Places for Posterity
Haunted Church Bells Ring in Boscastle and Tintagel in Cornwall
Boscastle Harbor-Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
When the people of Boscastle and Tintagel hear haunted church bells ringing from the sea bottom on sunny days and stormy nights, they remember this legend.
“The ship rode down with courses free,/The daughter of a distant sea,/Her sheet was loose, her anchor stored,/The merry Bottreaux Bells on board.” – Robert Stephen Hawker
Christianity, climate, and geography helped mold Cornwall into a unique part of Great Britain—the villages of Tintagel and Boscastle and the eternal sea shaped an enduring Cornish legend. Cornish poet Robert Stephen Hawker tells the legend of how the North Sea created a storm to definitively end a church bell contest between the villages of Tintagel and Boscastle.
Boscastle and Tintagel, Rival Cornish Coastal Villages
A seacoast town, Boscastle is the only natural harbor along a forty-mile stretch of coast between Hartland and Padstow. English sailor, sea captain, and explorer Sir Richard Grenville ordered the harbor construction, including a hollow curved jetty to absorb the power of the sea. His work has survived for over 400 years with little modification.
The ruins of Bouttreaux Castle lie on a mound above Sir Richard Grenville’s harbor. Edward de Bottreaux and his son Sir William de Bottreaux, probably Normans, built Bottreaux Castle between 1154 and 1189 and the name of the village that sprang up around Bottreaux’s Castle gradually became shortened to Boscastle.
The coastal village of Tintagel lies about five miles north of Boscastle and Tintagel and nearby Tintagel Castle. In the late Middle Ages, the Kingdom of England absorbed Cornwall and Richard, Earl of Cornwall, built a castle near Tintagel. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Twelfth Century mythical history of Britain called Historia Regun Britannica, connected Tintagel Castle with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table when he wrote that Arthur was born at the castle. Poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson also enhanced the King Arthur myth in his poem Idylls of the King.
Boscastle and Tintagel both have churches. Forrabury Church stands high on the bare hill south of the village of Boscastle and the Parish Church of Saint Materiana perches on the cliffs between Tintagel and Tintagel Castle. The Tintagel bell tower contained a peal of six bells that routinely and raucously proclaimed births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and Sunday services in Tintagel.
Mariners at sea eagerly listened for the welcoming sound of Tintagel bells to guide them safely into harbor. Whispers drifting through the village like wisps of smoke from cooking fires had it that the bells shattered the Plague and drove it from Tintagel by the sheer force of their sound and rhythm.
Lord William Bottreaux Orders Bells for Boscastle
Some of the citizens of Boscastle winced every time they heard the peal of a brazen, brassy Tintagel bell. Did they not merit bells in their own church tower to mark the milestones of their lives? Didn’t their mariners deserve bells to guide them safely to the safest harbor on the coast that Sir Richard Grenville himself had built?
Some of the Tintagel villagers taunted the citizens of Boscastle and implied that even if Forrabury Church had bells, they would not ring as purely and sweetly as the ones in Saint Materiana Parish Church in Tintagel.
If the rumors borne on the winds from Tintagel to Boscastle were true, if the bells did banish the Plague, the people of Boscastle needed church bells to fight the plague as desperately as did the people of Tintagel.
Finally, the citizens of Boscastle decided that they could no longer live without bells in Forrabury Church tower. Wouldn’t the Almighty's voice sound as loudly and sweetly in the bells of Boscastle as it did in the bells of Tintagel? A delegation of citizens went to the church council and petitioned for bells for the Forrabury Church tower.
In turn, the church council went to Lord William Bottreaux and petitioned him for church bells. Being a fair and generous man, Lord William Bouttraeux granted their request., although some said he bought the bells to banish the Plague. Sir William Bottreaux sent his emissary Michael Trewin to London to commission three bells for Forrabury Church tower from John Wickham, one of the best bell makers in the city.
Now, when the villagers of Boscastle met the villagers of Tintagel they parried their taunts about bells and no bells with a knowing smile. There still were no bells in Forrabury Church tower, but oh the miracle being cast in John Wickham’s shop in London! Some of the Boscastle smiles transformed from knowing to pitying at the thought of the bells being cast in London. In brief time, boasts of the bell order from John Wickham in London bound for Forrabury Church in Boscastle tripped off the tongues of proud Boscastle villagers.
John Pentire, the pilot who had the responsibility of safely guiding the bells to shore, had a fair-minded idea. Although hailing from Tintagel, he suggested that the church bells from Tintagel and Boscastle could ring in friendly competitions. Secretly he believed that no matter how robust the bells from Boscastle, the bells from Tintagel would out peal them.
