The Tomb of Sir James Tillie, Pentillie Castle

Pentillie Castle, built by James Tillie in 1698, is one of the best kept secrets of the Tamar Valley.

An elegant home tucked away in deep woodland beside a bend of the river, it is an impossibly idyllic spot. But this grand house, and the wonderful estate that surrounds it, also has one of the strangest legends in Cornwall attached to it.

A story that revolves around the life, death and afterlife of castle’s builder, Sir James Tillie.


The Life of James Tillie

James Tillie was born the son of John Tillie, a labourer in St Keverne on the Lizard in 1645. The Rev. John Whittaker, who seems to have known people who were close to Tillie, wrote that he had first been employed by Sir John Coryton, Snr. as a servant or horseman and that after his death in 1680 went on to serve his son, also called John, on his estate in Cornwall.

There is some suggestion that the Coryton family paid for James Tillie to learn “the practice of the law” and his own personal wealth and ambition grew with his academic accomplishments.

Through his intelligence, determination and hard work Tillie rose through the ranks to become a steward on the estate of Sir John Coryton, Jnr. and took on the guardianship of the younger Coryton children. He apparently used this position to continue to line his own pockets however.

The Coryton’s estate, known as Newton Ferrers, encompassed the parish of St Mellion not far from Saltash, and had been in the family for generations. In fact, Sir John’s descendants still live there to this day.

Tillie Pentillie
The Lime Avenue at Pentillie

In October 1680 James Tillie married a wealthy heiress, Margaret Vane, the daughter of Henry Vane, who had been the Governor of Massachusetts, was a leader in the House of Commons and Treasurer of the Navy. The marriage, which took place at All-Hallows-on-the Wall church in London, certainly improved his standing in society and swelled his coffers – “he had a good fortune or estate [from Margaret] but no issue”.

Tillie is often represented as a man with an insatiable hunger for success, status and wealth but this rather harsh judgement of his character may stem from a certain snobbery towards his humble origins. He was seen as something of a social climbing upstart perhaps.

The statue that Sir James Tillie commissioned of himself

But in around 1680 I think it is fair to say that Tillie seriously overplayed his hand, he actually managed to upset the king himself!

A Tillie Coat of Arms

In a time when heritage and breeding meant everything to the upper echelons of society understandably James Tillie mist have felt that he had to work especially hard to escape his beginnings as the son of a labourer.

It is said that he claimed to be descended from noble stock – his name was at times spelt Tyley or Tilhous – and that he tried associated himself with Henry de Tilly of ‘Woonford’ in Devon or the Tillies of Cannington in Somerset.

He had no connection with either ancient family but during the reign of King James II James Tillie somehow managed to bag himself a knighthood. The ceremony took place at Whitehall Palace on 14th January 1686-87.

The Palace at Whitehall c 1675 by Hendrick Danckerts

“Soon after King James II came to the crown, this gentleman [Tillie], by a great sum of money and false representations of himself, obtained the favour of a knighthood at his hands.”

Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 13 Oct 1827

But after the honour had been bestowed the king was informed that Sir James Tillie was “no gentleman of the blood or arms”, that he was just the son of a labourer and that the coat of arms he was using as his own belonged, in fact, to a Count Tillie of Germany.

King James II by Peter Lely

The king, the second son of Charles I, who was said to be arrogant, aloof and a little unstable on his throne, was furious at being tricked and asked his Officers of Arms, the men responsible for recording the heraldry of noblemen, to investigate. They discovered that the accusations were true, James Tillie was not of noble descent and he was using another man’s coat of arms.

What followed must have been a truly humiliating moment for Tillie, a man who was clearly trying very hard to fit in in high society.

“[The King] ordered the heralds to enquire into the matter; who, finding this information true, by the king’s order, entered his chamber in London, took down his arms, tore others to pieces and fastened them all to horses’ tails and dragged them through the streets of London to his perpetual disgrace. Degraded him from dignity of that bearing and imposed a fine of £500 upon him for doing so . . .”

Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 13 Oct 1827

An embarrassing episode but Sir James Tillie’s rise (he still continued to use the title) was by no means over.

View over the River Tamar from the Pentillie Estate

Marrying Up

According to John Neale in his book Discovering the River Tamar, when Sir John Coryton died suddenly on 20th July 1690, aged just 42, rumours of foul play began to circulate almost immediately.

“Sir John Coryton died a painful death in somewhat peculiar circumstances. The local rumour-mongers firmly believed that he had been poisoned and suspicion fell firmly on the shoulders of James Tillie.”

JOhn Neale, Discovering the River Tamar, 2010

And the reason for everyone’s suspicion . . . it was said that James Tillie and Coryton’s widow, Elizabeth Chiverton, were “friendly” before her husband’s death. James’ wife, Margaret, had already passed away and with Sir John out of the picture the pair were free to marry and Tillie would inherit the vast estate through his new wife.

The wedding took place in All-Hallows-on-the Wall Church in London on 27th November 1691, just 16 months after Coryton’s death.

As far as I can gather however the rumours of foul play were just that, rumours.

Tillie Pentillie
Pentillie Castle in 2023

But four years later in 1695 Tillie was in trouble again. His steward, Mr. Elliot, the man who had filled his shoes on the estate, was charged with “coining false money” – that is making counterfeit coins. The servant escaped abroad before he could be arrested but there were hints that his master had been part of the scheme and that some of the Tillie wealth was actually made up of false currency.

