Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
Houses they rifled, and the farmers’ spoil
Of goats and oxen did reward their toil;
Pillaged the cellars, and despoil’d the crops;
Unfenced plantations, and destroyed the crops;
The dread invaders, with destructive ire,
The country sack’d, and set the town on fire."—R. Trewavas.
Half-an-hour's pleasant walk, beside the sea-shore, takes us hence to Mousehole. Near the middle of this interesting old town we pass over the bubbling brook which gave to this place its ancient and proper name of Moeshayle (young woman's brook), which has been Saxonized or corrupted into the unmeaning nickname of Mousehole. The old Cornish name suggests a history. We may be sure that when the name was given
to the Cove some damsel of note had her habitation near the stream, and that was probably the only dwelling in the place at the time. Places being named after the fair ones (such, for example, as "Trevenen," which means women's town; "Bosvenen," women's house; &c.), is a proof of their high antiquity, as, in a half-civilized state of society, the women keep the house and "rule the roast," as we now find among the aborigines of America, where the squaws keep the wigwam, plant the maize, do all and claim all about their homesteads, whilst the braves are hunting, fishing, or fighting far away; in fact, the Indian settlements in Canada are known and named more after the squaws than after their lords. Centuries after these descriptive primitive names were given, Moeshayle became the market-town of the west, when few, if any other, buildings were in what is now Penzance, except the small chapel or oratory on the rocks, which acquired for the projecting cairn the name of Penzance (holy headland).
The next noteworthy object is the picturesque old mansion of the Keigwins, now transformed into a public-house. No wonder for these old gentry to be uneasy in their graves (as Mousehole people all know they are), to find their grand old mansion so degraded. Any person in the town will tell you that there is scarcely a night but, at the usual hour for ghosts to leave their graves, these unresting old gentry re-visit their family home and there hold a revel-rout best part of the night. There is such a noisy getting up and down stairs with the ghostly gentlemen's boots creaking and stamping, spurs and swords jingling, ladies’ silks rustling and their hoops striking the bannisters, that the living inmates get but little rest before cock-crow, when they betake themselves off. Sometimes these unwelcome visitors vary their fun by knocking about the furniture, smashing the glasses, having a dance, &c.: altogether, they seem to be a right merry set of ghosts, yet they often succeed in making the tenants quit the house, as few persons like to have their sleep disturbed by such troublesome visitors.
The demeanour of the spirits of these old Keigwins is altogether different from that of well-behaved, serious, christian ghosts; indeed they have at particular times made so much disturbance that no person in the house could get a wink of sleep, and, that they might be sent off if only for a time, the living inmates have had recourse to preachers and other pious folks; and they say that by their singing, praying, and other religious exercises, they have sometimes succeeded in driving these uneasy spirits from the house for the time. Not many years ago, within the memory of scores now at Mousehole—the public-house being then kept by J. R.—these nocturnal disturbances were renewed; the leaders and deacons of the society, and good men of the town, were called in, and, whilst T.R. and J.W., and others, were praying, those untoward spirits kept on at their ghosty work of knocking and throwing about the chairs and other furniture, regardless of prayers or praying men. They were,
however, ashamed and silenced for a while; but all the parson-power in the country, it is believed, would not be sufficient to put them to rest effectually.
One night, not long ago, the mistress of the house heard a noise in the large parlour, as if the chairs and tables were having a dance as well as the ghosts. This was followed by such a crash of breaking glass as if all the contents of the corner-buffet were dashed on the floor. The fear that all her beautiful old china and glass were gone to smash drove away all other dread, and the mistress ventured down, candle in hand, to see what was going on; but, when she ventured into the room, she saw that the furniture was exactly as left when she went to bed. The curious glasses, with twisted stems, and china punch-bowls, were all safe and sound in the buffet. Believing then that there was no one but herself in the lower part of the house, she was proceeding to go upstairs, when, happening to cast a glance towards the broad landing, she saw a number of gentleman and ladies ascending the stairs in great state—the ladies decked out in all the pride of hoops and fardingales, the gentlemen in laced coats, swords, and funnel-topped boots, with their rattling spurs: in fact, they were all equipped as they appeared in their old pictures, which were to be seen in some rooms of the ancient mansion a few years ago.
It is to be hoped that the old building will long be allowed to remain just as it is, without any farther attempts to modernize it, as it is now the only good example we have near Penzance of the old mansion-house of the fifteenth century. Besides,—the Keigwins, of the balcony house (as it is generally called) were persons of note in their day as soldiers and scholars. They are also intimately connected with the romantic Spanish episode in the history of the place.
A little below the balcony house is another interesting old structure known by the name of the "Standard House," said to be thus called from being connected with the extensive pile of buildings then belonging to the Keigwins, and the last left standing when the Spaniards burnt the town in 1595;—but, from the mullions having been taken out of the windows, the old lead lights replaced by ugly sashes, and other barbarities committed, the venerable building is now such a motley looking affair as might make an antiquary weep or swear. The Standard has been within the last few years divided into small tenements, and, unfortunately, the ponderous iron-studded oaken door, and the grand old stone stairs, at one time objects of so much interest, removed, and destroyed by these modern Goths and Vandals of Mousehole; but the style of the buildings, and the extensive remains of outhouses, afford sufficient indications that the original possessors must have exercised a leading influence in the west.
The ball, however (about 30 lbs. weight), said to have been fired at Paul tower by the Spaniards in 1595, and found in a field adjacent, is still preserved at Mousehole, and shown to tourists who may wish to see it at the present day.
Jenkin Keigwin, a member of the celebrated family, distinguished himself at that time as a patriot. When defending the town, he levelled at, and with his musket brought down, two of the Spaniards, but shortly after fell a victim to their overpowering force.
