Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Anglotopia Magazine (now sold out). Be sure to reserve the next copy of the Anglotopia magazine so you don’t miss out!
St Michael’s Mount, a stunning former medieval monastery and sprawling castle that is set atop an offshore island and is only accessible on foot during low tide, seems very much like the setting of a fairy tale. But the tumultuous Middle Ages, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and more contemporary British crises such as World War II have made St Michael’s Mount an important historical stronghold, scenic but strategic. Today, St Michael’s Mount offers visitors a picturesque castle, well preserved but also much altered over the centuries, and elegant sub-tropical gardens with a pretty harbour below.
- St Michael’s Mount is a small island, monastery and castle located in Mount’s Bay, [in Marazion] Cornwall, England.
- A priory was first built on the site in 1135 and the castle and surrounding buildings were built over the succeeding seven centuries.
- The Mount passed through many owners before Colonel St Aubyn bought it in 1659. His descendants owned the mount until year 1954 when it was given to the National Trust. The family still live there.
There is evidence that St Michael’s Mount was inhabited at least as early as the Neolithic era (circa 4000-2500 BCE) and it may have been used as a trade port for continental tradesmen picking up Cornish tin bound for the Mediterranean during the first few centuries AD. Whether the Mount was the ancient port known as Ictis is unclear, but what we do know for certain is that Edward the Confessor gave the Mount to the Norman abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. Benedictine monks from this abbey were invited to establish a priory in Cornwall, an invitation they accepted, and over the next few centuries, carefully and painstakingly built their church.
In 1425, the monks also laid a rough causeway that, at ebb tide, makes the mount accessible on foot from the landward side. The monks lived in peace for a number of years until St Michael’s Mount became a strategic base for Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne of King Henry VII. After Warbeck’s failed rebellion during the War of the Roses, he sought refuge in St Michael’s Mount with his notoriously beautiful wife Catherine, one of many women who thought they had married a king during these tumultuous times but who never did become queen.
Following King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1540), St Michael’s Mount was occupied by a number of crown-approved military governors who kept the fortified island in good shape and defended it against Parliamentarian forces who tried to take it in 1642. Their victory was short-lived as St Michael’s Mount was surrendered to Parliamentarian forces in 1646 and fell under the command of John St Aubyn, a Parliamentary colonel who was nominated governor and began to adapt the existing building on the mount, part monastery, part castle, into a residence. Descendants of John St Aubyn, the Lords St Levan, live at St Michael’s Mount to this day and are responsible for the many architectural transformations the building has undergone.
Some parts of the medieval incarnation of St Michael’s Mount remain such as the gatehouse, the converted Lady Chapel, and the church and refectory with garrison quarters underneath. The church is thought to date back to the 13th century and St Michael’s chapel to the 15th. What was initially the monastic refectory, built in the 12th century, became the Tudor Great Hall and features a magnificent arch-braced roof. This roof was restored in the 19th century, at which point the room entered the third stage of its existence and became known as the Chevy Chase Room. This name comes from the incredible plaster friezes of hunting scenes that line its walls. A Jacobean oak table with a full set of monastic chairs completes the imposing effect.
The most revered room at St Michael’s Mount is the old monastic Lady Chapel that was gloriously converted into a drawing room during the mid-18th century. With views from the north terrace of the very summit of the island, this carefully conserved Georgian treat has interiors in the style of Strawberry Hill Gothic, featuring pretty pale blue and white ornamentation and a significant landscape of the mount itself by artist John Opie.
The rest of the castle displays the old barracks and museum rooms. A number of other buildings can be found dotted around the castle including a row of late 19th century houses known as Elizabeth Terrace, some of which are occupied by castle employees. You will also find the former stables, laundry, steward’s house and two former inns.
What Makes St Michael’s Mount Famous?
St Michael’s Mount is famous both for historical and mythical reasons. An important Benedictine priory used as a stronghold by a pretender king, held for the king during the Civil War before being taken by a parliamentarian Colonel, and machine-gunned during World War II, St Michael’s Mount has seen its share of real-life warfare. But the mount also has an aura of mystery they has made it the setting of the legend of Jack the Giant Killer and a filming location for various Dracula films. An iconic rocky island on the coast of Cornwall, St Michael’s Mount has many stories to tell and is very worth a visit if you’re in Cornwall.
Featured in TV and Film
Never Say Never Again (1983)
Johnny English (2003)
Mariah Mundhi and the Midas Box (2012)
James St Aubyn, A Personal Tour of St Michael’s Mount (2010)
McCabe, Helen (1988). Houses and Gardens of Cornwall.
St Michael’s Mount is open to the public, but the opening times are complicated and vary depending on day, month, and season so it is best to visit the website www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk before you visit. When the tide is in, the mount is accessible by one of St Michael’s Mount’s ferry boats and when it’s out, you can walk across the causeway. Entry to both the castle and gardens costs £12.50 per adult and £6.00 per child.
To get to St Michael’s Mount by car, travel on the A30 to Penzance then follow the signs for Marazion. There is ample car parking in a seafront car park. You can take the train from London as there is also an intercity train link to Penzance station, from which you can take a local bus or taxi to Marazion. We would recommend renting a car and driving down to Cornwall for the full experience.