A few years ago I visited the Tower of London and for some reason, with all its 1000 years of history, all those momentous episodes that have played out within its walls, the one memory that sticks with me is standing on the spot where Anne Boleyn lost her head. I find her a fascinating woman for many reasons, because she was the mother of arguably our greatest queen, because of her cleverness, her famous wit and indominable spirit, but also because she was so utterly betrayed by all the men in her life and her name and memory were so thoroughly defamed. Her affair with the King of England, and the repercussions that followed, is the stuff of legend.
And somehow caught up in part of that legend is our little land of Cornwall.
Cornwall in the 15th and 16th centuries was a tumultuous place. When King Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 it had only been twelve short years since the last Cornish rebellion. Add to this unsettled atmosphere the constant threat of invasion from Spain and France and the Barbary pirates terrorising shipping up and down our coast and Cornwall must have been a real hotbed of fear and anxiety.
In January 1533 a contingent of Cornish noblemen travelled to London to petition the King. They wanted him to help with the defence and security of Cornwall. This group is thought to have included Admiral Spry of the Roseland who had, according to historian Edward Harte, had a rather serious run in with a French ship sailing into Falmouth harbour intent on sacking Penryn.
The Cornish men managed to speak to King Henry at Hampton Court, where he was spending his honeymoon with his new wife, Anne Boleyn, and they impressed upon him the urgency of the situation. He agreed to look into it saying:
“I will go to Cornwall myself and organise your defence – there is nothing more I can do than that.”
As far as I can gather these events are pretty much agreed upon as fact. There are, I believe, records of this meeting with the King and his response that he would come to Cornwall – it is what happened next that is up for debate.
Sailing to the Roseland
” . . . the names of the places match the music of the country: St Just in Roseland, St Anthony in Roseland. A whole book is needed for this lonely legend-haunted land, cut off for so many centuries, developing a life, a personality, a people of its own.”S.H Burton, 1955
There is a persistent legend that after the meeting at Hampton Court in 1533 King Henry VIII and his wife, Anne Boleyn, sailed to Cornwall. Their ships are said to have dropped anchor in Percuil Creek, opposite St Mawes, and close to where Place manor house stands today. This stretch of water was considered one of the safest anchorages in the area.
Despite some reports that King Henry and his bride stayed with the Spry family in the house, this is impossible as Place was actually the site of a monastery at that time. The Sprys have only owned the property since 1649, a full 100 years after the supposed visit.
There had been a priory on this quiet corner of the Roseland since around c1288. Place was a ‘house of welcome’ for tired travellers during the 13th and 14th centuries, King Athelstan is said to have given it the status of a minor cathedral and it was considered as important as St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictine order of monks. According to A. L. Rowse, in his book on Tudor Cornwall, in mediaeval times the cell of monks living here “kept St Anthony’s Light burning at the entrance to the Fal” as a warning to shipping.
The Ancient Church of St Anthony-in-Roseland
The Church of St Anthony-in-Roseland, part of the original monastery, still stands today behind the grand manor of Place, although it was partially restored in 1850. The religious complex that the King would have seen from his ship would have been very different from what stands today, although some elements of the original buildings do remain. A 16th century wing, thought to be the monks refectory, is now incorporated into the manor house and there is a wonderful Norman doorway to the church and inside four graceful 13th century arches support the central tower.
In Tudor times however the walls of the church were covered in brightly painted frescos including scenes from the trials of Saint Anthony, the murder of Thomas Beckett and Saint Michael with his scales to weigh the souls of the departed. The floor is said to have been tiled with decorative mosaic and the roof was richly carved.
According to some sources King Henry was very impressed with the ancient monastery and Church of St Anthony-in-Roseland and, although this was before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it is claimed that he wanted to take Place for himself. He is said to have sent soldiers ashore to inspect and take control of the buildings but they got more than they bargained for in the form of an angry monk.
The king’s men were confronted by Father Ambrose, the prior, who was apparently no ordinary meek and mild holy man as he as been a soldier himself in his former life. Father Ambrose gave the men a stern telling off for bursting into his church and sent them packing back to their ships.
“This so astonished Henry VIII that he came ashore himself to see this man, who could turn an army back. He tried all sorts of inducements to make him give up the monastery peacefully but Father Ambrose was adamant.”Edward harte, The Story of Place, 1935
Records vary as to what exactly happened next. Some claim that the king took the monastery by force anyway and that he and Anne stayed there. Some that he parted peacefully with Father Ambrose after visiting the church and praying there with his new wife. Rowse writes that the monastery did not become the property of the king until 1540, many years after the visit. Whatever the case the connections to the Royal couple are still visible in the church to this day.
Fun Fact – A rose by any other name . . .
Some say that Anne Boleyn gave the Roseland peninsula its name, apparently after asking her husband where they were she saw roses in flower on the shore and exclaimed “tis Roseland, forsooth!”. This however is highly unlikely, the name ‘Ros’ was first recorded for the area in 1261, and in Cornish it means promontory. The English ‘land’ was added later to make ‘Rosland’ and then Roseland.
Finding Anne & Henry
Evidence of the Royal visit still hides in plain sight inside the church of St Anthony-in-Roseland. Beside a small side door, which would have once led into the monastery and still connects the church to the manor house, is an old wooden pew. The front of this seat is decorated with heraldic shields – the arms of Anne Boleyn and of Henry VIII.
Anne is represented by five white falcons in flight. The bird was a symbol she adopted for herself from her family’s shield and in heraldry it is commonly accepted that the falcon symbolises “one who does not rest until the objective is achieved”, which seems apt given the battles she had already faced. Henry is represented by the three leopards of England.
Henry’s leopards can also be seen inside the church tower.
Of course, it isn’t clear how long the shields of Anne and Henry have been part of the fabric of the church, but their presence at all is tantalising. When we stand in this little church on the Roseland are we standing where two of history’s most famous characters once stood, while they were still full of love for each other and hope for a future together? Perhaps we will never know, but the idea is a magical one I think.
Notes on Visiting
The church is an incredible peaceful place, though a little run down these days, it is generally open to the public during daylight hours. Place Manor is private but you can catch glimpses of it while walking along the coastal path (see below).