Reading the charming website of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, there is the following statement:
From as far back as 495AD, tales tell of seafarers lured by mermaids onto the rocks, or guided to safety by an apparition of St Michael. The patron saint of fishermen, it’s said the Archangel Michael appeared on the western side of the island – below where the entrance to the castle is today – to ward fishermen from certain peril. It’s a legend which has brought pilgrims, monks and people of faith to the island ever since, to pray, to praise and to celebrate.
The phrase “tales tell” is indicative of no certain knowledge. But in fact no such legend exists in any source before modern times. A jumble of manuscript notes by a 15th century traveller, which really related to the appearance of St Michael at Mont-Saint-Michel in France in 1710, were misunderstood as applying to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Milton himself then repeats the legend. The date of 495 appears only in 1806 by Daniel Lysons. There is no legend of an appearance of St Michael in Cornwall.
Nor is this unknown to scholarship. The facts were thoroughly analysed in 1874 by Max Müller. In 1953 A.H. D. Bivar repeated the process, seemingly unaware of Müller’s article. But here we are in 2021, and the process has been done once more. Let us hope that the power of the internet will do what the scholarly journals could not.
St Michael’s Mount appears in history only with the Norman conquest, when a series of charters document its existence from the time of Edward the Confessor. A priory of Benedictine monks came into being atop the mount, and this was given to the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. It was an “alien priory” in England – essentially a farm which remitted revenue to the mother house. While Normandy was under the English crown this was not a problem; but once Normandy became part of France, with whom English kings were frequently at war, such enterprises were often seized by the crown. In the end the priory became attached to Sion Abbey in London, and then passed into private hands with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 under Henry VIII. There it has remained every since.
But what about these “tales”? A Google Search certainly reveals such stories today. Worryingly they are never referenced to any source.
Here’s what I have been able to find about the apparition of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It starts with Mirk’s Festial, a collection of sermons.
John Mirk’s Festial (ca. 1400)
In John Mirk’s Festial (online here) we read De festo Sancti Michaelis , and on p.258 of the edition (slightly modernised by me):
He appeared also to another bishop at a place that is called now Michael in the mount in Corneweyle, and bade him go to a hill top that is there, and there he found a bull tent with thewes, there he bade make a church in the worship of him. But for there were two rocks, won on either side the church, that the werke might not vp for him, Saint Michaell bade a man in a night go there and put away these rocks, and dread nothing. …
This was, in fact, taken from the narrative from the Golden Legend (online here), as Mirk so often did. This gives us more details:
The apparition of this angel is manifold. The first is when he appeared in the Mount of Gargan. This mountain is in Naples, which is named Gargan and is by the city named Syponte. And in the year of our Lord three hundred and ninety, was in the same city of Syponte a man which was named Garganus, …
The second apparition was in the year of our Lord seven hundred and ten, in a place which was named Tumba, by the seaside, six miles from the city of Apricens. S. Michael appeared to the bishop of that city and commanded him to do make a church in the foresaid place, like as it was made in the mount of Gargan, and in like wise should hallow the memory of S. Michael there. And the bishop doubted in what place it should be made. And S. Michael said to him in the place where he should find a bull hid of thieves. And yet he doubted of the largeness of the place, and S. Michael appeared to him, and said that he should make it of the brede that he should find that the bull had trodden and traced with his feet. And there were two rocks which no man’s power might remove. Then S. Michael appeared to a man and commanded him that he should go to that same place and take away the two rocks. And when he came, he removed the two rocks as lightly as they had weighed nothing. And when the church was edified there, Michael set a piece of stone of marble there, upon which he stood, and a part of the pall that he had laid on the altar of that other church he brought thither to this church. And because they had great penury and need of water, they made, by the admonishment of the angel, a hole in a stone of marble, and anon there flowed out so much water that unto this day they be sustained by the benefit thereof. And this apparition is solemnly hallowed the seventeenth kalends of November in that place. ….
