In 1792 James Boswell, on a trip to Cornwall, made the obligatory visit to St Michael’s Mount. He was less than impressed, complaining that ‘it is a disgusting nuisance to have a parcel of low, dirty people collected there’ (in the village at its foot), with ‘a vile smell of spoiled fish and garbage lying about it’. Most visitors however took a longer perspective, admiring the Mount from a distance. The low, dirty people have, one assumes, gone, as have the rotting fish, while the garbage is now plastic. Also gone are the religious and military roles that the Mount once had.
Known traditionally in Cornish as an carrek looz en cooz (the grey rock in the wood), its name refers back to the lost lands of Lyonesse, drowned by the sea. Other snippets add to the romantic connotations: some prophecies of Merlin were found on the Mount, clothes were left there for Isold, lover of Tristan, St Michael himself even made one of his three earthly appearances on this spot.
There had been some sort of church on the Mount before the Normans arrived and it had already been granted to the Abbey of its bigger mirror image, Mont St Michel in Normandy. The abbot of Mont St Michel set about building a new church on the Mount on the 1130s and staffed it with half a dozen or so Benedictine monks. By the later 1300s French priests had been replaced by English ones while the priory was seized in 1420 by the English Crown and dissolved as ‘alien’. It was then handed over to the Abbey of Syon in Middlesex. Throughout this period it had been a popular destination for pilgrims. The donations they brought with them, according to A.L.Rowse, left the Mount’s priory ‘very rich in vestments and plate’ when it was suppressed in the 1530s.
The Mount was also seen as strategically important. In the 12th century it was seized by a faction in a dispute within the English royal family and again in the 1470s when some Lancastrian rebels held it for a time. Later, in 1549, loyalist gentry took refuge for a time on the Mount during the prayer book rising. At the end of the civil wars of the 17th century, the Royalists on the Mount intended to join those at Pendennis, Falmouth, in making a final stand but they gave up after just a month.
After being owned by a French abbey, then an English one, then the Crown and the absentee Cecil family who were given it in the 1500s, the Mount was finally returned into Cornish hands. The Cecils sold it on to the Bassets of Tehidy, near Camborne. but the costs of repairing its decayed fortifications during the civil wars strained the finances of the Bassets so much they had to sell it in turn to the St Aubyn family in 1659. It was the St Aubyns who added to the Mount’s buildings in the later 19th century, creating what we see now. It is now once again in the hands of a non-Cornish institution, the National Trust.