The curve of Whitesand Bay stretches from Aire Point to Pedn-Men-Du headland, like a rough, rocky bite out of the Land’s End coastline. This bay, which encompasses Sennen Cove and Gwynver Beach, is a popular surf spot where huge rollers tumble in from the Atlantic. But in centuries past those waves brought with them some unexpected visitors. Kings washed up with the seaweed and flotsam.
Kings, kings and more kings.
Seven Saxon Kings enjoying supper, King Athelstan, King Stephen, King John and the would-be King, Perkin Warbeck.
“Whitesand Bay fronts sheer upon the Atlantic, but is in some small degree sheltered between the projecting points of Cape Cornwall and Land’s End. Hence perhaps the comparative calm of the waves that roll in upon those white sands and hence the repeated landings here, of which history tells us . . . “Charles G. Harper, The Cornish Coast, 1910
Sennen today would not really be referred to as a port, it still retains a number of fishing boats and a lifeboat but not much more. Up until at least the middle ages however it was considered much more of a harbour, a safe landing place on this notoriously hostile coast.
In around 1337 it is mentioned, then called Porgorwethan, in documents relating to the Duchy of Cornwall and this perhaps in some way accounts for these seemingly incongruous arrivals recorded in what now might seem to be an unlikely location.
“Whitesand Bay derives its name from the delicate white sand of which the beach is formed; it is about a mile and a quarter in length, extending from Carn Aire in St. Just to Pedn men du in this parish [Sennen]. It is said that King Athelstan sailed from this place to the Scilly Islands, King Stephen is said to have landed here, King John also on his return from Ireland and Perkin Warbeck.”J. Polsue, Complete Parochial History of the County of Cornwall, 1872
Athelstan is a name surprisingly well known in Cornwall given that he lived more than a thousand years ago. An Anglo-Saxon king, the grandson of Alfred the Great and King of the English until his death in 939AD, he is said to have driven the Cornish out of Exeter and set the border at the Tamar as we still recognise it today.
According to legend he also fought battles on Cornish soil.
“[936AD] Athelstan finally expelled them [the Cornish] from Exeter and pursued them beyond the Tamar. Howel, the last King of Cornwall, incited his people to make another effort for their independence; he marched far into Devonshire but was again routed by Athelstan on Haldon or Howel Down near Teignmouth. Athelstan now entered the county in person and achieved an entire conquest reversing it through its whole extent. He overthrew the remain’s of Howel’s army at Bolloit near Land’s End.”Rev. J. J. Daniell, History of Cornwall, 1880
The battle at Bolloit is generally believed to have been at Boleigh near Lamorna where legend has it ancient armour was once ploughed up in a field. After this victory it is said that Athelstan founded St Buryan Church to give thanks for his successful conquest of Cornwall. Then legend has it that the King slept overnight in a cell attached to a small oratory at St Buryan before setting sail for the Isles of Scilly to subdue the population there.
It is said the King Athelstan embarked on this journey to the islands from the soft sands of Sennen Cove, returning to these shores, again victorious, a short time later.
Born in France in 1096 Stephen, Duke of Normandy became King of England in 1135 when he was 39 years old. According to the monk, William of Malmesbury, when his uncle King Henry I died with only a female heir Stephen crossed the channel to take the throne.
And the first time he set foot on British soil was at Sennen in Cornwall.
Stephen did not have a peaceful reign however. He and Henry’s daughter Matilda fought a destructive civil war for 14 years between 1139 and 1153. The conflict even found its way to Cornwall where a forgotten fortification at St Clement, Moresk Castle, is said to have been destroyed by the fighting.
King John (1166 – 1216), the youngest child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, became king in 1199 after the death of his elder brother King Richard I. This is the King John of Robin Hood fame and the man responsible for the Magna Carta.
It is said that John made his first visit to Ireland in 1185, while his father was still king, accompanied by 300 knights and a team of administrators. He had been sent to rule the country by King Henry but the mission was a fiasco. John and the young men in his train were described as “frivolous” and “out of their depth”. They were only successful in alienating the native Irish.
John returned from this rather disappointing conquest on 8th September 1185, landing at Sennen Cove in Cornwall. He too is said to have stopped at St Buryan Church and it has been suggested that the purpose of his visit to the area was because he wished to inspect the local mine workings.
In the second half of the 12th century the tin industry was experiencing a boom, something John when he became King wished to encourage. In 1201 he granted a royal charter that exempted tinners from normal laws and taxes and which also allowed them the right to search for tin on common land. This charter also saw the birth of the ‘Stannary Courts’. Cornwall was divided into four districts or stannaires which held their own courts, enforced their own laws and had their own prison at Lostwithiel. Each stannary also appointed six ‘stannators’ who met periodically for a so called ‘Tinners Parliament’, this unique system continued until about 1752.
Perkin Warbeck or King Richard IV
This story is without doubt the most interesting of all the tales of “kings” connected to the beach at Sennen, and although Warbeck never officially took the throne, the Cornish decided to crown him their king anyway.
“In the same fatal year of revolts (1497), Perkin Warbeck, a counterfeit prince, landed in Cornwall, went to Bodmin, assembled a train of rake-hells, assaulted Exeter, received the repulse and in the end sped as is known, and as he deserved.”Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall, 1602
Perkin Warbeck had first claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, one of the missing “Princes in the Tower”, in 1490. He then spent several years gathering support from monarchs across Europe with some success.