The third apparition happed in the time of Gregory the pope. For when the said pope had established the litanies for the pestilence that was that time, and prayed devoutly for the people, he saw upon the castle which was said sometime: The memory of Adrian, the angel of God, which wiped and made clean a bloody sword, and put it into a sheath. And thereby he understood that his prayers were heard. …
The fourth apparition is that which is in the Gerarchy of the same angels.
So we have an apparition of St Michael in 710, rather than 495. But this apparition is actually from the foundation legend of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Mirk has merely transferred the appearance to Cornwall. This seems to be both the first record of an apparition of St Michael in Cornwall at St Michael’s Mount, and also the first indication that it was borrowed directly from accounts of the apparition at Mont-Saint-Michel.
William of Worcestre’s Itinerary (1478-80)
The next reference is in William of Worcestre. Between 1478 and 1480 he travelled through the west country, making notes. His autograph is preserved as 349 slim pages in the Parker library as MS Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 210 (online here). There have been two editions of these “Itineraria” but neither of them seem to be online. The “Itineraria” are rough notes, copied from whatever sources he found wherever he was.
William’s text is quoted directly in A. D. H. Bivar, “Lyonnesse: The Evolution of a fable”, in: Modern Philology 50 (1953), pp. 162-170 (JSTOR); p.164, although without identifying the folio:
Apparicio Sancti Michaelis in monte Tumba, antea vocata le Hore Rok in the Wodd; et fuerunt tam boscus quam prata inter dictum montem et insulas Syllye, et fuerunt 140 ecclesiae parochiales inter istum montem et Sylly submersae.
Prima apparicio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gorgon in regno Apuliae fuit anno Christi 391.
Secunda apparicio fuit circa annum domini 710 in Tumba in Cornubia iuxta mare.
Tertia apparicio Romae fuit, tempore Gregorii Papae legitur accidisse, nam tempore magnae pestilentiae etc.
Quarta apparicio fuit in hierarchiis nostrorum angelorum. Spatium loci montis Sancti Michaelis est ducentorum cubitorum undique oceano cinctum, et religiosi monachi dicti loci, Abrincensis antistes Aubertus nomine, ut in honore Sancti Michaelis construeret… ; Praedictus locus opacissima primo claudebatur silva, ab oceano miliaribus distans sex, aptissima praebens latebram ferarum in quo loco olim comperimus monachos Domino servientes.
Apparition of St Michael on Mount “Tumba”, before called the “hoar rock in the wood”: and there was both woodland and meadows between the said mount and the isles of Scilly, and there were 140 parish churches submerged between that mount and Scilly.
The first apparition of St. Michael on Mount Gargano in the kingdome of Apulia was in AD 391.
The second apparition was ca. AD 710 on “Tumba” in Cornwall next to the sea.
The third apparition was at Rome, in the time of Pope Gregory it is read that it happened, for in that time of great pestilence etc.
The fourth apparition was in the hierarchies of our angels. The area of St Michael’s Mount is 200 cubits surrounded on all sides by the ocean, and of the most religious monk of the said place, the abbot Aubert of Avranches by name, that he constructed it in honour of St Michael…; the aforesaid place was at first enclosed by a dark wood, six miles distant from the ocean, offering most suitably a hiding-place of wild beasts, in which place formerly we have learned of monks serving God.
How very familiar this is, from the Golden Legend. Again the apparition at St Michael’s Mount would appear to be in 710, not in 495.
Once again we have a connection with Mont-Saint-Michel. Dr Bivar tells us that the words after the “fourth apparition” appear to be verbally identical with a passage in the Romance of Mont-Saint-Michel, the Old French medieval romance which records the appearance of St Michael to St Aubert or Albert, in 708 AD at “Mount Tumba” in Normandy, which first caused him to build the abbey there. This in turn is based on the 9th century Revelatio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Tumba, (BHL 5951) to be found in the PL96, cols. 1389-94, and the Acta Sanctorum Sept. VIII, 76-78. These texts also record a woodland around that island also, now drowned by the sea.
Again “Cornubia” definitely means “Cornwall”. But we now have additional information: the local name for St Michael’s Mount, the “hoar rock in the wood”, does appear to reflect a name in the Cornish language. This appears in other sources, as we shall see.
