Legends of Land’s End – Dr. Syntax, Dr. Johnson, Lyonesse & the Armed Knight

The legendary headland now known as Land’s End is probably Cornwall’s most famous landmark. Whether you love or hate the recent development there no visit to the area is complete without standing on that towering cliff top at the very tip of mainland Britain. For hundreds of years ‘Pilgrims’ have flocked to here for the mystique, the novelty and in search its perfect ‘picturesque’ beauty. And it continues to exert a strange power over our imaginations.

“[Land’s End] possesses a dignity of form and a regal isolation by reason of the way the coast recedes on either side. So much is the case that when looking out from its storm riven crest one often experiences the sensation of standing on the bows of some titanic vessel.”

A. G. Folliott Stokes, 1928
lands end ian niemanski

Land’s End is a place of legend and romance as well as a certain amount of whimsy. Those drawn to it have over the centuries given its rocky features a number of unusual names. These nicknames have imbuing the very granite with personality, imbedded character into the distinctive, weather-worn pinnacles. Today the visitor can find rocks known as the Gog and Magog, the Irish Lady, the Shark’s Fin, the Armed Knight, Dr Syntax and Dr Johnson, Enys Dodnan and many more . . .

In this article we will explore the legends attached to this headland and the origins of some of the strange monikers now found marked on the map.

The Ends of the Earth

Although Land’s End is considered the end of mainland Britain, the so-called first and last point, it is not the most southerly, that honour goes to Lizard Point; nor indeed the most westerly, that would be Ardnamurchan Point in Scotland. It is however, the most westerly point of England (if you count it as a part of that country), it is the tip of Cornwall and of course the physical manifestation of ‘the end’ of our little island.

“League after league, Nature has been preparing her great drama . . . Nowhere else can we stand and say with such conviction ‘I am come to the end of all things’. For there is an allegory in the visit that we all must pay to Land’s End. An allegory of England’s story and a fable of our own lives: Someday we too must make an end.”

S. H. Burton, 1955.

Land’s End is one of those places in Cornwall that’s original Cornish name has been all but forgotten. It was once most commonly known as Penn a Wlas, a name first recorded in 1504, which translates as ‘end of the land’ or ‘end of the earth’. But this place has had many other names. The whole peninsula was once called Belerion (or Belerium) the very tip of the headland is known as Peal Point or The Peal but there are other recorded Cornish titles too, including Pen Gwaed meaning ‘Bloody Headland’ or Penn Gwaedd meaning ‘Headland of the Shouting’.

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To add to the confusion the modern Land’s End complex actually stands at Carn Kez, with the legendary ‘First and Last House’ not far away. But whatever we call it, this rocky extremity has found its way into our collective psyche. We are drawn to it. Something pulls us to the edge.

Early visitors

Since at least the early 17th century, when travelling for pleasure became possible, visitors have made their way to Land’s End. The non-existent roads in the area meant that many made to journey on horseback or even on foot from Penzance. One of the earliest visitors to record her impressions of the headland was Celia Fiennes in 1698. (You can read about her travels through Cornwall HERE.) But a little before Celia, in 1649, the poet John Taylor made the journey here from London. He recorded his trip in a book he later published entitled ‘Wanderings to see the Wonders of the West’. After travelling down through Cornwall, commenting on the people and places, Taylor stayed with the Godolphins near Helston for several days and from there visited St Michael’s Mount and Land’s End. He wrote:

“From whence I rode and went as far as I could ride, goe, or creepe, for rockes and sea, and there I saw the Island of Silly, with other smaller islands which are sayd to be 16 or 17 in number . . . I did cut my name 4 inches deep in a small patch of earth amongst the rockes at the Lands End and I am sure no man can go thither and set his name or foote halfe a foot before me.”

Lands End has also inspired artists like Turner and the poetry of Tennyson. But below is a poem written in 1852 by Henry Sewell Stokes, a friend of Charles Dickens and Rev. Hawker of Morwenstow, who wrote several books of poetry about Cornwall. This is his poem called Lands End:

At length we reach the Island’s western bound,

Like giant castle ere the Deluge, piled

These granite rocks amid the Ocean wild;

The silvery-pinion’d sea-birds wheel around

As if in motion to the solemn sound

Of the broad-rolling waves, and in the gale

The voice of storms shouts with a stern all-hail,

To greet the first proud spot of British ground.

This – this is our Herculean column, placed

As the grand barrier ‘gainst despotic power,

And distant as the day of doom the hour

Its adamantine ban shall be erased;

Fair Freedom, sculptured on the living rock,

Serenely smiles to mark the billows’ harmless shock.

