Some houses are so much more than bricks and mortar. In fact, you could argue that they have been around so long that they have developed a life and a personality all of their own. Penfound Manor is one such house. Described as the oldest continually inhabited manor house in Britain, unusually it is a private home to this day, and with more than 900 years of human history squeezed within its walls and beneath its scantle slate roof it certainly has a few tales to tell.
“The old house has become as much a part of the natural landscape as the ancient beeches, elms and oaks which surround it. It’s grey stones have seen the centuries step by and the house has become gracious with time.”
The house that you see today dates from various different periods, (Norman, Elizabethan and Stuart), the earliest part being the medieval hall, but the manor itself was actually founded back sometime during the Saxon period. At one time Penfound Manor belonged to Edith of Wessex, the wife of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor and sister of King Harold. After Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings the manor was given to Robert, Earl of Mortain, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. That’s some serious name dropping!
The Earl of Mortain was actually one of the largest landowners in Cornwall at the time the Domesday Book was written in 1086, it was recorded that he owned no less than 248 manors including Penfound.
“In a dip in the land, at the source of a little stream, snuggling in the fold of a down, bedded into foliage, open to the sun, hummed about by bees, twinkled over by butterflies, lies this lovely old house.”Sabine Baring-Gould, 1898
Several generations of the Penfound family, who actually took their name from the manor rather than the other way around, lived in the house for roughly 600 years, from the 12th century until the 18th century. They have inevitably left their mark on the manor house and the Poundstock community. In fact one of the most infamous murders in Cornish history actually involved the Penfound family, you can read more about that HERE.
Nicholas Penfound & the Battle of Stratton
There is a fair amount of confusion in the early history of the Penfound family, as in who did what and what relation who was to who, but Nicholas Penfound is one member we know a fair amount about. He was born sometime around 1600 and was the son of Thomas Penfound. It is said that it was Nicholas who enlarged the manor house in the 17th century, (although this may also have been a relation called Arthur Penfound who we will hear more of later). Nicholas is best remembered however for taking part in the Civil War battle at Stratton in Cornwall on the 16th May 1643. This was also the day he died.
During the early days of the civil war Cornwall was under Royalist control but all that was in jeopardy when in May 1643 a Roundhead army crossed the Tamar and prepared to attack. The force of 5,400 infantry, 200 horse, 23 cannon and a great mortar was commanded by the Earl of Stamford. The Cornish leaders, Sir Ralph Hopton and Sir Bevil Grenville, were outnumbered with less than 3000 men with them when they attacked Stamford’s army on a hill near Stratton. The battle lasted for hours but eventually the Cornish were victorious. Nicholas Penfound, however, a staunch supporter of the king, was sadly killed in the fighting.
Nicholas’ son Thomas inherited and legend has it that he planted a Judas Tree in the garden of Penfound manor as a symbol of Thomas Cromwell’s betrayal of King Charles. That tree was still standing 300 years later in 1909 when it was mentioned in a local newspaper article, then sadly in 1930 it was struck by lighting and had to be removed. A sundial now stands in its place in the courtyard.
The Penfounds’ royalist allegiances would get them into trouble again in the 18th century. There are no Penfounds in Penfound Manor today because in 1759 they had their home and land confiscated by the Crown as a result of their support for the reinstatement of the Stuart line. The last of the direct Penfound line, Henry Penfound, is said to have died in the local poor house in 1847.
The Spanish Galleon & Holy Water
Unsurprisingly for a house of such auspicious age there are plenty of unusual architectural features. These include medieval oak doors and stained glass from the 15th century as well as granite archways with the initials of generations of the Penfounds carved into the stonework.
“Wrapped in story from its cobbled entrance to its crooked chimneys Penfound wears its history like a comfortable grey mantle, but not a history of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’, of statesmen, politicians and warriors, Penfound’s is the quiet, domestic history of Cornish gentlemen, of a country family adsorbed in the business of living, washed by the tides of their times but rarely swept away by them.”The London Illustrated News, 1969
Perhaps one of the most magical features is the ancient oak staircase which is reputed to have been made from the timbers of a Spanish galleon wrecked around the time of the Armada (there is no suggestion that it was one of THE armada ships however). The ship was grounded at Widemouth Bay and the salvaged wood brought to the manor and used to build the stairs in c1589.
