Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, [1870], at

p. 185

Nancy Trenoweth, the Fair Daughter of the Miller of Alsia

Part I

"The story hath travelled far and wide,
 But with outline broken, and tarnished hue;
 Not in such case should it journey with you—
 Let me the picture's tints renew.
            *      *      *      *      *

 A workman's child; she had won the love
 Of a youth stepped down from a rank above.
 Think not to hear the hackneyed tale
 Of the prince, disguised, in the shepherds’ vale
 Wooing the maid with the milking-pail.
 The lad was only a farmer's son,
 Who grew the grain that her father ground—
 Mean and unlettr’d, as the swains around,
 With guineas twain to the miller's one!
 Of all the lunacies earth can boast,
 The one that must please the devils the most,
 Is pride, reduced to the whimsical terms
 Of causing the slugs to despise the worms."
                              Robert B. Brough (slightly altered).

About two centuries ago, an old farmer of the name of Hugh Lanyon, with his wife and only son, resided on the lonely farm of Bosean, which is situated on the brow of the hill overlooking the vale of Penberth.

Although the Lanyons of Buryan were reduced to comparative poverty, they yet had the pride to regard themselves as of some kin to the "olde gentil Bretons," who quitted the ancient Armorica soon after the Conquest, to seek their fortunes in England. Old Hugh Lanyon, according to the family tradition, was descended from one of the two brothers who came to this part of the world, from the town of Lanion in Bretagne, about the time of Edward II. The Lanyons, ere the time of our story, were connected by marriage with the families of Noy, Penrose, Trewern, &c., in the west, and with Milliton, of Pengersick. The farmer of Bosean belonged to the branch of the family which had long been established at Lanyon, in Madron. Frank, the farmer's only son, was said to have been as handsome, free-hearted, and noble a young man as any to be found in the west country, at the time that his parents took Nancy Trenoweth to live with them.

Nancy was also remarkable for her good looks. Her father was a well-to-do miller, and owner of a small tenement in Lower Alsia. His mill, surrounded with orchards, was as pleasant a spot as any in Buryan; indeed, the miller of Alsia might have been almost as well off as the farmer of Bosean. Whilst there was water to work the wheel, the miller's family had their fill of bread, when the farmer's often had little more than pillas or pease-porridge. Nancy's mother being a distant relation to Madam

p. 186

[paragraph continues] Lanyon, the girl was treated by her master and mistress more like a daughter than a servant. From the freedom and cordiality in the intercourse of masters and domestics, common in these good old times, the two young folks, in the lone house, were almost constantly together, and in consequence of the poverty and pride of the elder Lanyons, they saw but little of the rest of the world. Frank seldom went farther from home than to join in the games and manly exercises common to the time and place, where his strength and agility were admired by many of the high-born damsels of the parish, who did not then think it any shame to witness the sports that took place in the honest light of day. But the young Lanyon cared only for his fair cousin, Nancy Trenoweth, who scarcely ever left the lonely house of Bosean and its secluded inmates, except to visit her parents at Alsia mill, where there was always plenty of life and gaiety, when high and low, who brought their grist to the mill, would always have a dance on the mill-bed to the music of the miller's crowd, or the lively measure of some old ballad. On her return home, Nancy was often accompanied by her young master. Little either thought that what seemed to be merely such regard as a brother and sister might have for each other would, ere long, gain such an ascendancy over all prudential motives, that they would readily brave death and disgrace, rather than forego their thoughtless attachment. As Frank Lanyon's parents were now getting old, they were anxious to see their only son married, and by that means become more closely connected with some of the old gentry of the parish; when, after much urging him to get settled, by taking home one of the high-born damsels, who had made such advances as could not be misunderstood, Frank declared, to the great surprise of the old folks, that he preferred Nancy Trenoweth to any daughters of the Noys, Penders, Tresilians, Carthews, or others of their class.