William Camden: Britannia (1586 onwards)
Starting in 1586, with five more editions to 1607, William Camden published his Britannia. This was in Latin, but an English translation appeared in 1610. This reads:
9. As the shore fetcheth a compasse by little and little from hence Southward, it letteth in a bay or creeke of the Sea, in maner of a Crescent, which they call Mounts-bay, … And in the very angle and corner of it selfe S. Michaels Mount, which gave name unto the foresaid Bay, sometime called Donsol, as we find in the booke of Landaffe: the inhabitants name it Careg Cowse , that is, The hoary Crag or Rock, the Saxons Michel-stow , that is, Michaels place, as Master Laurence Noel, a man of good note for his singular learning, and who was the first in our age that brought into ure [use] againe and revived the language of our ancestours the Saxons, which through disuse lay forlet and buried in oblivion, hath well observed.
This Rocke is of a good height and craggy, compassed round abut with water so oft as it is floud, but at every ebbe joined to the main-land, so that they say of it, it is land and iland twice a day. For which cause John Earle of Oxford not many yeeres ago, presuming upon the strength of the place, chose it for his cheefest defense when he raised war against King Edward the Fourth, and valiantly held the same, but with no good successe. For, his souldiers being assailed by the Kings forces, straightwaies yeelded.
In the very top heereof within the Fortresse there was a Chapell consecrated to S. Michael the Archangel, where William Earle of Cornwall and Moriton, who by the bounteous gift of King William the First had great lands and large possessions in this tract, built a Cell for one or two monks; who avouched that S. Michael appeered in that mount: which apparition, or the like, the Italians challenge to their hill Garganus, and the Frenchmen likewise to their Michaels mount in Normandie. At the foote of this mountaine within the memorie of our Fathers, whiles men were digging up of tin they found Spear-heads, axes, and swords of brasse wrapped in linnen, such as were sometimes found within the forest Hercinia in Germanie, and not long since in our Wales.
This records the idea of the apparition at St Michael’s Mount, although no date is attached. The reference to Mount Garganus, and Mont-Saint-Michel, indicates how free-floating this material is. (It should be added that the Latin Life of St Cadoc also gives the local name of St Michael’s Mount as “Dinsol”.)
Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall (1602)
Richard Carew in his The Survey of Cornwall, (1602) also has information. His book is foliated rather than paginated. On folio 3r he writes:
Moreover, vntill Athelstanes time, the Cornish-men bare equal sway in Excester with the English: for hee it was who hemmed them within their present limits. Lastly, the encroaching Sea hath rauined from it, the whole Countrie of Lionnesse, together with diuers other parcels of no little circuite: and that such a Lionnesse there was, these proofes are yet remaining. The space between the lands end, and the Iles of Scilley, being about thirtie miles, to this day retaineth that name, in Cornish Lethowsow, and carrieth continually an equall depth of fortie or sixtie fathom (a thing not vsuall in the Seas proper Dominion) saue that about the midway, there lieth a Rocke, which at low water discouereth his head. They terme it the Gulfe, suiting thereby the other name of Scilla. Fishermen also casting their hookes thereabouts, haue drawn vp peeces of doores and windowes. Moreouer, the ancient name of Saint Michaels Mount, was Caraclowse in Cowse, in English, The hoare Rocke in the Wood: which now is at euerie floud incompassed by the Sea, and yet at some low ebbes, rootes of mightie trees are discryed in the sands about it. The like ouerflowing hath happened in Plymmouth Hauen, and diuers other places. ….