The age of the staircase is quite obvious from the uneven, crooked treads which apparently creak so loudly that a previous owner referred to them as an excellent burglar alarm!
Another strange feature can be found in the Great Hall, now the oldest part of the house. The room has a huge fireplace and deep inside the chimney breast there is said to be a shelf with two bottles standing on it. These bottles, legend has it, are filled with Holy Water from the River Jordan brought back to Cornwall from the crusades by a member of the Penfound family to replace an earlier talisman.
“The bottles were put there in place of a bullock’s heart which previously rested there and had dried up after years of duty. That office was to keep off the influence of the Evil Eye which had been supposed to trouble the Penfound family.”The Estern Times, 24th September 1909
It was also said that if the bottles were ever removed then the chimney would collapse, so, perhaps wisely, it seems that no owner of the house was prepared to take that risk.
The Ghost of Kate Penfound
If there is one tale that is most frequently told about Penfound Manor it is the story of the ghost of Kate Penfound. Kate, the daughter of Arthur Penfound (possibly Nicholas) and his wife Sibilla, was born in about 1621. She is said to have fallen in love with John Trebarfoote of Trebarfoote Manor, the family’s neighbours a few miles away. The two families had long standing martial connections and friendly relationship but unfortunately a terrible rift developed when it became clear that the Trebarfootes were supporters of Cromwell and the parliamentarians. Consequently, like some Cornish Romeo and Juliet, Kate and John were forbidden from seeing one another.
The couple decided that they had no alternative but to elope, perhaps to Temple Church, Cornwall’s Gretna Green on Bodmin Moor, so around midnight on the 26th April around 1640 (the exact date is unclear) Kate climbed out of her bedroom window and lowered herself into the courtyard below. Tragically the girl’s father had got wind of their plans however and was waiting in the shadows. What happened next is the subject of some confusion and speculation. Some say that in his blind fury Kate’s father shot the young lovers while they stood embracing, killing them both. And some that the two men started to fight, that Kate was fatally wounded trying to come between them and that both John and Arthur also died as a consequence of the duel.
Whatever the case, since that night Kate’s ghost is said to haunt the manor, and is especially thought to appear each 26th April. Previous owners of the house are said to have heard voices and bangs and crashing sounds in the courtyard, and Kate’s ghostly figure has been seen crossing the Great Hall late at night. Her face has also been spotted, milkly white, peering out of her bedroom window, as she must have done 400 years ago, looking for her love.
In Poundstock church there was reputedly a slate monument to John Trebarfoote, the inscription on it read:
“That of Trebarfoote may be truly said
The love of mankind here lies buried.”
Penfound had changed hands a few times since it was taken from the Penfound family in the 18th century. In 1909 it was sold at auction to Mr G. Brendon of Bude who paid just £570. In the 1970s the National Trust wanted to purchase the house but couldn’t afford it and it was bought by Colonel Haynes. It remains a private home to this day, one of the things that actually makes it so unique – if sadly it does mean we can’t actually visit.
During the 1950s the then owners of Penfound Manor, Kenneth and Doris Tucker, opened the house to the public during the summer months. The couple welcomed upwards of 20,000 visitors until Kenneth’s death forced Doris to sell their home. The pair were passionate about the heritage of the building and delighted in sharing it. Kenneth even produced a small guide to the manor and wrote in it:
“This is not a stately home built and fortified by some royal tyrant to ensure more rest for his uneasy head, or flung to some fawning lordling in exchange for dubious and probably immoral services rendered. Penfound was built slowly, gradually, by ordinary gentry for ordinary gentry to live in and bring up their families in, and die. This house has witnessed dark deeds, petty quarrels, family feuds and great joys. Is there a prefab which has not?”
And that is perhaps what makes Penfound so different and so special, this is house is first and foremost a family home.