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St. Michael's Mount

Introduction to site

Joined to the land by a narrow causeway exposed by low tide for just a few hours each day, the dramatic granite outcrop of St Michael’s Mount dominates the eastern end of Mounts Bay. In prehistory sea levels would have been much lower than today, and Mounts Bay would have been a low lying plain covered by extensive forests, with the rocky eminence of the mount rising gaunt from a leafy sea of green. Antiquarians have referred to the Mount by the Cornish language place-name ’Carrek Loes yn Coes’, meaning the grey rock in the wood, although the origin of this phrase is unknown. Evidence for the forested nature of the bay in prehistoric times can still be seen in the form of fossilised tree stumps which are occasionally visible when wind and tides have scoured the sands away.

St. Michael's Mount island lies just off the coast of Marazion and is signposted from the A30 at Newtown Roundabout. There is a car park for which there is a fee. It is possible to arrive onto the island by foot across the causeway from Marazion at low tides. At other times there is a passenger ferry service for which there is a charge. Both the causeway and the ferry landings are signposted from Marazion. Tide times are available on the St Michael's Mount website.

There are regular bus services to Marazion. Visit the Traveline website for customised sustainable transport options.

The island is owned by The National Trust and managed jointly by The National Trust and the St Aubyn family. There is a fee to visit the castle and gardens, although entrance to these are free for National Trust members. The complex is subject to opening times.

There are refreshments and public facilities available on the island.

View our interactive Access to Monuments map to find this and other nearby sites.

Surprisingly little archaeological investigation has taken place on the island over the years, but reports of finds of flints struck from beach pebbles, a possible Bronze Age hoard of copper spearheads and swords, and pottery and small artefacts from the Iron Age, Roman and Medieval periods all indicate the continuity of activity over perhaps five millennia.

With its dominant position and easily defensible harbour the Mount was an obvious choice as a trading port during the later Iron Age and Roman periods and it is considered the most likely candidate (at least by Cornish people) for the port of "Ictis", where tin was traded by the British tribes to their continental counterparts. The accounts of the Roman scholars Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder are thought to be based on the writings of the Greek geographer Pytheas who visited the island in the fourth century BC and described an island that was joined by a causeway to the mainland at times of low tide and where tin was traded.

There are several natural springs on the island, some of which have been proposed as ancient holy wells and these, and the isolation of the site by the sea, make it a suitable location for an early Christian hermitage. Certainly the site’s long-standing ecclesiastical history may have had very early foundations, but little is known for certain of the earliest periods beyond the tantalising mentions in folklore, oral traditions and in antiquarian writings.

The earliest unambiguous reference to a monastery is in 1135 when Bernard, Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany, to whom the land had been given by Robert, Count of Mortain following the conquest, began building a Priory there. The Priory was dependant on Mont Saint-Michel whose Abbot appointed its Prior. An Act of Parliament empowered Henry V to approproiate ‘alien priories’ and St Michael’s Mount was transferred to the Nunnnery of Syon in 1414, though Henry VI gave it to Kings College in 1442, a move reversed by Edward IV in 1461!

By the later medieval period the priory complex had undergone extensive modification and incorporated a castle built to protect the priory buildings. Various elements of the earlier phases still survive, sometimes incorporated into more recent structures and the domestic residence visible today. The path that leads up to the summit from the harbour and village is marked by several wayside crosses of medieval date. A single cross base lies on the east side of the causeway, covered in seaweed and barnacles – this once held a substantial cross that was reportedly lost during a violent storm in the mid-nineteenth century.

Alongside the modern residence on the Mount’s summit, now the home of the St Aubyn family, are extensive terraced gardens, some of which date back to the 18th century. A quaint hexagonal building standing alongside the path to the summit and near one of the natural springs is the old dairy designed in 1870 by J Piers St Aubyn in the shape of the kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey. Less discernable are the remains of a field system and possible building platforms associated with the original settlement around the harbour area dating to the medieval period. The harbour itself is thought to have been constructed in the 14th century but the pool would almost certainly have been used as a sheltered landing place in the later prehistoric period. The current village is predominantly a later 19th century re-modelling of the earlier buildings which represented the dwellings and buildings of a bustling fishing community and trading harbour. Tin and copper ore were shipped out from the harbour and there are some small areas of openwork mining and stone quarrying on the island itself that betray something of its industrial past. Today the harbour is used more for the tourist industry and the visitors who come to the island.

Due to its commanding and prominent position, St Michael’s Mount has a long military history. Defensive earthworks of possible prehistoric origin have been noted on the island, but there is more certainty about the medieval curtain walls and sea defences that date variously from the 12th century onwards, and there are records of several sieges and bloody skirmishes, most particularly the Cornish Rebellion of 1549. During the Civil War defences and watchtowers were built, along with several batteries for cannon. It was as a result of the Civil War that the island passed from the Bassett family as Parliamentarians to the St Aubyn family who were staunch Royalists. Later batteries and defences were added during the Napoleonic War, and the Second World War saw concrete pillboxes installed around the island perimeter, still there today.

In a stone embrasure near the walled entrance to the castle complex is an ancient beacon or lighthouse, where burning torches would be placed to warn ships at sea of the island’s presence. Throughout history the island has featured as a prominent landmark in both the physical and spiritual psyche of the people living around Mounts Bay. There are few folklore traditions attaching to the Mount but there is a tale of the Giant Cormoran who was trapped in a pit dug on the island by a local man, Jack, now said to be marked by the Giant’s Well. Interestingly, during renovations in the 19th century, the skeleton of a taller than average man was discovered walled up in one of the vaults under the castle and documentary evidence points to him having been placed there sometime during the mid 18th century. The skeleton was re-buried in the local cemetery and his current position is unknown.

St Michael’s Mount has a great deal to offer the visitor and has been a popular destination for royalty – visits from both Queen Victoria and Edward the VII are commemorated by brass footprints mounted on plaques near the harbour quayside.