The elder Lanyon, notwithstanding his reduced circumstances, regarded himself as the equal in rank to the proudest gentry in the neighbourhood, and declared that he would rather follow his only son to his grave than see him wedded to the low-born Nancy.

The miller's fair daughter was driven from their doors to the shelter of her father's roof, which was to her no longer the happy home she found it before she confessed her love to Frank Lanyon, it might be in singing the old ballad

"A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
   A heart as sound and free
 As in the whole world thou can’st find,
   That heart I'll give to thee."

The miller was glad to see his favourite daughter come back to her home. He said as long as there was water for the wheel, there would be bread enough and to spare for all. Nancy joined, in her duteous way, to help in the work of the house and the mill, but no longer took delight

p. 187

in the dance on the green or around the Maypole or bonfire, nor to take part in the sports of fair or feast. When her daily task was done she would sit pensive, sad, and all distraught. Through the window she often gazed, as the time with her heavily and sadly weighed. Little was she aware that he heart was gone past recover.

On the evening of Nancy's return to her father's house Frank came to see her, but the miller ordered the young man from his doors, returned his parent's pride with scorn, and did all he could to hinder his daughter from having any intercourse with the one whom the poor old Lanyons, in their pride, thought of too fine a clay to match with the miller's daughter. The miller's vigilance was aided by the jealousy and spite of Nancy's elder sisters and the other girls of the hamlet, who, mistaking Nancy's reserve and sadness for pride, took a malicious pleasure in watching her lover, and gratified their envy by informing the miller of any attempt of Lanyon to see his daughter; but the mother, seeing her heart-broken and pining herself to death, contrived unknown to the miller, that Nancy might sometimes see her lover, in whose good faith and constancy both mother and daughter trusted, so that many an evening hour the lovers passed together in Alsia land and orchard, or lingering by the well.

The elder Lanyon was soon informed of these clandestine meetings; and Frank, having now nothing but angry words and frowns from his father, and tears from his aged mother, found his former happy home desolate and dreary. The farm work, which ere while was a cheering healthy pastime, now became an irksome task;—to hack, and dig, and wield the spade, seemed to him now the most wretched life of man. When he left the field, the cheerless meal was passed in silence, with black looks from the father and tears from the mother, who was blamed by her husband as being the cause of what he called the disobedience of his son. When Nancy Trenoweth was the light and life of the lone house, Frank seldom left the homestead of an evening; now he passed great part of every night from home, and never returned to the house until after the querulous, surly old man had retired to fret, rather than rest, for the night. Frank was frequently seen, riding a favourite colt through Alsia lanes, and often the greatest part of the night was spent by the restless young man in the public-house in Buryan church-town, where he was always, of a night, sure to find many of the rollicking farmer's sons of the parish, with all of whom the young Lanyon was ever welcome. These youths, between seed-time and harvest, and at other long intervals when (in these times no green crops being cultivated as winter's food for man nor beast) there was next to nothing to do on land, made three or four or often more trips to France every year, for liquors, silks, lace, salt, and whatever else could be readily disposed of. This kind of free trade has never been regarded by us, west-country people, as in any way wrong; at least, it was held in honour then, when all the gentry of the country

p. 188

had a venture, and many of the town. There was then but little interference on the part of the Preventive service, and the chance of having a brush with the revenue cutter only added zest to the sport. The riding officer, who was generally as great a smuggler as those who honestly avowed the trade, took care to give a wide berth when goods were landing at the coves, and until shared among the crew and removed to some of the farm houses near, or until disposed to those who often came from scores of miles to the eastward for goods landed in the three western parishes.