Continuing on f.153v:
Stepping ouer to the South-sea, (for the distaunce is incomparison, but a step) S. Michaels mount looketh so aloft, as it brooketh no concurrent, for the highest place. Ptolomey termeth it Ocrinum, the Cornish men, Cara Cowz in Clowze, that is, The hoare rocke in the wood. The same is sundred from the mayne land, by a sandy playne, of a slight shoot in breadth, passable, at the ebbe, on foote; with boat, on the flood. Your arriuall on the farther side, is entertayned by an open greene, of some largenesse, which finishing where the hill beginneth, leaues you to the conduction of a winding and craggy path; and that at the top, deliuereth you into a little plaine, occupied, for the greatest part, by a fort of the olde making. It compriseth lodgings for the Captayne and his garrison, and a Chappell for deuotion. This latter, builded by Will. Earle of Morton, to whom William the Conquerour his vncle, gaue much lands in those quarters, and greatly haunted, while folke endured their merits, by farre trauailing. They haue a tye pit, not so much satisfying vse, as relieuing necessitie. A little without the Castle, there is a bad seat in a craggy place, called S. Michaels Chaire, some what daungerous, for accesse, and therefore holy for the aduenture.
This does not state that St Michael appeared on the mount, thankfully, but it does give some of the other elements as other sources of his time.
John Milton, Lycidas (1637)
Our next source is none other than Milton, whose poem Lycidas references St Michael’s Mount.
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
It may not be obvious to us that the “guarded mount” is St Michael’s Mount, but commentators seem to have had no doubts – indeed even modern editions include it.. To choose one instance of many, in the Gentleman’s Magazine vol. 68 (1798), p.322 here, we find this explicitly stated in a footnote:
“The great vision of the guarded mount” Milton’s Lycidas. “The great vision is the apparition of St Michael. The guarded mount is, simply, the fortified mount. See Wharton’s edition of Milton’s poems.”
We will discuss Wharton in a moment.
This tradition embedded in a great English classic is undoubtedly responsible for some of our myth. Artists have depicted the scene, including Turner.
Google Books gives me nothing of interest for the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries. That may be because there is nothing, or more likely because Google Books does not contain much of what we want. I suspect the next milestone is in 1778, therefore.
Publication of William of Worcestre’s Itineraria (1778)
We’ve already dealt with William of Worcester, but his work remained in manuscript, and therefore was perhaps little-known. In 1769 even an antiquary such as William Borlase knew nothing of it, as appears from the account in his Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall. On p.385 here this discusses St Michael’s Mount, St Keyne and St Cadoc. But he makes no suggestion that St Michael appeared there.
However in 1778 the Itineraria of William of Worcestre was printed, and thereby became much more widely available. The effect was not instant, as we can see, but the legend of the appearance of St Michael starts to spread rapidly.
The Modern Universal British Traveller (1779)
This traveller’s handbook, The Modern Universal British Traveller: Or, A New, Complete, and Accurate Tour Through England, Wales, Scotland, and the Neighbouring Islands … The Articles Respecting England, by Charles Burlington… from 1779 gives nothing of our legend. This we can see from p.501 here:
Near Market Jew is St Michael’s Mount, so called from a monastery erected on it by a Lady, the daughter of a British lord, who was converted by one of St Patrick’s disciples about the middle of the sixth century. In the reign of Edward the Confessor the old monastery was pulled down, and a new one erected at the king’s own expence, and set apart for the residence of Benedictine monks, who were brought thither from Caen in Normandy. Their lands, which lay partly in England and partly in Normandy, were confirmed by a grant from the pope Adrian IV. 1155, who was himself a native of St. Alban’s in Hertfordshire. …
No mention of the legend here, in an entry of some length.
Thomas Wharton’s edition of John Milton, “Poems on Several Occasions” (1785)
But in 1785 Thomas Wharton published an edition and commentary of these poems by Milton, including Lycidas. It is online, here, p.28, where he writes:
Tradition, or rather superstition, reports that it was antiently connected by a large tract of land full of churches with the isles of Scilly.
This sounds like William of Worcestre’s Itineraria. Further down the page we find this:
There is a tradition that a vision of St Michael, seated on this crag, or St Michael’s chair, appeared to a hermit, and that this circumstance occasioned the foundation of the monastery dedicated to St Michael.”
These words were quoted by our commentator on Milton above.
Yet nothing in the William of Worcestre justifies Wharton’s “hermit”. This appears to be his own embroidery of the Itineraria.
