More on choughs

I’ve posted several times in the past about those handsome, red-footed, red-beaked corvids: choughs. They were once widespread in the British Isles, but are now particularly associated with Cornwall, where they started to breed and flourish again early this century.

I came across recently a sequence of online newspaper articles that surprised me: images of choughs are to be seen in a convent in Salamanca, Spain, in the region of Castile and León.

The Real Convento de Santa Clara there, founded in 1238, now an art museum, has a remarkable range of over 150 medieval heraldic paintings, concealed for centuries by an 18C false ceiling. Among these are devices or representing choughs (unfortunately I can’t post an image for copyright reasons).

Spanish researchers recently concluded that they are the emblem of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and lord chancellor) murdered at the encouragement of Henry II in 1170 because of a conflict over royal and clerical power. Repenting of this act, Henry instructed his descendants to venerate Thomas, who was canonised as a martyr saint in 1173.

So how did this troublesome priest become associated with choughs? According to one set of legends, after his violent murder by sword-wielding knights, a crow hopped (or flew?) into the cathedral and stepped and dipped its beak on the bloody corpse – it became a chough.

Among Henry’s descendants was his granddaughter, Queen Berenguela I of Castile (1180-1246, usually called Berengaria by the English), daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor Plantagenet – who was herself the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, promoter of the Angevin empire (named after English realms in Anjou and elsewhere).

She represented the history of Plantagenet and Angevin monarchs encrypted in this sequence of painted heraldic devices and other images on the wooden ceiling: the choughs appear next to a golden castle, emblem of the kingdom of Castile.

Spanish researchers have concluded that Berengaria came to Salamanca at the end of her life to tell her royal family’s story through this ceiling iconography and re-establish her position as Queen of León, Lady of Salamanca, and mother of saintly Ferdinand III, reconquerer of Córdoba and Seville. She unified the kingdoms of León and Castile through her marriage to Alfonso IX.

The researchers recalled that the coat of arms of the city of Canterbury, devised many years after Thomas’s martyrdom, depicts three red-beaked choughs beneath the golden lion of the Plantagenets. So the Cornish chough had become synonymous with the cult of St Thomas, and by extension with this early medieval royal dynasty, and its links with Spanish royalty. The shields on the ceiling of this Salamanca convent appear to predate the taking up of this distinctive bird by the Becket family, and the city of Canterbury, by centuries.

Two English brothers, who seem to have known Thomas and fled England after his martyrdom, founded a church dedicated in his name very near to the Salamaca convent a few years later. The cult of St Thomas became one of the most powerful not just in England, as Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrated in the 14C, but across Europe.

By the way, Berengaria’s aunt, who had the same name (but with the sobriquet ‘of Navarre’), was shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus on her way to join her royal fiancé, Richard I (the Lionheart king of England), who had embarked on the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. She was held hostage by the Byzantine ruler of Cyprus until rescued by her gallant husband, who went on to conquer the whole island and add it to his empire.

I’ve occasionally mentioned in earlier posts my childhood year in Cyprus. We lived near a village called Berengaria, after the English queen who rarely met her crusading husband, and didn’t visit England until after his death. When she did, she was said to have been present at the translation of St Thomas’s relics in 1220.

After some more online digging I found that choughs feature in a number of other coats of arms. Among them are those of two famous English Thomases, who perhaps a little presumptuously adopted the Canterbury martyr’s emblem as a kind of homage.

Wolsey coat of arms

Attribution: SemperAdiuvans, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) was a cardinal and statesman, and an early influence on the reign of Henry VIII, for whom he rose to the rank of lord chancellor and chief adviser. This was also the coat of arms of Christ Church, Oxford (established originally by Wolsey as Cardinal College, then developed and renamed by Henry VIII). That’s Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat (galero) at the top.

The four blue leopard faces (yes, they are stylised leopards) and shield were used by the Dukes of Suffolk (Wolsey was born in Ipswich in that county). The two Cornish choughs indicate that he was a patron of Thomas Becket.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), so brilliantly depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, was an adviser to his early mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and a lawyer and MP for Taunton. He skilfully avoided falling out of favour after the downfall of Wolsey, and for six years served as eminence grise and chief minister to Henry, until the volatile king had him executed for treason. This was his coat of arms from 1532-37, with two choughs central; it became more elaborate after his son’s marriage in 1537 to (queen) Jane Seymour’s sister, Elizabeth:

Thomas Cromwell coat of arms 1532-37

Attribution: Ammelida, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I noted in my post of 27.8.16 that, according to legend, King Arthur didn’t really die; he was transformed into a chough, whose red beak and feet symbolise his bloody and violent end. This is why it’s still considered unlucky to kill a chough.

