"Living in a castle is objectively romantic."
- Lev Grossman
Castles were built to keep things out, and in England, they did a good job of serving their purpose. The things the walls guarded against are the things of legends today: armies, hoards, giants and more. Will we ever know the difference between true and exaggerated? Is that knowledge even truly worth the cost of the magic? Regardless, English castles all have stories to tell.
Where the Legends Came From
Story by: Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Cobbled roads and cobbled walls, adorned with stained glass to break up the grey, rise and fall throughout England’s countryside. Some remain intact while others crumble under the weight of centuries.
Centuries aren’t always kind to these fortresses, but history lends itself to fantasies, which will always paint them in a rose-hued glow.
“Before I tell you the history, let me tell you the legends,” St. Michael’s Mount guide Anna Berska said in a low voice as she led a group of tourists to the top of the small island.
St. Michael’s Mount, located in Cornwall, is an island that sits just off the coast, and when the tide is out, is reachable by a walkable causeway, but otherwise is a short boat ride from the coast of Cornwall in the village of Marazion.
Further east, castles such as Highcliffe and St. Mawes have extensive histories as well, going back to the 1800s and 1300s respectively. The two are large stone structures which sit upon easily defendable cliffs, and while their histories are rich and their architecture grand, the legends that shroud St. Michael’s Mount clothe it in a veil of mystery.
The incline on the Mount leads past several landmarks dating back hundreds of years, and the islands history has stories dating back to 495 AD, when sailors claim to have seen an apparition of St. Michael encouraging them to sail away from the rocks and the sirens that would lure them to their deaths.
Berska knew all the stories, and rattled them off in a singsonging voice that would draw in her audience. One such story is that of Jack the Giant Killer.
Along the path leading to the castle, one encounters a well, and there, listeners are told of young Jack’s brave plan to lure the giant down from the hill where he lived-- giants regularly live on large hills in England, Berska explained-- and kill the giant, which he succeeded in doing. He cut out the giant’s heart, and threw it up the hill, where it lies today, shrunken to the size of a small apple and hard as stone.
The giant’s heart is not the only stone which earns a story on St. Michael’s Mount. Inlaid in the castle itself, on the wall outside the chapel at the very top, the wishing stone is encased in mortar, and juts out enough to be distinguished from the other bits holding the castle together.
As visitors walked into the chapel, they rubbed the small stone, making their “most romantic wish,” as Berska instructed.
The legends are boundless at St. Michael’s Mount, and, as legends go, have evolved since their first tellings hundreds of years ago. The guides in hundreds of years may be telling entirely different stories.