Real Cornish Giants, where legends begin

In wandering over some of the uncultivated tracts which still maintain their wilderness . . . against the march of cultivation, we are certain of finding rude masses of rock which have some relation to the giants. The giant’s hand or the giant’s chair or it may be the giant’s punch bowl excites your curiosity. What were the mental peculiarities of the people who fixed so permanently those names on fantastic rock masses? What are the conditions, mental or otherwise, necessary for the preservation of these ideas? – Robert Hunt, 1896.

Legends of giants permeate the Cornish landscape. These legendary personages are prolific and dynamic. Cornish giants are often used to explain the unexplainable. To account for an unusual geological phenomena such as the Cheesewring or perhaps the baffling stony remains left behind by our ancestors, like Trethevy Quoit.

Giants built giant walls, carved out giant-sized seats or threw giant boulders like bowling balls. They left their giant footprints and buried their giant hearts.

On Carn Brea hill near Redruth there is a Giant’s coffin, a Giant’s head and hand, the Giant’s wheel and the Giant’s cradle. According to folklore all were the property of a giant known as John of Gaunt, one of the last of his kind.

John is not quite as cool a name for a giant as many of the other Cornish giants. Bolster, Trecobben, Wrath, Blunderbore, Rebecks or Cormoran.

Cornish giant

But the real question is what are the origins of these larger than life characters?

A Compact and Bijou Nation

Someone suggested to me recently (now don’t get offended) that the Cornish tend to be rather short in stature. Short, stocky, dark hair. More of a stereotype these days perhaps? But in the past did this more diminutive trait lead somehow to this plethora of legends about giants in Cornwall?

In the anthropologist John Beddoe’s book, The Races of Britain, published in 1885 the Cornish are described as ‘a stalwart race’. Loyal, reliable and hard-working.

“Superior to the Devonians in stature and length of limb . . . Cornwall probably gave the last refuge to the free British warriors, who were gradually forced back by the West Saxons into the peninsula . . . The Cornish are generally dark in hair and often in eye: they resemble the Scottish Highlanders in their warmth of colouring . . .”

So we were taller than the Devonians apparently, (more attractive obviously) but still not exactly blessed with height. Beddoe concludes that the average height of the Cornishman, from his survey of over 300, was around 5ft 7ins. The overall average height for men in the UK is around 5ft 9ins.

There was a theory batted around in the 19th century that Cornwall had been a refuge for the pre-Celtic people of England.

During the Celtic invasion the Neolithic or Pre-Celtic people were a short dark race of an imaginative temperament. The incoming Celts were a much bigger race, broad headed and fair and to the aborigines appeared big men . . . Giants. – J Hambley Rowe, Cornish Notes & Queries, 1906.

This idea that the Cornish were towered over by invaders seems quite common. So could this be the origin of Cornwall’s giants?

It is sometimes supposed that the numerous Cornish giant legends may originate from the Anglo-Saxon, and later Norman, overlordship . . . Cornishmen are relatively small and the foreign invaders probably loomed large by comparison. – Tony Dean and Tony Shaw, The folklore of Cornwall, 1975

Cornish giants
Cormoran, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Cornwall’s Real Giants

Not far from the Lands End there is a little village called Trebegean, in English the town of the Giant’s Grave. Near whereunto and within memory certain workmen searching for tin discovered a long square vault containing bones of an excessive big carcase [sic] and verified this etymology of the name.

The above was written by Richard Carew in 1602 and his is not the only account of a real life Cornish giant.

More than 150 years later in 1761 tin miners unearthed something equally strange in the village of Tregony. They accidently dug up a coffin. And this was no ordinary coffin, it was 11 feet (3.5m) long. While any other remains appeared to have crumbled to dust a single tooth was found inside. It measured two and a half inches in length. It was assumed that the miners had found the grave of an actual giant.

You see in Cornwall the giants aren’t just the stuff of legend. There are one or two who have made it into the parish registers too.

• Charles Chilcott

Charles Chilcott was born in 1742. He was what was once known as a ‘gentleman farmer’ and he lived near Tintagel. Charles was big. In his day he was well known for his gigantic stature and feats of extraordinary strength. These days anyone over 6′ 8″ tall is officially classed as a giant. Charles was 6′ 9″ (203cm) and weighed 32 stone or 208 kilograms. This was in a time when the average height was considerably shorter.

Charles lived a pretty uneventful life. His father William had died when he was 3 years old. In August 1768 he married Mary Jose and the couple went on to have two children. Langford, his son born in 1769 and Rebecca, his daughter in 1771.