The young Lanyon's absence from home became more and more frequent to avoid the sullen silence, black looks, or outrageous abuse that old Hugh Lanyon was sure to give wife and son if he by chance remained in the house of an evening. In consequence of this unhappy life the young man (who always took the lead among those of his age) soon formed a band of the most venturous of his comrades, who among then procured a large decked boat, to be built, for the sake of visiting the other side of the Channel later in the season than they could venture in their open boats. The elder Lanyon (in spite of the mother's tears and prayers that her son would remain at home) did all he could to make the young man's home uncomfortable, to cause him to join these smuggling expeditions, perhaps in the hope that long absence at sea would make him forget the hated Trenoweths. Before Frank started on the winter's trip his mother begged him to give up the hazardous seafaring life, to which he became so much the more attached because his father always received him with frowns, and often drove him from his doors with abuse; yet, before trusting himself to the winter's winds and waves, he wished to be reconciled, and leave in peace with the old man; but all his attempts to soften the heart of his father were repelled with such harshness and insult by the old Lanyon that the son swore he would no more darken the doors, but seek his own living on sea or land.

After taking a sad farewell of his sorrow-stricken mother he went, for the last time, to meet Nancy at the accustomed place in Alsia Bottom, near the noted spring of Alsia, * which was then in great repute as a holy

p. 189

well. Here they exchanged many vows of eternal constancy; swore, by the sign of salvation that stood near the holy fount, to be ever true and constant; held a ring between them in the bubbling brook, near the source of the limpid stream, whilst they called on all the powers of heaven above and the earth beneath to witness their vows of eternal love, through life and in death. Then the ring was duly placed on the finger of the affianced bride, and the silver coin broken, of which each one kept a severed part, with may other superstitious rites then known and practised by the love-strick youths in their teens, all of about equal efficacy to the ceremony of jumping over the broom, by which these solemn observances are now superseded for the sake of giving stability to the lovers’ vows.

Then, for the last time, Nancy was folded in her lover's warm embrace. And now that they were to take a long farewell, the night seemed like one brief moment passed, when the growing light warned them that they could no longer stay, and Nancy accompanied her lover to the cove, where his comrades awaited him with the boat under weigh: and with the usual amount of vows, sighs, and tears, our lovers said adieu. It was remarked, when young Lanyon joined his crew, that he looked much

p. 190

sadder than was his want, and that many were the ill-omened signs and tokens which vainly warned them of disaster, when the flower of the young men of the Deanery launched their new craft and set sail from Penberth Cove (which many of the crew saw for the last time) that gloomy October morning.

Little cared they for the sinister signs and tokens of the ravens croaking and screeching over the carns of Pednsawnack and Porguarnon Cove, or for the dirge-like song proceeding from the mermaid's rock, near Lamorna, on which the treacherous maid, whose dwelling is beneath the flood, was dimly seen combing her yellow hair through the curtain of mist that stretched across the cove; but, when many months had passed, without any tidings of the young men were expected to return, without any tidings of them, their relations and friends became so uneasy that whenever a ship was known to have arrived at Market-jew, or any other port in the west, the anxious relatives of the youthful crew rode off to port in hopes of hearing something about them; at last a rumour spread that a vessel which had just put into Falmouth, brought the news that a Moorish pirate-ship, which was the terror of the seamen who traded to the Mediterranean, and of the people who lived near the shores of Spain and Portugal, had fallen in with a boat and crew in great distress, being without provisions and driven far off to sea, out of their course. The grief of old Lanyon for the loss of his only son far exceeded his former anger. Bitterly he cursed the pride that drove his only child to wander on the deep, and, tales of the cruelty practised by the Moors on their Christian slaves being then frequently related and much exaggerated, drove the old man to the verge of madness.

