Who were the Bodrugans?

One surname you won’t meet in today’s Cornwall is Bodrugan. The name has its origin in a place overlooking St Austell Bay near Mavagissey. It means Rygan’s farmstead and was acquired by the family that had emerged as the owners of the local manor by the 1200s.

By the 1320s Otto Bodrugan was one of the 15 wealthiest landowners in Cornwall. Family members did all the usual things for people of their status. They served as MPs and sheriffs, fought on campaigns in Scotland and France and went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Like other landed families, the Bodrugans had to survive unpredictable political change. One such occurred in the 1320s when Otto joined the unsuccessful opponents of King Edward II and was heavily fined.

Another recurring problem was succession crises. The direct male Bodrugan line had failed by the end of the 1300s. But the family survived through the female line, William Trenoweth taking the name of Bodrugan and slowly rebuilding the family estates. These were scattered from the Fal estuary in the west along the coast to Looe in the east.

The ups and downs of a typical landed family ended, however, in the 1480s with the last of the Bodrugans, Henry, born in 1426. A.L.Rowse described Henry Bodrugan as an unstable man, lawless, generous and extravagant but hot-tempered. In his words ‘a buccaneer’.

He certainly led an eventful early life. A series of accusations of criminal behaviour were levelled against him. These included leading gangs in assaults and robberies of rivals’ houses, attacks on tin stream works and ambushes of merchants. Meanwhile, vessels he owned at Fowey were involved in piracy, at one point chasing a Breton ship into St Ives and relieving it of its cargo of wine and cloth.

While doing all this he was conducting a colourful liaison with Jane Beaumont in north Devon, the deserted wife of a local landowner. Bodrugan fathered her illegitimate son, although they eventually married when her husband died in 1453.

James Whetter, in his study of the Bodrugan family, excused a lot of Henry’s violent tendencies as typical of the times and endemic, while some of it was ‘political’. Henry may well have been brutalised by military service in France in his early 20s and , like other gentry of the time, was quick to resort to violence if the law courts failed.

Despite the catalogue of mayhem, Henry, as a prominent supporter of the Yorkist cause, was at the height of his powers after they took over the English throne in 1461. Quieting down somewhat in the 1470s as middle and old age came on, Henry’s worries centred more on the lack of a male heir and growing debts rather than prosecution for his earlier activities.

His downfall came after 1485 when the Lancastrian Henry VII seized the throne at the Battle of Bosworth. Bodrugan’s rivals sensed an opportunity. One of them, Richard Edgcumbe of Cotehele, itched for revenge. Edgcumbe had been hounded out of Cornwall in 1483 following his role in an abortive Lancastrian rising. The group pursuing him had included Henry Bodrugan.

The coast near Bodrugan’s Leap

Henry tried to keep his head down but in 1487 the king issued a commission for his arrest. Richard Edgcumbe hastened to Bodrugan with an armed force. There was a skirmish, Henry ran to escape and, according to legend, leapt from nearby cliffs to a waiting boat. He was taken eventually to Ireland, where he died sometime before 1490.

His lands were declared forfeit, Edgcumbe taking the bulk of the 10,000 acres or so of his estates. His line was extinguished and the Bodrugan name faded into obscurity. In 1525 there was still a Ralph Bodrigan living at Gorran, maybe a distant relation. But a search of the parish records reveals no further mention of the surname.