The Bottreaux Bells Draw Near The Harbor
Aftter Michael Trewin had been home from London for many weeks, word reached Bottreaux Castle that the bells had been cast, blessed, inscribed, and they were ready to be shipped. Craftsmen had inscribed in broad letters on the finest and largest bell: “Lightning and thunder, I break asunder.” They engraved another storm message on the treble bell that said, “By name I Mary called and with sound I put to flight, The thunder crackers and hurtful storms, and every wicked sprite!”
Skilled musicians had tested the bells and pronounced their tone excellent. John Wickham, a modest man, said that the Bottreaux Bells that he had cast were as good or better than any he had ever made. The Bottreaux Bells were loaded aboard a ship called The Golden Fleece, which set sail for Cornwall.
The citizens of Boscastle decided that they would hang the bells in the Forrabury Church tower as soon as they could be unloaded from The Golden Fleece. The citizens of Boscastle made their peace with the citizens of Tintagel and they planned a joint Bottreaux Bell christening ceremony with Tintagel. They arranged for the Tintagel bell ringers to ring the bells of Saint Materiana Parish Church loudly and sweetly as soon as the sails of The Golden Fleece were sighted on the horizon. Chief Pilot John Pentire arranged to bring the ship to port and the men of Boscastle and Tintagel appointed crews in equal proportions to bring the bells to Forrabury Church.
Father Aymer de Rigand, priest of Forrabury Church, did not join the celebration and when a few of his parishioners asked him why he didn’t celebrate with them, he said that he feared that the people of Forrabury Church wanted the bells to be used to out ring the Tintagel bells instead of of praising God.
One night in early autumn, watchers on Willapark Point spied the sails of a ship and most of the citizens of Boscastle hurried to the cliffs. Chief Pilot John Pentire had left home for the ship several hours before and everyone felt certain that the ship was The Golden Fleece, bringing the Bottreaux Bells home.
As soon as the lookout on Willapark Point confirmed the approaching ship was indeed The Golden Fleece, the bells of St. Materiana Parish Church in Tintagel rang joyously. The Golden Fleece skimmed along the coast, while the wind blew gently and the sea shone like glass.
Aboard The Golden Fleece, Chief Pilot John Pentire gave thanks for the safe arrival of the ship and the benediction of the bells. The ship’s captain replied with swearing and blasphemy and he shouted that John Pentire should thank the good timbers and the fair wind instead of the Almighty. The Chief Pilot told the blasphemous captain to listen to the message of the bells, “Come to thy God in Time.”
The Warning Bells of Bottreaux
Robert Stephen Hawker’s poem in Cornish Ballads with Other Poems described what happened to The Golden Fleece when he wrote: “Up rose the sea, as if it heard, The Mighty Master’s signal word.” Great black clouds covered the sky, the wind whipped into a squall, and the waves tossed and tumbled and raced to the shore. The sea drove The Golden Fleece onto the cliffs of the Black Pit, and she went to pieces. The onlookers on the cliffs swore that with the sound of the surf they heard the Bells of Bottreaux chiming loudly and solemnly, “Come to thy God in time.”
Father Aymer de Rigand hurried down to the boiling sea, hoping to find survivors of The Golden Fleece. He saw a man clinging to a spar and waded out to rescue the man. The man was Pilot John Pentire who when he had recovered his senses, swore that he had heard the Bells of Bottreaux ringing their solemn message.
The Bells of Bottreaux sank to the bottom of the sea, near Lord William Bottreaux’s castle, who some sources say deprived of the protection of the bells died from the Plague. Father Aymer de Rigand preached many a sermon about the sin of envy and the sudden wrath of the Almighty and many of his parishioners agreed with him enough to make no further efforts to bring bells to Forrabury Church. The church tower is still called “The Silent Tower of Bottreaux”
Robert Stephen Hawker says in his poem that when storms sweep across the bay the deep tones of the Bells of Bottreaux can still be heard in weedy caves beneath the tide. Other mystical Cornish villagers contend that at night when the sea is very calm and the wind is kind the solemn ghostly music of the Bells of Bottreaux can be heard repeating the chime that the Tintagel bells rang the day that the Bells of Bottreaux sank beneath the waves under Bottreaux Castle.
Hawker, Robert Stephen. Cornish Ballads With Other Poems. London: Oxford. 1884.
Bottrell, William. Cornish Ghosts and Legends: Compiled for William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. Jarrold Publishing, 1993.
Hunt, Robert. Cornwall Legends. TorMark Press, 1997.