The good people of Mousehole have a firm belief in the wandering spirits who are supposed to inhabit a mid-region (of which the names are now ignored, but the idea remains), and who are often permitted to occupy themselves with the same objects and pursuits as formerly constituted their business or their pleasure. The faith of the people respecting these visitors from the world of shadows is often confirmed by their favourite teachers from the pulpit.
A very intelligent woman of the place informed us that she heard a preacher, in the midst of his sermon on the invisible world, relate how one Sunday night after the service at a country chapel, he went to visit a solitary cottage situated on a lonely moor. The footpath across the moor was scarcely visible in the darkening twilight; consequently, he confined his regard to the ground near him, best part of the way, so that he might keep on the path. A little before he reached the dwelling, looking towards it he saw three persons who appeared to be females, dressed in white, a few yards before him, and proceeding towards the house. The preacher quickened his pace, as he wished to overtake them; yet, whether he walked fast or slow, the white figures always kept the same distance ahead. He noticed that they entered the small court before the cottage, but, without the door being opened they disappeared, although there was no other outlet from the courtlage except the gate, which he was sure they did not re-pass. This surprised him, and it was then impressed on his mind that the apparition was that of visitors from the other world. When he entered the cottage (which he did by lifting the latch without knocking) he saw an aged woman seated on the chimney-stool in the large fire-place, such as we find in the country, where the fuel is furze and turf. After saluting the old woman, he inquired if any other persons had entered the cottage just before him. The old person replied that they were the only living persons in the house, but that the daughter was lying dead on the bed in the next room. When the preacher related to her what he saw, the old lady said that she understood very well what the vision was which he beheld: it was that of the spirits of the rest of the family, who had last died, come down to take the soul of her daughter away with them. The reverend gentleman told his congregation that he felt that the aged mother was right—in fact, he had not the least doubt about the correctness of what she felt sure of, from having known many similar instances of the kind himself.
Whether this story by the preacher to his congregation was that of a real apparition, or mere fancy, the pleasing faith of the old lady was not the less consoling; nay, if the profane will say it's all imagination, or whims, or apply the word "superstition," yet it contains one of those amiable and instinctive feelings dear to the heart of the bereaved.
As a sample of the demonology taught from the pulpit, we will give a portion of another sermon, as delivered by a local preacher a few years ago. The discourse was on the power and other attributes of the evil spirit. When treating of demoniacal possession, he illustrated his doctrine by the following case of his own experience of a combat with the old serpent. You must have the preacher's own expressive language the better to realize the scene:—
"Dear sisters and brethren,—Leave me tell ye now of something you may be sure is true, because it happened to myself. There was an old woman up our way, everybody said that she was possessed with the devil, for if the devil wasn't in her nobody could tell what the devil was the matter with her, as we say, for she would never rest herself nor leave the neighbours have a moment's peace and quietness with her abuse and mischief-making lies. There was always the devil to pay and a hell of a row among them. Well, some of the pious neighbours belonging to the people said to me, 'Brother J——, An Jenny is surely possessed with the devil, and you know that, in old time, the apostles and saints had the power to cast out the evil one, and they say that one here and there among the parsons is, by chance, found religious and learned enough to have the power to drive the devil, and put spirits to rest, and why not you? you are powerful in prayer, we all know. You can but try.' I didn't fear but what I had the grace to do as much in overcoming the evil one as any other man. There was one thing I wasn't very clear about: some sorts of devils can only be driven out with prayer and fasting; now, as you all know, few can beat me in prayer, but fasting I don't know much about. Some say that in old time it meant to eat fish instead of flesh: if that was the case we have fasting enough now, God knows, and too much by a long chalk for hard-working people; besides, I didn't know whether I ought to fast, or the old woman herself, to please the devil. Well, as the people said, I could but try; so one night, as soon as I could get through with my work and shut up the smith's shop (we had been binding wheels that day I remember), I went up to the old women's house (she lived all alone). 'An Jenny,' says I, 'I am come up to try if I can do ’e any good; I believe the devil is in ’e, and that you can't help the cussed wickedness you are always carrying on; so I will pray why (with you) if you have no objection.' The old woman said she didn't care; I might please myself, and pray if I had a mind to, or leave it alone. So I asked her to go to her knees too. So she did, upon the hearth-stone, and kept in the furze-fire under the tea-kettle at the same time. I kneeled back from the fire, at the end of the table, and prayed that all damned
spirits might be sent to hell. I prayed with might and main that all damned spirits might be sent to hell. I prayed with all my power, but little short of an hour, with all my strength and might, that all damned spirits might be sent to hell that very night. When I turned round to the chimney the old woman was gone out of sight, and I haven't seen nor heard tell of her from that day to this. I had never seen her before, nor haven't seen her since."
Some of the congregation inferred from the reverend Smith's discourse that the old woman was taken off bodily to Tartarus, but he did not intend them to come to any such conclusion. Whilst delivering his discourse the pulpit was beaten with his brawny fist with as much force as if he had been working the sledge-hammer in welding iron on his anvil, and the responsive amens were almost as loud.
Talk of being priest-ridden! who can blame the priests? This honest blacksmith was a priest for his simple neighbours, who would force him to assume such spiritual functions as would soon enable a bold enthusiast to domineer over the minds of the credulous and unthinking people, such as nine-tenths of our agricultural population are.
The refined inhabitants of town, accustomed to hear highly-educated ministers, disciplined in soberness and sense, and who are for the most part strangers of a colder blooded and less imaginative race than ourselves, may think the specimen of a rustic preacher's discourse rather wild and extravagant: not so, however; our unsophisticated country folks, like all other people of the Celtic race (Irish, Welsh, Breton, &c.), never stick at trifles, and much prefer a strongly-drawn, rough-and-ready sketch to a highly-finished picture.