Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow

 

The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow

Alex Langstone


The legends and paranormal activity of the screaming skull stories form a fascinating part of the vast canon of ghost-lore and folk-horror. Within Britain, they seem to be almost entirely restricted to a few counties in England and are generally linked to the guardianship of particular historic houses. There is just one recorded in Welsh folklore that recounts a screaming skull at Ffagnallt Hall on Halkyn Mountain close to the Dee estuary. The skull is believed to be that of Dafydd, a Welsh prince who lived during the reign of Henry I, and if removed a wild shriek will haunt the house until it is returned, and a small fragment of the skull still remains in the house today. 

The only known Cornish example of a screaming skull was recorded by Sabine Baring Gould, from a diary entry in 1882. Where he states - “A more curious tenancy is that of Tresmarrow near Launceston, where the house goes with a skull. The farmer now there buried the skull, but the noises,  voices, knocks and trampling’s heard at night were intolerable, so they dug the skull up again and restored it - then the sounds ceased.”

I first came across this obscure legend on a visit to Launceston’s Lawrence House museum, where amongst the jumble of military, agricultural and domestic displays is the somewhat out-of-place but intriguing ‘Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow’.

The folkloric history of the skull begins during Cromwell’s war against the crown. At this time Tresmarrow House was owned by Sir Hugh Piper, who was Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I.   Piper was a staunch Royalist, and the original Tresmarrow, built in 1578 was razed to the ground by Roundheads marching from Launceston to Bodmin in 1646. After the restoration of the monarchy, Piper rebuilt Tresmarrow House and local  tradition suggests that he placed the skull of a Roundhead in a niche in one of the walls of the new building to remind his family of the gruesome fate of Charles I.   It may be interesting to note that a skull is carved on Sir Hugh Piper’s memorial in Launceston parish Church.

The skull seems to have been left alone for a couple of hundred years, until the Dawe family purchased Tresmarrow House in the late nineteenth century. One of the family took offence to the skull, and had it buried in the garden. However, loud noises and mighty disturbances began as soon as it was buried, and it was quickly recovered and placed back in its niche on the outside of the house. The screaming skull appears to have been kept in its original niche at Tresmarrow House since 1649, (except for when it was occasionally buried) and was rumoured to have been taken to Canada, when the Dawe family emigrated there in 1908. Tresmarrow House was demolished in the same year. The skull was finally returned to Launceston in 2001, which was when it came to be displayed in the town’s museum. Image below.


Interestingly, there is another tradition associated with the skull, and local historian and journalist with the Devon and Cornwall Post, Arthur Venning, reported that once it was removed from Tresmarrow in 1908, it found its way to London and was exhibited there as the skull of Oliver Cromwell. There were stories circulating in Launceston that suggested that the skull was indeed that of Cromwell, so it may be that a London collector had heard about the artefact and purchased it from the Dawe family when they emigrated. Whatever the case, the screaming skull has seemingly returned to Launceston and seems to have quietened down in its current home.

So, in summary, what if anything, does the only known Cornish screaming skull folk-legend have in common with any other screaming skull tales from across Britain? Well actually not very much. Each tale tells a different backstory. However, the one thing that they all have in common is a kind of guardianship for the buildings to which they are attached, and foreboding paranormal activity occurring when a skull is removed. In the case of the skull at Ffagnallt Hall, if the remains of the skull are taken, a shrieking noise will be heard in perpetuity until it is returned. Similarly, in Somerset, 18th century farmer Theophilus Brome from Chilton Cantelo laid a curse saying that if his skull were ever removed from his farmhouse after his death, he would scream, disturb and moan for all eternity.

There is one other human skull curiosity from eastern Cornwall that needs further investigation. On Looe Island, there was a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sitting-room of the Island House. Maybe this once had similar folklore associated with it?  Research is ongoing around this subject, and if anyone has anything to add, please get in touch.

For more folklore from eastern Cornwall, see my recent book From Granite to Sea
Art by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Friday, 5 March 2021

5th March: St Piran's Day

 


     
Ciarán was born on Cape Clear Island, Irish language Cléire, Co. Cork situated off Ireland’s south coast, in the sixth century AD where he was renowned for his miraculous deeds and his love of the natural world. Nevertheless, groups of Irish kings were afraid of his powers and were jealous of his influence amongst the people. On a wild and stormy day, Ciarán was chained to a millstone, and thrown from the top of a high cliff into the sea below. The blustery wind was blowing a deadly gale, the sky was black with thunderclouds and the dark stormy sea was a maelstrom, white with foam, and swollen with massive waves.

As Ciarán was hurtling towards certain death the sun broke through the clouds, and instantly the winds abated and the raging stormy sea became calm. As the stone hit the sea it floated, hundreds in the crowd above, seeing Ciarán alive on the floating stone, were immediately converted to Christianity.

Wind and weather remained favourable for our reluctant spiritual hero, and after many days at sea, Ciarán landed safely on the beach that bears his name today - Perranporth, the cove or harbour of Piran, on the north coast of Cornwall within the modern parish of Perranzabuloe. 

In the vast, remote and lofty sand dunes, overlooking the Celtic Sea, Ciarán built a cell and a small church. His first converts to Christianity were a fox, a badger and a bear. The Cornish people flocked to him as news of his teaching spread. It is alleged that he lived to the age of 206, at which time he still had all his teeth, perfect eyesight and showed no sign of old age. He is reputed to have died in a state of drunkeness by falling down a well. Legend states that he is buried at his Oratory in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall.

 
St Piran's Cross, close to the site of the  
6th Century Oratory, Perranporth' 

The etymology of Piran?
The letter C in Irish becomes P in the Cornish language. For example, the Irish word cenn meaning head becomes pen in Cornish, as in Pentire, Cornish language for headland. So it is easy to see why Ciarán became known as Piran in Cornwall.
           
Today St Piran’s Oratory lies within the shifting sand dunes. The Oratory has recently been uncovered by archaeologists, and it is hoped that the ancient building will be preserved and maybe future generations will be able to visit this incredibly important site of cultural and historic importance.

This once flourishing Celtic Christian community of Piran would have rivalled Iona and Lindisfarne in its size and stature. Nearby is the ancient wayside cross of St Piran.

 St Piran window from the medieval chapel of 
Sen Pyran at Trethevy, Tintagel, Cornwall

These days St Piran is widely regarded as the patron saint of Cornwall and his feast on 5th March is a day of celebration across the Duchy and in Cornish Diaspora across the world.  His flag is a white cross on a black background, said to depict the moment that Piran discovered tin, which poured from his blackened hearth-stone and today the flag is proudly flown across the historic nation of Cornwall.