“The young man bore a striking resemblance to his alleged father, Edward IV, and had the same three body marks said to have been apparent on the king’s youngest son. He also recounted details and conversations from the English court that only King Edward’s youngest son would have known, and revealed an intimate knowledge of the English court and its workings. He also spoke courtly English. As a result the crowned heads of Europe believed him to be Richard IV of England.”Philippa Langley, Revealing Richard III
When he landed at Sennen Cove on 7th September 1497 it was Warbeck’s second attempt at claiming the throne from Henry VII. It is important to note that the first had been funded by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV and Richard III.
His arrival this time came just weeks after the failed Cornish Rebellion in the June of that year and so it is likely that he intentionally placed himself amongst a people full of resentment and anger and with little to loose. A people looking for a hero and a banner to follow. As a result supporters began flocking to him immediately.
He gathered more and more men to his cause as he moved up across Cornwall and when Warbeck reached Penzance the monks of St Michael’s Mount agreed to take care of his wife, Katherine, while he continued on his campaign. His Cornish supporters are known to have included a number of local noblemen, Tregloos of Brea in St Just, St Aubyn of Clowance and Hugh Godolphin. It is said that Godolphin joined Warbeck’s cause and may have fought with him at Exeter, so it is therefore possible that the so called “Pretender” stayed at Godolphin House near Breage, or indeed any one of these other noble houses, as he made his way across Cornwall.
A couple of weeks after landing at Sennen, around the 16th September, a ceremony was held on Bodmin Moor by a Cornish army of between 3000 and 6000 men in which Perkin Warbeck was declared King Richard IV and his Royal banner was unfurled.
Warbeck’s actions were now drawing the very serious attentions of Henry VII and the king sent a letter to William Courtenay in Cornwall, whose wife Catherine was sister to the queen.
“A characteristic letter of Henry VII is preserved at Boconnoc, then the seat of the Courtenays, addressed to his “right trusty and well beloved cousin Courtenay, Earl of Devonshire” and dated the 16th September 1497, so it appears that the rebels were at or around Bodmin for four or five weeks. The Earl was directed to circumvent the enemy, to throw out chivalry, to cut off foragers, drive in stragglers and huddle the insurgents together, who, wanting supplies and harassed night and day would be “discomfited” without any peril.”The Cornishman, 2 July 1931
Whether these actions were carried out or not isn’t clear but soon after Warbeck and his Cornish army marched to Exeter and then on the Taunton.
But when Warbeck’s scouts informed him that the King’s army was only a few miles away he panicked and abandoning his followers fled for Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.
The remainder of the Cornish rebels surrendered to King Henry VII on 4th October 1497 and the ringleaders were executed immediately, while hundreds more were fined. In fact, the people of Cornwall were severely punished in coming months for their rebellions. Hundreds were rounded up and executed, including many who hadn’t actually been part of the uprising. Tragically it is estimated that, all told, some 4000 Cornish lost their lives, which at the time amounted to a staggering 11% of Cornwall’s total population.
Warbeck was captured and initially treated well, probably because he is said to have quickly admitted that he was an impostor. But after he tried to escape twice he was executed at Tyburn in 1499.
However, there are still those who believe that his claim may have been legitimate, that he really was the son of King Edward IV and rightful heir to the throne. There is also an interesting theory that the Princes in the Tower were not murdered by Richard III but squirreled away to safety in Devon . . .
Table Maen & the Saxon Kings
A short distance inland from Sennen Cove in the tiny hamlet to Mayon is a large, flat, earth-fast stone known as Table Maen. This spot is said to have been the meeting place of a number of Saxon kings in the year 600AD. Indeed this story it seems is less about the landing of a ship and more of a business lunch, though it isn’t clear how all these kings arrived for the meeting, they might well have come by sea . . .
Some accounts say that there were only three kings present, but others believe there were seven. In fact, the historian William Hals claims to know their names, he lists them as:
- Ethelbert, 5th king of Kent
- Cissa, 2nd king of the South Saxons
- Kingills, 6th king of the West Saxons
- Sebert, 3rd king of the East Saxons
- Ethelfred, 7th king of the Northumbers
- Penda, 5th king of the Mercians
- Sigebert, 5th king of the East Angles.
The kings are said to have used the stone as a dining table but what isn’t clear is why this summit was held or what was on the agenda (or on the menu). One theory is that King Arthur arranged the meeting after the battle of Vellandruchar in which he and seven Cornish kings fought off some invading Danes, who had presumably landed at Sennen Cove too . . . And should those kings ever need to convene again it will signal the ending of the world.
“The wide curving strand lies very lonely now, and it is many a day since any shipping has been seen there save fisher boats . . .”Joseph Pennell & Hugh Thomson, Highways & Byways of Devon & Cornwall, 1900.
Sometimes when walking along the coastal path it is possible to round a bluff or look up from a rise in the path to see a stretch of coast before you seemingly untouched by human hand. In that moment time simply slips and it is possible to imagine our ancestors looking at the same view hundreds if not thousands of years before us.
And although Sennen Cove and Whitesand Bay are of course not entirely unchanged, I can still visualise Perkin Warbeck struggling ashore through the surf, that is the beauty I suppose of discovering episodes from history in the places where they happened. It feeds your imagination but also makes the past seem more real.