many reasons: because of its historical significance, because of its location (in far west Cornwall), and because of its geographical setting in being a tideland island (an island accessible from land at certain points of the tide).
Having stayed the night at in-laws in St. Austell in the middle of Cornwall, it was a straight forward drive to the Penzance region to visit the castle. Although it was windy the sun was out for a fantastic February breeze. I marvelled at the size of the castle in the distance, and was pleased that with the tide being out we were able to walk across to the island. Small coastal islands have always fascinated me, and no doubt many others: the feeling of being isolated, yet viewable – of different, yet near – has always provoked an excitable response. Perhaps this has much to do with little Drake’s island nestled in Plymouth Sound, which I observed much when growing up. Also, the fascination always lies in my interest in micro-nations: small, rather pointless “nations” that are nestled across the globe. A small island such as Drake’s island or St. Michael’s Mount could declare for its “independence” and become a micro-nation; an idea which appeals with every passing day when we consider the Brexit crisis unfolding at Westminster.
After a cream-tea, we travelled to the top to take a walk around the castle. My first impressions from photographs was correct: this is very much a fairy-tale castle. The clear blue day made for great viewing across the bay, and my imagination placed the castle in a fantasy setting, perhaps The Lord of the Rings or – to use a more modern example – the TV series Game of Thrones. When outside, looking down, I imagined myself as the Earl of Oxford and the year being 1473: outside were the Yorkist forces, but yet the Mount remained the tiny spec that held out for the Lancastrians.
Unfortunately, the siege only lasted a handful of months; the Earl of Oxford was captured and sent to a prison in the Pale of Calais where he remained for a decade. It seemed the end of the Wars of the Roses, with Edward IV safely on the throne and heirs seemingly plentiful. However, Edward’s premature death in 1483 created a new phase of the Wars of the Roses: the next intended heir – Edward V – was a boy of 12, and was taken into custody (along with his brother) by his uncle, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. But Richard had plans of his own, and he snatched the throne by declaring his nephews illegitimate. Then, one day, the boys were no more: they had vanished. This is the ‘Princes in the Tower’ scandal, and the reasons for their disappearance remain something of a mystery (although I think we can safely claim that Richard was responsible… apologies, Ricardian supporters). Richard’s seizure of the crown created a rift within the Yorkists, and allowed little known Henry Tudor – exiled across the Channel in Brittany – to take up the Lancastrian cause. Oxford, imprisoned in Calais, heard of this new claimant, and managed to convince his goaler to not only release him, but also join him to support Tudor. They rode to join Henry Tudor’s camp, which was lucky for the upstart, for Oxford was a man of military genius. He helped with invasion preparations, and played a key part at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 which saw Richard killed and Henry proclaimed as Henry VII. A new dynasty had arrived: the Tudors.
The Earl of Oxford remains a personal historical favourite of mine, and the view from the top of the Mount was a homage to him, of sorts. The siege of 1473-74 remains fascinating, as it is an untold history which is usually ignored from many books; it would be interesting to write the hidden histories of the Wars of the Roses, and I’m sure that many other stories are ripe to be uncovered.
Having enjoyed the castle, and posed for a sizeable number of photographs with the daughter, we headed back down to the bottom. The sea was rising now, but we managed to make it back across before the need of a ferry. We walked back across the beach, the castle as our backdrop. St. Michael’s Mount is a real treasure of history, and I’m sure that I will be back later in the year to pay my respects to its history and the story of the Earl of Oxford.