As if in some way to atone for the ill-treatment of his son, he humbled himself so far as to beg of the Trenoweths that Nancy might again come to live with them, but the miller, from a feeling of revenge, or pride, refused his request. Wretched indeed was the state of the sorrowing lonely old couple in the wisht and dreary house of Bosean: everything about the place, whether living or dead, appeared ill-wished and blasted. The forbidding visage of old Hugh, which expressed a union of selfishness, vanity, and moroseness, deterred all but the most hardy or the curious from having any intercourse with the old picture of ill-luck; and if any neighbour, by chance, out of sympathy for the bereaved, heart-broken mother, ventured into the gloomy abode that seemed to be cursed by God and forsaken by man, the constrained ungenial reception made it to be felt that what was intended for an act of friendship the inmates of the sad retreat regarded as an unwelcome intrusion, which was sure never to be repeated. Old Lanyon now seldom left his desolate domain, not even to attend the church, where he was formerly to be seen as duly as the sabbath came round. Perhaps the vanity of the old man (which, like all other ruling passions of foibles, increases with age) made him think that everyone would regard the threadbare condition of his homespun

p. 191

garment (ornamented as they were with the large silver buttons, buckles, and even tarnished lace that had passed as heirlooms through many generations) as giving too plain indications of the poverty he wished to hide.

The quarrel between the farmer and the miller became for a time the cause of a war of classes, within the very restricted field of action comprising the parish, which was all the world to the actors. The miller and his adherents compared those of the "gentil" class who starved themselves to make an appearance, to cows suffering from a certain disease, when they are said to have much grain but little fat. The grainy folks were not slow in returning the sturdy miller's gibes with jeers about his tolling twice or thrice, and other common millers’ tricks. Soon, the wordy war came to blows, and the whole parish took sides with the one or the other of the two parties. There was so much heartburn and contention between those who were neither kith nor kin to farmer or miller that they seldom met at church or games, at fair or market, but quarrels ensued which were the cause of bloodshed and of ill-will that endured long after the pair, whose love was the cause of all the strife, rested beneath the sod. Another cause to increase the ire of the miller soon became but too apparent. The ancient dames of the hamlet easily divined, from the cherished remembrance of the experience of their own youthful days, what would be the result of the nightly meetings of the impulsive and thoughtless young lovers. Before the winter passed, the wise dames’ forebodings proved but too true.

The miller tenderly loved his young and unfortunate daughter, and that her appearance in his house might not remind him of his grief, and that she might suffer less from the irksome life she led with her sisters, who most bitterly would rail when speaking of poor Nancy's shame, she went to live with her grandmother, who was known as the wise woman of Alsia. The old dame's maiden name is said to have been Johanna Pendre or Pender. Though now only spoken of as old Joan of Alsia, she was related to many of the ancient families in the parish, and was noted as one of the wise women deeply skilled in the healing art. Her salves, ointments, and lotions, prepared from the herbs culled from the wilds and moors, were in great repute. The good folks came to be benefited by her charms, to be relieved from the spells of witchcraft and the blasting of the evil eye. Many unlucky mothers came to learn how they were to get rid of the changelings and cause the small-people (fairies) to restore the stolen children, concealed in their fairy homes. By her divining powers An Joan told the fortunes of the young and numbered the days of the aged. Besides all these professional avocations no other in the neighbourhood was so skilled in making sweet-drink (metheglin), and in distilling strong waters from the herbs of her garden, which contained every plant of repute for its medicinal virtues, every sweet flower then known in the country gardens to afford a honeyed store for the hives

p. 192

of bees that crowded every sunny nook and corner about the old dame's pleasant garden and cottage, which stood a little above the mill. Here poor Nancy found refuge, and here, with the sweetest flowers of early summer, an innocent babe was born into a sinful world.