The Spire Rock and the Armed Knight

About four hundred years ago there was yet another name for the very end point of this promontory – Careg an Pell (from which presumably the name The Peal comes) which translates, I think, as Spire Rock. This name referred to a towering rock formation which collapsed into the sea during a tremendous storm in 1648. As you might imagine this calamitous event was seen at the time as a warning of some impending disaster and some saw the sign as truly prophetic when the following year King Charles I was beheaded.

The Spire Rock, legend has it, was once topped with an iron rod or spire, said to have been erected by either the Romans or King Athelstan. (But let’s face it, given the constant battering from salt air, either seems fairly unlikely . . . but who am I to say?) Perhaps because of these associations with conquering forces the formation was also sometimes known as the Armed Knight and, according to Craig Weatherhill, after it was toppled in the storm in the 17th century that name was then transferred to the rocky island off Carn Greeb that we see today.

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The offshore rock now known as the Armed Knight from Carn Greeb

What this ‘spire’ actually looked like isn’t clear but writing in the 16th century William Camden, historian and author of Britannia, the first chorological survey of the islands of Great Britain, described a ‘watch tower’ on the far western point of Land’s End which was used as a guide to mariners. Interestingly Camden also noted in his survey that at one time this headland had stretched much farther west than it does today, which leads us neatly to the legend of Lyonesse.

Lyonesse

Perhaps the most famous legend associated with Land’s End is the tale of the inundation of Lyonesse. The story of this sunken kingdom, which was said to have stretched from Land’s End to the Scilly Isles, is one of many similar myths across the world involving lands submerged by freak tidal waves. Lyonesse was said to have had many ‘fair towns’, 140 churches and large plains of low-lying fertile farm land. All this is said to have disappeared in one night.

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Gog and Magog

However far fetched this sounds there is actually some evidence that this legend is based on real events. One clue comes from a collection of nine manuscripts originally compiled by King Alfred the Great in Wessex in c890 and updated between the 9th and 12th centuries. Known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this ‘book’ does record a great flood.

“This year 1014 on St Michael’s Mass Eve came that mickle sea flood widely through this land and it run up so far as never at no time before, and it drowned many towns and mankind too, innumerable to be counted.”

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Other ‘evidence’ comes from folklore memories. The story of Trevilian (or Trevelyan) the sole survivor of Lyonesse is particularly evocative. Some tellings describe him galloping in front of the waves on his white horse, only just reaching the safety of the higher ground at Lands End before the waters engulfed everything behind him.

Richard Carew, born in 1555, claimed that the rocks known as the Seven Stones Reef were believed by Cornish sailors to be the remains of this vanished world, that the reef was all that was left of the highest hill of one of the cities. The seamen called it ‘The Town’ and told stories of snagging windows, doors and other household items in their nets while fishing in the area. Even more mysteriously they said that they could hear church bells ringing beneath the water.

These ringing bells are a bit of an ongoing theme, and in the 1930s a journalist, Stanley Brown, was staying with a family in Sennen Cove when he says that he was woken in the early hours by the muffled sound of bells. He wrote in his diary that when he asked his hosts about it at breakfast the next morning they told him he had heard the bells of Lyonesse.

Brown is not the only writer in recent years to have been fascinated by the legend and to have had an unusual experience at Land’s End. The author, Edith Olivier, believed herself to be something of a psychic and claimed that inexplicable things often happened to her. In her 1938 autobiography she wrote that she had seen the lost city of Lyonesse twice on her visits to Land’s End. Edith described what she saw as a fortified city that was “a jumble of towers, domes, spires and battlements.” Apparently she tried to tell as passing coastguard officer what she had seen and, to put it politely, he told her she was potty . . .

As my regular readers will known I am a great believer in the idea that the myths and legends passed down to us very often have some nugget of truth in them, and Lyonesse is no exception. Between 2009 and 2013 an extensive archaeological investigation called The Lyonesse Project set out to study of the evolution of the coastal and marine environment of the Isles of Scilly. The project confirmed that there was evidence of dramatic sea level changes, including submerged forest and field boundaries. Charlie Johns, Archaeology Projects Officer, Cornwall Archaeological Unit said:

“The new data shows that the 500-year period between 2,500 and 2,000 BC saw the most rapid loss of land at any time in the history of Scilly — equivalent to losing two-thirds of the entire modern area of the islands. After this the rate of change slowed significantly so that by circa 1500 BC the pattern of islands was approaching that of today, but with the dramatic difference of a vast intertidal area of saltmarsh in what is now the islands’ inner lagoon. Much of this would have remained useful land, especially for grazing animal stock and would have been passable with ease almost all of the time. It was not until there was an open channel north of St Mary’s during most states of the tide that the saltmarsh began to erode rapidly: radiocarbon dates suggest this is likely to have occurred in the early medieval period, after 600-670 AD.”