Their house, Treknow, also known as Tresknow or Trenaw, was actually mentioned in the Doomsday Book. And Charles inherited the property from his mother Rebekah after her death. He lived out his life there, dying in 1815. He was then buried in Tintagel churchyard. Such was his fame locally that his death was reported in the West Briton newspaper:

Died last week at Trenaw, in the parish of Tintagel in consequence of an apoplectic [sic] fit a person commonly known by the appellation of Giant Chilcott. His height was 6 foot 4 inches without shoes. He measured around the breast 6 feet 9 inches. Around the full part of the thigh 3 ft 4 inches and weighed about 460 pounds. He was almost constantly smoking. The stem of the pipe he used was about 2 inches long and he consumed 3 pounds of tobacco weekly. One of his stockings held 6 gallons of wheat. The curiosity of strangers who came to visit him gave him evident pleasure and his usual address on such occasions was “come under my arm little fellow”. – 14th April 1815

Another real life giant was John Laugherne of Truro. He was 7ft 6in tall and known as ‘Long Laugherne’. During the Civil War he fought for the royalist cause as a lieutenant in the Calvary Regiment. It is said that it took more than two strong men to pull his sword from one of Plymouth’s gates when the Cornish Royalists laid siege to the town.

• Anthony Payne

By far the most famous giant (real one anyway) in Cornwall is Anthony Payne. Payne was born in Stratton, near Bude in 1612 and was a sporty lad who grew to be 7’4″ tall (223.5cm) and 32 stone. A great bear of a man he was also quick-witted and gentle.

Cornish giants

Anthony Payne

Anthony became the bodyguard of a local notable, Sir Bevill Grenville, and fought along side him during the Civil War. His loyalty and bravery gained him the attention of King Charles who ordered the portrait above, now hanging in The Royal Cornwall Museum, to be painted.

There are many stories about his formidable size and great shows of strength, such as carrying his friends up the steep cliffs near Stratton for a bet, one tucked under each arm. Making him a jerkin (a waistcoat) took three whole deer skins as his chest was so large. But perhaps the most poignant story is that when he passed away at his home in Stratton in 1691 the coffin was too large to fit down the stairs. They had to cut a hole in the floor and lower him out that way. It then took a relay team of strong bearers to carry him to his final resting place.

A Gentle Giant

The legends associated with Cornwall’s Giants are many and varied. There was Bolster the bane of St Agnes is life, Wraft the terror of the St Ives and Porthreath fishermen. Cormoran and his wife Cormelian who lived at St Michael’s Mount and Blunderbore and his brother Rebecks who rampaged around Ludgvan.

But perhaps the most moving story is that of the kindly giant Holiburn. He was a friend to humans and spent his life protecting the people of Morvah and Zennor.

Cornish giant

Holiburn the kindly giant

But one day, while playing some game with a local man, Holiburn affectionately patted him on the head and accidentally squashed him completely flat. When the giant realise what he had done he was devastated and cried:

“Oh my son, my son why didn’t they make the shell of thy noodle stronger?”

Holiburn pined away and died of a broken heart. Interestingly there is still a large stone near Morvah church known as the Giants Grave.

The Bones of Prehistoric Beasts

In 1906 an unusual but perhaps logical explanation was offered by Rev. D Gath Whitley for the stories of huge bones often offered as proof of the existence of giants in the past.

At a meeting of the Royal Institution of Cornwall he said:

It has been proved . . . that many of the bones which were formerly said to have belonged to giants in different countries of Europe are simply the remains of the mammoths and the rhinoceros.

Mr Whitley quoted instances in France, Germany, Spain and Russia where the discovery of enormous bones had been taken as evidence of a race of extraordinary men. These had then later been identified by anatomists as the remains of ancient elephants or even whales. Whitley explained:

In prehistoric days many of the bones of the elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus were found in Cornwall by the rude primitive inhabitants and were by them considered to have belonged to a race of gigantic human beings.

Whatever the roots of our many Cornish giant legends the landscape and folklore of Cornwall is far richer because of them. And I for one am beyond grateful that our ancestors were such an imaginative bunch!

Further Reading:

The Giant’s Heart

Zennor Head

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5 thoughts on “Real Cornish Giants, where legends begin

  1. Very interesting read again Elizabeth.
    There is a giant legend attached to the Iron Age fort Warbstow Bury near me. There is a mound in the middle of the ring of earth walls, like a long pillow. Legend recounts that it is a giants grave, archaeologists think more probably a deliberately built rabbit warren for easy access to a good stew staple.

  2. The giant on Carn Brea (Gaunt John?) Was killed when Bolster, the giant on St Agnes Beacon, threw rocks at him and buried him. At one end of Carn Brea you can see a rocky outcrop of upright stones which are actually Gaunt John’s feet sticking out of the ground.

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