In the late 16th century a stonemason called Peter Crocker was living in the area around Looe. His work was so fine, so elegant and intricate that the gentry of Elizabethan Cornwall commissioned him again and again to carve their likenesses into their slate tombs. Almost nothing is known about Crocker but because of him some our Cornish churches hide a precious collection of the finest slate monuments found anywhere in the country. And because of this, some five hundred years later, we can come face to face with those wealthy folk who hired him. Perhaps the finest tomb of them all belongs to John Bevill of Killigarth.
John Bevill’s life at Killigarth may have been a simple one (though not without one or two dramas) but his descendants certainly made up for that with their own extraordinary exploits!
And the little estate of Killigarth that was his home was also to become the setting for one of the most famous romances in literary history.
The Bevill Family
The Bevills are another of Cornwall’s truly ancient families. Like the Bassets, Arundells, Godolphins, Grenvilles or Killigrews their name has been deeply embedded in the history of the region since at least the 13th century.
John Bevill had been born in c1515, the son of Peter Bevill of Gwarnack and Philippa Bere. Killigarth Manor was Phillipa’s family home, she had been born there in 1491, and it is thought that her name also gave the family one of their heraldic symbols – a bear.
In 1548 John married Elizabeth Militon (Myllyton), the daughter of John Militon of Pengersick Castle near Breage. John Militon, also known as Job, has become one of the many notorious figures associated with the castle, a place that is considered to be one of the most haunted buildings in Cornwall. It was said that Militon had murdered someone and had chosen to live in such an isolated corner of the country to escape justice.
So, John Bevill and Elizabeth Militon went on to have eight children – William, Peter, Phillip, John, Elizabeth, Agnes, Joan and Mary. Their son Phillip’s daughter Elizabeth married Sir Bernard Grenville and was the mother of the Royalist Civil War heroes, Sir Bevill Grenville and Sir Richard Grenville.
Fans of Daphne du Maurier‘s work will know that Sir Richard was the hero of her novel ‘The King’s General‘. The story centres around Richard’s lifelong love affair with Honor Harris of Lanrest and the book provides us with a picturesque, if fictional, description of John Bevill’s home, Killigarth, in the 17th century.
“About six o’clock I met a ploughman tramping along the highway . . . he pointed out the lane that led to Killigarth. The sun was high now above the sea and the fishing vessels strung out in a line in Talland Bay. I saw the tall chimneys of the house of Killigarth . . . It wore the brisk air of the early morning. Servants were astir. I heard a clatter in the kitchen and the murmur of voices . . . The windows were open to the sun . . .”Daphne du Maurier, The King’s General, 1946
The house that Sir John Bevill knew no longer exists, improvements were made to it in 1662 and then it was dismantled and rebuilt using the same stone in 1872. Jonathan Couch describes Killigarth before this final remodelling:
“On the top of the eastern hill and a little to the left of the road which leads to [Talland] church, is the neat old manor house of Killigarth, with its antique square-headed and granite mullioned windows, its respectable arched doorways and massive chimneys. On a stone in front of the house are Greek and Latin inscriptions whicb read: “All things are to the Glory of God; Freely ye recieved, freely give, and God will bring these things also to an end. “Jonathan Couch, The History of Polperro, 1871
But what of the man that lies inside one of the grandest tombs in Cornwall? Who was he? . . .
John Bevill is something of an enigma. It seems that he was a quiet country gent who spent his days mostly concerned with the running of his estate, sorting out minor disputes amongst his tenants and donating money to worthy causes, such as the upkeep of Talland Church.
He was a Justice of the Peace and Sheriff of Cornwall but strangely not until he was 59 years old. This late appointment may have been in part due to his inability to adapt to the swift societal changes of the era.
James Derriman, who wrote a history of Killigarth manor, concluded that John was perhaps a little “old fashioned”, a man caught between two worlds – that of Catholic Queen Mary and Protestant Queen Elizabeth. He has also been described as “an enemy of the reformed church” meaning that he may have secretly retained his Catholic beliefs despite the changing tides around him.
“There are some indications that he was of the older, conservative attitude which did not really welcome the religious changes under [Queen] Elizabeth. not only had he spent his boyhood in Catholic times but his long proud Cornish lineage combined with what we know of his character suggests that he was different from the grasping new men like the Bullers. He was Sheriff of Cornwall in 1557 – 1558 the last year of Queen Mary’s reign, when England was, however uneasily, a Catholic country.”