Dr Syntax’s Head

The rocky outcrop known as Dr Syntax’s Head is actually named after a 19th century cartoon character. William Coombe created the comic verse ‘The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque’ in 1809, illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson. The cartoon was first published in serial form in a poetry magazine and is the story of a fictional, rural schoolmaster and pastor who attempts to make his fortune by going travelling, and then writing and illustrating a book about his experiences of quaint and unusual places.

An image from the Dr. Syntax cartoon, Dr Syntax loses his way.

Dr Syntax was said to be satirising the late 18th century trend of the aesthetic idealists, like William Gilpin, who flocked to the quiet corners of the countryside, such as Cornwall, in search of the perfect rural scene – the so-called ‘Picturesque’. The rock formation that now has his name does seem to bear a certain likeness to the character, it is possible to pick out the pointed nose and strangely protruding chin . . . if you squint . . .

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“Dr Syntax whose brow is furrowed by the wrinkles of the centuries”

S. H. Burton, 1955

Dr Johnson’s Head

The second outcrop given the doctor moniker is Dr Johnson’s Head, named after the writer and moralist, Samuel Johnson. It is said that the lichen covered stones bear a resemblance to this oft bewigged man. Writing about the odd shapes of the rock formations of Land’s End in the 19th century John Blight commented:

“Around the north side of the promontory one is seen, leaning against a perpendicular mass, which from some fancied resemblance has acquired the name of Dr Johnson’s Head, and it is very curious that the moss and lichen grow more thickly on the top and hinder part, having the appearance of a wig.”

J. T. Blight, A Week at Land’s End, 1861
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Dr Johnson was popular in Cornwall for having written an essay in 1775 called ‘Taxation, no Tyranny’ in which he freely referred to Cornish independence. I assume his fans decided naming the outcrop after him was a fine tribute.

Seat of Storms

It has to be said that Land’s End is not always what visitors expect, in fact, during my research for this article, I have come across several writers that were disappointed when they eventually arrived at the place that they had long imagined in their mind’s eye. The cliffs here, admittedly, are not the highest on the Cornish coast but personally I feel that there is a power and a mystery to Land’s End that is hard to ignore. And I would challenge anyone to be unimpressed on a stormy winter’s day.

On the sea

The sunbeams tremble and the purple light

Illumes the dark Bolerium, seat of storms!

Dear are his granite wilds, his schistine rocks

Encircled by the waves, where to the gale

The haggard cormorant shrieks and far beyond

Where the great ocean mingles with the sky,

Behold the cloud-like islands, grey in the mist.

Sir Humphry Davy
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Enys Dodnan with the Armed Knight and Longships Lighthouse

Final Thoughts

“So, this tough island should end in granite strength and stern majesty.”

S. H. Burton, 1955

For hundreds of years, while shipping, sailors and fearful passengers dreaded passing this rocky headland, on ‘terra firma’ visitors flocked here. Still today, especially during the summer months, the cliff edges will be worn bare of vegetation by all the feet coming to stand at the start and the finish of mainland Britain.

For so many intrepid walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders and golfers (yes, in 2005 Surrey-based golfer David Sullivan walked from John o’ Groats to Land’s End hitting golf balls all the way) it marks the beginning or the end of the traditional 874 mile journey traversing the length of the country. It has, I feel, a rightful place in our heads and our hearts.

In a land already full of legends, Land’s End and the stories attached to it have a firm grip on our collective psyche and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Further Reading

Chapel Carn Brea – Cornwall’s First and Last Hill

The Raising of Logan Rock

Tater Du Lighthouse

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One thought on “Legends of Land’s End – Dr. Syntax, Dr. Johnson, Lyonesse & the Armed Knight

  1. Have a read of The story of the Vivians by Stanley Vivian. The history of the Vivians before moving to Trelowarren and after. Their first home was my old home Trevedran, St Buryan. The legend was that one of the family was the last to ride to the main land when Lyonesse was engulfed. They always kept a white horse saddled in the stable to escape and it can be seen on the pub sign for the Vivian arms move the coat of arms.

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