Review: ‘Cornish Legends’ by Charlotte MacKenzie

The historian Charlotte Mackenzie’s latest book is a deep dive into the real history behind some of Cornwall’s most legendary characters. These are names that you will recognise, people that you will think you know about but Cornish Legends explores the truth, the facts, behind these well-known stories and confirms that real life is just as intriguing as myth.

“This book explores relationships between historical characters and Cornish legends. The Cornish folklorists. How the Brontes’ novels were influences by Cornish folk tales and other stories of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell. The women whose lives were affected by men to whom the legend of ‘Cruel Coppinger’ may have been based. When and how the Cornish woman Mary Broad’s experiences were reinvented to create the legendary Mary Bryant. The choice of subjects make it clear that ‘legends’ is not used here to refer only to folk lore.”

Back Cover, Cornish Legends, 2022

Charlotte and I have never met, although she and I have exchanged emails over the years and she has always provided me with insightful notes and helpful pointers for my work, so I was delighted when she asked me to review her latest book.

Her work tends of focus on women’s stories and the lesser known aspects of history, all written with a astute academic eye, and her previous published work includes Merchants & Smugglers in 18th century Cornwall, Mary Board, the documentary and Women Writers & Georgian Cornwall.

Charlotte’s new book Cornish Legends is a series of thoroughly researched essays, the result of seven years work, digging into the real lives of historic individuals and at times comparing this with their legendary incarnations.

Using family law records, newspaper archives and church court records, as well as numerous other sources, Charlotte reveals the story of the three women connected to the notorious character, Cruel Coppinger. Beyond Rev. Hawker’s much repeated account of this smuggler and wrecker there is a gripping sometimes brutal true tale. It is a fascinating glimpse into the private lives of the 18th century and the machinations behind the business dealings of this enigmatic villain.

The life of Mary Board/Bryant, the Cornish convict famous for her escape from Port Jackson after being transported on the First Fleet, is covered in detail too, with particular focus on the facts of her life versus the mythology that has formed over the years about this woman and her character. And the mystery of what might have happened to her after her return to Cornwall is also discussed.

Another chapter explores the influence of Georgian Cornwall and the Branwell family on the writing of the Brontes sisters, in particular their Cornish aunt Elizabeth Branwell. And the next essay takes a closer look at this woman, her life in Penzance and how elements of her family circumstances and her tales of shipwrecks and the supernatural may have found their way into her nieces’ books.

The lives of some of Cornwall’s famous folklorists, such as Robert Hunt and William Bottrell, are also discussed. Again this is a fascinating glimpse into the background and motivation of those men to whom we owe much of our knowledge of Cornish folk tales.

Bottrell’s folk tales evoked the ‘intensely Cornish Cornwall’ created by liminal experiences and narratives of landscape, history and imagination.”

Cornish Legends, Charlotte Mackenzie, 2022

Interview with the Author

  • Charlotte, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your connections to Cornwall? 

“It was my favourite childhood holiday destination and much later I discovered some of my family predecessors farmed here for many generations. Jane Branwell (aunt of the Brontes) witnessed the wedding of two of my 4 x great grandparents.”

  • When do you think your passion for the people of the past and history in general started? 

“There’s an old fashioned report from my first school which says I enjoyed the stories in history. I used up a whole notebook when we were asked to imagine being at sea onboard Drake’s ship.”

  • Of all the essays in this book which one did you enjoy researching/writing the most? Which one stays with you? 

“Cornish legends brings together work I completed over seven years. I enjoy the open ended quest and the unanswered questions remain. What became of Mary Copinger and Mary Broad? Where were the Branwell sisters working? Is there anything more to be discovered about William Bottrell’s travels?”

  • What drives you to write about these fascinating but quite obscure characters and episodes from Cornwall’s history? 

“Cornish legends is about people who have been written about, some many times. I like finding out what really happened. In Cornwall the two thirds of people who were not engaged in eighteenth century mining, the fifty per cent who were women, and the 97 per cent who weren’t members of early Methodist societies lived whole lives here too.”

Final Thoughts

As someone who is drawn to the mysterious and just loves the unanswered question this book was great. I would say that it is a must for anyone who is really interested in looking at the idea of ‘legends’ from a different perspective, exploring in depth the lives of people from the past, anyone interested in the origins of folk tales or wanting to discover the ‘real events’ hidden behind these oft-repeated myths.

‘Cornish Legends’ may be a little more academic than light reading but it is an important and entertaining book for anyone who wants to engage with these fascinating and far-reaching episodes from Cornwall’s past, or with Cornish folklore and the people who recorded it.


If you want to get a copy of Cornish Legends by Charlotte MacKenzie then follow this LINK

Author’s Note: I was not paid for this review, although I was gifted a copy of the book, all opinions are my own.

Further Reading:

Review: Matter of the Otherworld – the Ancient Stones & Megalithic Structures of Cornwall by Samuel S. Davison

Review: ‘Whistling Jack’ by Josephine Gardiner

Review: The Western Kingdom – The Birth of Cornwall by John Fletcher

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