And there was one incident that occurred during his time as Sheriff of Cornwall that likely made this religiously conservative, deeply traditional man blush.
A Shocking Scandal
In 1554 the Reverend William Lamb of Pelynt, a small village just a few miles from Killigarth, was brought before the consistory court (the court for the Church of England) in Exeter for marrying a woman called Elizabeth White.
At this time clergy were not supposed to marry but it seems that Elizabeth had been his secret wife for some three years. Lamb was disgraced and had his living at Pelynt taken away from him.
Eventually he was able to take up a new post in the neighbouring parish of St Keyne, but this was not the end of his scandelous behaviour because in 1557 Lamb was in trouble again. This time the vicar was caught by the then Sheriff of Cornwall, Sir John Bevill, “in a very compromising position” with a Welsh servant girl.
As punishment the poor servant and the naughty vicar were placed in the stocks at Duloe for a day and a half! But more than this Lamb went on to admit that he was still partaking of “carnal copulation” with his ‘wife’, Elizabeth. By some miracle, despite the scandal, Lamb kept his living at St Keyne and was even given another at St Martin in Looe a few years later in 1566. It isn’t clear what happened to poor Elizabeth.
The Tomb in Talland Church
The ancient church at Talland stands on a steep hillside overlooking the sea and this was once the parish of the notorious parson ghost hunter, Reverend Richard Dodge. In the mid-19th century half of the graveyard of Talland church collapsed into the road. The headstones that could be salvaged from the rubble were lined up against a bank, edging the path that leads to the church door and its unusual tower which stands separate from the main body of the building.
From the steps beside the tower there is an lovely view out across Talland Bay and also to what remains of Killigarth Manor a mile away. This was the parish church of the Bevill family for hundreds of years and where one of its main benefactors, Sir John Bevill, was laid to rest around 450 years ago in January 1579 when he was aged 63.
And to say that his elegantly carved chest tomb is magnificent is an understatement in my opinion.
Made of local Delabole slate it now sits in the south east corner of the church, and stands as a testament to the unmatched skill of Peter Crocker and lost art. The detail is breath-taking.
On the lid is the full length, almost life-size, figure of Sir John dressed in a suit of elaborately decorated armour. He has a neat moustache and beard, very much in style of the time (think Sir Francis Drake) and a ruffled collar. Bevill also carried a sword and dagger, there are gauntlets on his hands and his head rests on his helmet. Between his feet is the figure of a bear, his wife’s family symbol, and the letters JB.
The family chest and a description of his life, also deeply carved into slate, graces the wall above him.
The family motto, Futurum Invisibile (the future is invisible) runs across the base of the tomb and one panel also records the various marriage alliances that each of his children made. Another panel gives a long description of his achievements, such as being Sheriff of Cornwall twice and personal attributes, his integrity in living a strong and steadfast life for example.
He had, by the time of his death, lived under the reign of three monarchs, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth and managed, according to the inscription, to maintain the “trust” of each.
Set high on the wall above the tomb are a helmet and a breast plate, both of which are thought to have some association with the Bevill family and Killigarth, though the breast plate at least is said to date from the time of the Civil War.
When I first visited the church and stumbled upon John Bevill’s tomb I was blown away by the craftsmanship and the skill of the carver but also that the monument had survived so complete.
It really is wonderful.
Beware of the Bull
There is one final chapter in this story involving Sir John’s eldest son and heir William.
Sir John Bevill died on the 20th January 1579 and made his Will the day before his death. In it he left £400 to Joan, his youngest and as yet unmarried daughter, and the rest to his wife Elizabeth and his son William, then 30 years old, who he also made executor.
For unknown reasons Dame Elizabeth Bevill renounced her son as executor and the ownership of Sir John’s possessions (listed below) was subject to a court case in April 1579.
The jury settled on William as the rightful heir and he went on to follow in this father’s footsteps as a Justice of the Peace and Sheriff of Cornwall. However, it is said that William, who died childless, met a rather unfortunate end.
There is a local tradition that Sir William Bevill was walking in his fields at Killigarth in June 1600 when he was attacked and gored by a vicious bull. Sadly he died of his wounds soon after.
It seems cruelly ironic then that one of the symbols on the tomb that William had had made for his father, indeed part of the Bevill family’s coat of arms, is a bull.
Note: You can see other examples of Peter Crocker’s wonderful work at Duloe and Lansallos.