The old desolate parents of Frank Lanyon again entreated Nancy to come with her child and live with them. Still she refused all overtures of peace and friendship from the parents of the man she had loved too well; yet, not willing longer to be a burthen on her aged grandmother, or perhaps being desirous of removing farther away from the too familiar acquaintances who often (when pretending to pity all the while) bestow the hardest words that tongue can frame, yet few added to her sorrows with a word of blame. When her child (a boy) was about six months old, and the delight of its grandparents, she left it to their care, again sought service, and found a home in Kimyel with a kind-hearted old couple who sympathised with her sorrows, soothed the pangs of her yearning heart, and calmed her anguish and distress, so that ere long she became tranquil and apparently composed, but never cheerful, whilst she was ever thinking of the wanderer whom she loved more than life. Scarce a day passed that (after a hard day's work) she did not walk all the way to Alsia to see his child and seemed as one dead to all other joys. About the time that Nancy took service in Kimyel a sealed bottle was picked up from the sands of Pen-an-vounder, or Porthcurno. The bottle was found to contain a paper dated many months past, from the Bay of Biscay, directed to Nancy Trenoweth of Alsia, on which was written the name of the dreaded pirate ship, with the names of Frank Lanyon and his comrades. This message from the ocean confirmed Nancy in the belief that ere long she would see her lover again. Yet so anxious was she to learn the fate of her sweetheart that almost every time she visited Alsia the old dame, to pacify her granddaughter, had to cast some of her divining spells, that they might discover the fate of Lanyon. By some mysterious means the wise dame saw that Lanyon would return, but beyond there was a cloud they could not penetrate, and a vision, shrouded in the garb of death, always appeared hovering near.


188:* The venerated springs were always called Saints’ wells by the old folks of the West, and were generally known to them by the name of the holy person to whom the well, or oratory, near was dedicated, as Ventan Uny (Lelant), St. Ann's well (Trove), &c. We know not if the fount spoken of above is still regarded as a holy well, but many years ago we have often heard an aged lady who was born and bred near Alsia, and who was well acquainted with the legendary lore and old customs of the district, say that in her younger days, the saint's well of Alsia was almost as much frequented on the three first Wednesdays of May as the noted well of Chapel Uny. Mothers came from far and near, with their weak and ricketty children, that they might be strengthened by being bathed in the waters of the holy well. Moreover, the same old lady, to whom we are beholden for many of the incidents of the legend, informed us that it was not unusual for these pilgrimages to be the occasion of a fight between the women of Alsia and the pilgrim-mothers, when the good housewives caught the strangers dipping the precious babes into the enclosed part of the well, or the place from which the p. 189 neighbours drew their drinking-water. The old lady remembered seeing the stand of the cross near the well, but the shaft had been broken and removed before her time. We may remark that many of these cross-stands (which are generally flat stones of some three feet square, with a soffit in the centre, of the size to take in the foot of the cross) may often be seen, with the trough outside, in the face of some hedge near the spring beside which they were formerly placed. We could mention several. In one instance the cross has not long been removed to the meeting of some roads near a smith's shop, from beside the spring where it belongs, and where the stand might a few years since, perhaps, still be seen.

The holy well of Alsia was also one of the wishing, or divining, wells. Of a summer's evening scores of maidens might be seen around the well, eager for their turn to see what sweethearts would be united or parted, which they discovered by the fall of pebbles or pins, dropped into the water to the names of parties about whom the damsels were interested. As the articles remained in the water united, or severed, such was the fate foretold. The number of bubbles raised by the pebble falling told the number of years, or anything else, in answer to the question. Another method of divination practised by these nymphs of the olden time was by floating bramble-leaves on the well. We shall have occasion to remark, when noticing other charms and spells, that bramble-leaves are always used. Was the bramble a sacred plant used in any ancient religious rites?

We heartily wish that those who have these interesting mementos of the simple piety of the earliest Christians who trod the land would let them remain where placed by their sacred hands. Well and cross together always make an interesting group. Besides, many thus distinguished were ancient baptisteries, particularly when there was, as at Chapel Uny, St. Loy, St. Levan, and many other places in the Deanery a chapel or an oratory near the holy-well. There was also a spring called St. Ann's well, at Trewoof, noted for the medicinal properties of its waters. If the attention of our local antiquaries were directed to these vestiges of the past, they might induce the proprietors of the land on which they stand to prevent their farther removal and destruction.

The family name of Trenoweth (new town) is generally pronounced Trenowth. There are still many of the family in the west country.

Next: Part II