This demonstrates the tendency of writers, found in every age, to suppose that, if something is uncertain or possibly legendary then there is no need to trouble to recount it accurately, nor to refrain from embroidering it.
William Lisle Bowles (1798)
But we have already seen that commentators on Milton like Wharton in 1791 show knowledge of the legend. The trailing years of the 18th century seem to mark a turning point. This otherwise forgotten poet issued a poem in that year:
Marked ye the Angel-spectre that appeared?
By other hands the holy fane is reared
High on the point, where, gazing o’er the flood,
Confessed, the glittering apparition stood.
And now the sailor, on his watch of night,
Sees, like a glimmering star, the far-off light;
Or, homeward bound, hears on the twilight bay
The slowly-chanted vespers die away!
We may note the mention of the sailor, as well as the archangel.
Daniel Lysons, Magna Britannia 3: Cornwall (1806)
But undoubtedly the most influential figure in the development of the legend as we have it was Daniel Lysons. Lysons is quoted quite a bit in the 19th century, and is clearly the source of most mentions in that period. Online here, and in the 1814 reprint here, in a footnote on p.136, we find:
Some of the British monkish historians say that St Michael, the archangel, appeared about the year 495 on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall; the Italians say that it was on Mount Garganus in Italy; and the French writers that it was on Mount St Michael in Normandy.
Here for the first time we see the date of 495 AD for an apparition at St Michael’s Mount. Lysons has read Camden, and picked up his reference to the triad of Mount Garganus, Mont-Saint-Michel and St Michael’s Mount. It looks as if he has looked up the first of these somewhere, found a date of 495 AD for the apparition at Mount Garganus, and casually assumed that all three were on the same date.
Davies Gilbert and the Life of St Keyne (1838)
By 1838 the legend was developing fast. I find in Davies Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall, vol. 2, on p.206 here, the claim that the archangel appeared to St Keyne (St Kenna) at the Mount:
The earliest definite tradition of a Christian establishment dates with the pilgrimage of St. Kenna, in consequence of the appearance of the Arch-angel at that place. No particular circumstances are ever related of this extraordinary vision, neither as to the occasion nor as to the persons so eminently favoured as to behold the celestial glory, nor as to the time, nor of the exact spot, since it could not have taken place on the top of the tower, that building having been constructed in honour of the vision itself. …
Saint Kenna is believed to have imparted the same identical virtue to the chair which overhangs the tower, as she bestowed on the celebrated well near Liskeard, and since no one obtains a seat in this chair without much resolution and steadiness of head, one may be inclined to anticipate the supposed effect with greater certainty from the achievement of sitting in St. Michael’s chair, than from drinking water from St. Kenna’s well. The time of St. Kenna’s visitation is not accurately known. She is supposed to be the same St. Keyna, daughter of a prince of Brecknockshire, who lived a recluse life for many years near a town situated midway between Bristol and Bath, since called Cainsbarn, after her name, where she founded a monastery in the beginning of the sixth century, and cleaned the neighbourhood from snakes and vipers by converting them all into Cornua Ammonis, which have abounded there ever since, in testimony of her sanctity and of the fervour of her prayers.
In fact a look at the Life here shows that it was an unspecified angel caused her to leave the island, and no mention of any “chair”:
Now after many years had passed, when the fame of the holy virgin had been everywhere spread abroad, and she had visited, and also built, many oratories, Saint Cadocus, visiting Saint Michael’s Mount on a pilgrimage, found his aunt Saint Keyna there, and filled with great joy desired to bring her back to her own land, but the people of the land would not permit it. At last, warned by an angel, the holy virgin returned to her native land …
Once again we find legend reinforced by misstatement.
The embroidery of the tale continues with John Thomas in Ancient and Modern History of Mount’s Bay, (1831) p.12 here, who vaguely suggests that other angels also visited, and describes how the “credulous monks” did this or that, although I have found no other source than Mr Thomas for this.
