Our third St Michael is even smaller than the other two. One of Cornwall’s iconic views and subject of many thousands of paintings and photographs, it’s the only Cornish parish that can comfortably be captured in one camera shot. St Michael’s Mount, where a Benedictine Priory was founded in the 1100s, had been granted in the previous century to the abbey of its much larger twin at Mont St Michel over the water in Normandy.
The monks helped sell St Michael’s Mount as a centre of pilgrimage. They collected an impressive set of relics and recorded three very convenient miracles in 1262. Then they promulgated ‘the legend that St Michael had made one of his three earthly appearances’ on the Mount. If that wasn’t enough, St Michael’s Mount was an obvious departure point for pilgrims wanting to visit Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
The monks’ little enterprise came to an end in 1425 when, in an early Brexit moment, their monastery was suppressed as an ‘alien’ institution and handed over to nuns. A century later the Reformation removed the Mount entirely from religious ownership into the hands of the Crown. It wasn’t until the 1600s that a local family – the Bassets of Tehidy – became owners. They were forced to sell it to the St Aubyn family in 1659 after being on the losing side in the civil war. The St Aubyns, one of whom became Lord St Levan in 1887, took up residence on the Mount and transformed the former priory into a house in the eighteenth century. (For more on the Mount’s history see here.)
It was in the 1700s too that the harbour was improved. The village that huddled around it at the foot of the Mount was by 1861 mainly occupied by seafarers and fishermen. Abraham Dusting was the son of a master mariner who had died in 1854 when Abraham was just four. His mother Alice then ran a boarding house in the village, while Abraham went to sea, obtaining his mate’s certificate in 1872. A few years later he emigrated to Australia, becoming a river boat captain at Echuca, Victoria, on the banks of the Murray River.
Mary Ann Matthews was also the child of a mariner from the village. She didn’t think of leaving home until well into her 30s, her father in the meantime turning to fishing to make his living. Even then, after marrying Edward Jago, a master mariner, in 1885 Mary and Edward stayed with Mary’s by now widowed mother in her house on the Mount.