However, Sir James Tillie had little need for counterfeit money, he had plenty of the real stuff. Through his second wife he had come into an enormous fortune and a great estate to go with his ‘borrowed’ title, and he set about building a grand house to match. He began construction of Pentillie Castle in 1698 and when the building was complete Tillie had a large, lead statue of himself placed out the front, where it still stands.

And that might have been the end of the story had it not been for the bizarre circumstances of Sir James Tillie’s death and burial.

The Death of James Tillie

Sir James Tillie died in 1713 aged 67, a good age for the time. Having had no children with either Margaret or Elizabeth his heir was his nephew, James Tillie Wooley, the son of his sister, and I think it is fair to say that the young man had something of a shock when his uncle’s will was read.

Sir James had left very specific instructions for what was to happen to his body after his death.

Tillie’s will stipulated that there was to be no religious service, that after his death he should be dressed in his finest clothes, his gloves and his wig and hat. His body was to be seated in his favourite chair and his arms and legs were to be tied to the frame to hold him in place.

Sir James Tillie’s Mausoleum

He was then to be placed inside a purpose built mausoleum on the hill on the Pentillie estate known as Mount Ararat, overlooking the River Tamar. His pipe and tobacco, his books, some paper and pens and ink were to be left with him. Portraits of him, his wife and his heir were to be hung on the walls.

Some stories say he was bricked up inside a vault, others that he was enclosed in an oak-panelled room or, rather macabrely, that he was placed where his statue sits today, looking out over the magnificent view of the Tamar.

Sir James Tillie
The original lifesize statue of Sir James Tillie, restored in 2012

But why, you might wonder, did he go to so much trouble?

It is said that Tillie believed that he would be resurrected and return to Pentillie two years after his death. He wanted his possessions around him for when that happened and it is even claimed that food and wine was brought to him every day by his former servants.

But Sir James Tillie did not rise again, indeed it was reported that within four years his body had become a skeleton and according to a newspaper article publishing in 1827 his clothes, books and papers had all rotted away.

The story goes that portraits were removed to the castle for safekeeping and the bones were collected and interred in the churchyard at St Mellion. (But this story turned out to be untrue as the present owners of the castle were to discover.)

It is said that the statue that we see today at the mausoleum was then placed in the space where his body had once been seated. Supposedly life size, it said to be a fair likeness of Tillie, round belly and all.

The Real Resurrection of James Tillie

For many years it was believed that this whole weird and wonderful story of Sir James Tillie’s internment was really more of a myth and that his instructions had not actually been carried out, or at least only partly adherred to, and that his body had eventually been removed from Mount Ararat for a proper burial.


Then in 2012 an archaeological dig, which was taking place during the restoration of the mausoleum, uncovered a chamber beneath the flagstone floor. On further investigation this void was found to contain human bones and what appeared to be the remains of a wooden chair.

It was an astonishing discovery. After centuries of speculation there could be little doubt, Sir James Tillie had been there all along! And it appeared that his wishes had in fact been carried out!

It was decided that his remains shouldn’t be disturbed and the vault was resealed. It is, I think, a suitable twist in the tale that Tillie would have enjoyed.

A Cunning & Knavish Jest?

So why did Sir James Tillie demand such a bizarre ceremony to take place after his death? Well, there are a couple of theories, other than he really did think he was going to be resurrected.

Rev. Whittaker blamed his poor background. He believed that men who start life in humble circumstances become over-awed by wealth, which leads them to be overly “clever, dexterous, cunning and knavish”. He thought that Tillie had not lived well, “practising every enormity that was safe from the sword of the law”, that he had not lived a pious, religious life and therefore as death drew near he was petrified. This fear, Whittaker believed, had “extinguished his common sense” and led him to do these strange things.

Sir James Tillie

Another writer, commenting in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, who also appears to have known Tillie proposed a more mischievous motive. James Tillie was, he said, a man of wit who enjoyed a good jest, especially against religion and scripture. He liked to “unsettle the giddy mind”. This writer believed that Tillie was with his instructions in part ridiculing the Christian belief in resurrection but also playing a joke on those left to carry out his final wishes.

Visiting Pentillie Castle

I had been itching to visit Pentillie for years, ever since I heard James Tillie’s bizarre story, so I was delighted to finally go this spring (2023).

The grounds of Pentillie Castle make a wonderful place for a wander, the gardens are beautiful and the views down to the twisting line of the Tamar River are wonderful! The walk up to Mount Ararat to see the mausoleum is definitely a highlight of course. However, please bear in mind that the estate is still private and visiting is not entirely straightforward.

Pentillie Castle is still the home of the Coryton family, who inherited it again from the Tillies though marriage. The family do the hire it out for corporate events and weddings as well as providing exclusive stays for guests.

For us ordinary folk however it is possible to visit the gardens on open days which happen several times a year, check out their events page HERE for more details.

Author’s Note: There is some discrepancy over where James Tillie was born, some accounts give his birthplace as London. I haven’t been able to find a baptism record for him in Cornwall.

Further Reading

Borderlands – Crossing the River Tamar

The Story of Bodrugan’s Leap

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