St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England may have begun its life as a part of the mainland, surrounded by forest, but was cut off from the main by sea floods. The island’s name in the Cornish language is, Karrek Loos y’n Koos which, means “grey rock in the woods.” The woods there once where there are now gone by the sea flooding in the town of Mount’s Bay, which took them under in 1700 BC. St. Michael’s Mount is now a tidal island reachable by foot over the man-made causeway only at low tide. High tide brings in the sea, and islanders and visitors can only get to the island by boat.
St. Michael’s Mount mirrors Mont St. Michael in Normandy, France both as a tidal island and as an abbey and monastery. The abbey was founded to commemorate a vision of the Archangel St. Michael, who appeared on the Mount to fisherman in the 5th century. The island’s abbey was given by Edward the Confessor, one of the last Saxon kings in the 11th century to the abbey of Mont St. Michael. Later, the abbey was repatriated by Henry V in 1414 and given to the Convent of Syon in Twickenham.
Tidal islands are often home to both monasteries and fortresses, as they tend to be remote, set off from the mainland and capable of guarding the coast. St. Michael’s Mount has been home to both for centuries. That tidal islands are set off from the world appeals to the monks, while generals see the defensive capacity of a castle to guard the harbour. Thus St. Michael’s Mount holds:
• 12th century monastic buildings
• 14th century priory church, which was rebuilt when an earthquake destroyed the original church in 1275.
• 14th century fortress
During the reign of Richard I, while the king was on crusade, his brother Prince John had his supporters capture the Mount. Upon Richard’s return, however, the fortress returned to its monastic use. During the War of the Roses, the Cornish Rebellion against Edward VI and the English Civil War, the castle was again used as a fortress. Finally, Sir John St. Aubyn purchased the Mount in 1660, and the family has owned and inhabited the castle until recently. While the National Trust now owns the Mount, the St. Aubyns retain a 999 year lease and live on the property, showing the castle and monastery buildings to visitors.
St. Michael’s Mount’s long and storied history, its spectacular setting on a lonely rock in Marazion’s harbor and the sheer beauty of the vistas off the castle’s walls bring visitors from all over the world to this tiny Cornish location. The St. Aubyns have created a subtropical garden on the granite cliffs leading up to the castle. Plants from Mexico, South Africa and the Canary Islands thrive on the heat-retentive cliffs. Terraced garden beds cling to the steep walls, full of flowering plants with brilliant colors and exotic scents.
History buffs, castle fanciers and garden lovers can all enjoy a day’s visit to Mount St. Michael. Many visitors time their visit to arrive at the castle on foot via the causeway, only to return to the mainland by ferry. The castle can be toured twice daily, and visitors can see the church, monastery buildings, garden, the collections of armor, paintings and original furniture and catch the sweeping views of coastal Cornwall from the castle walls.
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