The pilgrims in those days had a tradition that these hills were occasionally visited by the inhabitants of the celestial regions; among the rest Michael the arch-angel was presumed to be very fond of perching among these rocks and rendering himself visible to the credulous monks who were ever ready to substitute imagination for fact . The monks who first inhabited the Cornish Mount laid claim to this angelic vision and even pretended to shew the spot on which the angel sat on an awful pile of rocks that seemed most difficult of access and which thenceforth obtained the honorable name of St Michael’s Chair. It was from the circumstance of this supposed angelic visit that the ancient Cornish name of this Mount which designated its situation was abandoned and that of St Michael became substituted in its stead.
Davies Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall, vol. 2 (1838), p. 172 here, simply states the appearance in 495, and others copied him. Popular handbooks had no doubt of a legend that St Michael appeared on the mount in 495. My own search found Henry Besley, The route book of Cornwall, (1853), p.127; Richard Peacock, Physical and historical evidences of vast sinkings of Land on the North and West Coasts of France, and South Western Coasts of England (1868), p.137; The Western Antiquary (1884), p.68; The Art Journal 60 (1898), p.61; and no doubt there are many others.
Rather more wary was William Pengelly in “On the Insulation of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall” in: Notices of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution, vol 5 (1869), p.131 here:
History, however, affords some evidence on the question. St. Keyna is said to have made a pilgrimage to the Mount, and there to have met St Cadoc, another pilgrim, about the year 490. An apparition of St. Michael was seen on the Mount in 495, or, as some assert, in 710. It is of no avail to object that, at least, the latter event is improbable. The well-established fact that its occurrence was taught and believed, warrants the opinion that the monkish chroniclers carefully recorded every great event connected with a spot so sacred, and that they would have certainly mentioned so important an occurrence as its severance from the mainland. Nor was the belief in this sanctity of brief duration. In 1044, Edward the Confessor granted a charter to a body of monks already established there, …
This drew a response from no less than Max Müller, Chips from a German Workshop: Essays on literature, biography, and antiquities (1874), p.316 f. here, and on the apparition p.325 here. Müller goes through the whole body of evidence for the legend of the appearance of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. He states:
Under these circumstances we can well understand how in the minds of the monks, who spent their lives partly in the mother-house, partly in its dependencies, there was no very clear perception of any difference between the founders, benefactors, and patrons of these twin establishments. A monk brought up at Mont St. Michel would repeat as an old man the legends he had heard about St. Michel and Bishop Autbert, even though he was ending his days in the priory of the Cornish Mount. Relics and books would likewise travel from one place to the other, and a charter originally belonging to the one might afterwards form part of the archives of another house.
After these preliminary remarks, let us look again at the memoranda which William of Worcester made at St. Michael’s Mount, and it will appear that what we anticipated has actually happened, and that a book originally belonging to Mont St. Michel in Normandy, and containing the early history of that monastery, was transferred (either in the original or in a copy) to Cornwall, and there used by William of Worcester in the belief that it contained the early history of the Cornish Mount and the Cornish priory. …
The only way to explain this jumble is to suppose that William of Worcester made these entries in his diary while walking up and down in the Church of St. Michael’s Mount, and listening to one of the monks, reading to him from a MS. which had been brought from Normandy, and referred in reality to the early history of the Norman, but not of the Cornish Mount. The first line, “Apparicio Sancti Michaelis in monte Tumba,” was probably the title or the heading of the MS. Then William himself added, “antea vocata le Hore-rok in the wodd,” a name which he evidently heard on the spot, and which no doubt conveyed to him the impression that the rock had formerly stood in the midst of a wood. …
This seems to be correct, and indeed is quoted in other publications soon after. But sadly it has made little impact on the popular tradition.
In 1878, W.S. Lach-Szyrma in his widely-quoted A Short History of Penzance, S. Michael’s Mount, S. Ives, and the Land’s End, p.91 here happily repeats Lysons: “The date of the apparition of S. Michael is given as A.D. 496.”
There are many 20th century sources which repeat the same story.
* * * *
So we find ourselves at the end. There is no medieval legend of an apparition of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. There never was.