It pleases me that these splendid, iconic birds have generated such a rich and varied set of associations and stories.

Cornish ramblings again: Portloe, Portholland, Caerhays

My latest posts have resulted from my end-of-holiday travels in this beautiful county of Cornwall as I strive to make the most of my fortunate location before work resumes soon.

Portloe clifftop

Portloe clifftop

On Sunday we went to the Roseland Peninsula, named according to one source after the Cornish for ‘heath’. Its bulk mirrors the landmass around Falmouth, across the Carrick Roads/Fal River estuary that forms its western boundary. Most of Cornwall’s coastline forms part of an AONB, of which the Roseland Heritage Coast forms part.

I recently wrote about my excitement at seeing a chough at Cape Cornwall; I didn’t see any on this trip, but there is apparently a pair that has successfully hatched three chicks in the area this year – the first time since the 1820s: link to the story HERE and for the RSPB Cornish Choughs project and further info see HERE.

PortloeWe started at Portloe, a tiny cove with pretty cottages clustered round its small natural harbour and clinging to the steep valley slopes around. Its name comes from the Cornish for cove pool: ‘porth logh’ (presumably Scots ‘loch’ is their Celtic equivalent). From the 17C it was a busy fishing port, but like most of the Cornish fishing industry (and mining, as I’ve written often before) it declined sharply in the 19C and early 20C. Now just a handful of small working boats survive.Portloe

Overlooking the slipway is the Lugger, a fashionable hotel/restaurant; the Ship is a more homely, less hip pub a few yards up the hill. Smugglers would have landed their contraband in tiny inlets like this, and the Lugger is said to have played its part in the past.

In fact the whole Cornish coastal path, which winds its way all round

Portloe

Looking east towards Dodman from above Portloe

the county peninsula, was originally made by the coastguards and revenue men who tried to intercept the smugglers. It’s a struggle much romanticised in fictional and film accounts; in reality it reflects the hardship endured by many of the people who lived (and still live) in this impoverished rural area, striking a harsh contrast with the privileged minority who owned and managed the mines and harbours.

Watchouse

View from the watchhouse on the coastal path above Portholland

The light in my pictures shows

Portholland

Looking west above Portholland: light changing

typical Cornish summer conditions. Dark, rain-threatening clouds blow rapidly over, pierced at times by bright, hot sunshine. It’s like several seasons passing in just a few minutes. Two miles away it can be raining while we bask under glorious blue skies.

Portholland

Lime kilns at Portholland

On to Portholland, with its tiny cluster of buildings, remnants mostly of lime kiln workings. Typical Cornish granite crags and cliffs loom around the tiny cove.

A few miles on we stopped at Porthluney beach, below the grey ramparts of Caerhays Castle. This curious building sits within a huge estate which passed to the Trevanion family in 1380. The gardens, which cover some 140 acres, were developed by the Williams family since the Victorian period, and are famous for their collections of magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons and daffodils.

The estate’s owners have long been associated with mining (and also smelting and banking); the castle displays the remains of what was once a much larger collection of minerals, collected over the generations from their local mining interests in places like nearby Gwennap, from their overseas mining interests, and from other collectors.

Caerhays Castle

Caerhays Castle

I don’t suppose the men and women who spent their working lives toiling above and below the ground – the hard rock Cornish miners I’ve written about recently – were much concerned with collecting samples of the rocks for the extraction of which they risked their lives and limbs. If they did they would doubtless have been arrested for theft.

With a new series about to air on the BBC based on Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, we’ll soon be invited to marvel at Cornwall’s breathtaking scenery and reinvented heritage.  It’s worth remembering that there’s far more to Cornwall in reality than the chocolate-box charm and the picturesqueness represented on GWR advertising posters and soft-focus historical fiction (‘The Camomile Lawn’ was filmed partly at Portloe). From the hills above Caerhays one can see the spoil heaps of the clay area of Hensbarrow Downs around St Austell, a landscape so scarred by the industry that sci-fi film crews (like those who made Dr Who) have used it for alien world locations.

Just inland from the nearest city, Truro, lies the Mining Heritage Trail, about which I’ll write soon. Crumbling engine houses and ruined industrial buildings dot these landscapes, a visual reminder of the long-gone industries on which the Cornish people once depended. The landscape itself there is pitted and scored, discoloured and ravaged by centuries of mine working.

Webster could see ‘the skull beneath the skin’. Cornwall’s metaphorical skull isn’t even concealed beneath the land: it protrudes everywhere – in the granite outcrops and the hollow engine houses, the thronged beaches and the congested summer arterial roads. It contains Du Maurier’s romanticised Jamaica Inn (and the garish tourist site that has become) and the man engine disaster at the Levant Mine in 1919 when 31 men were killed.

These post-industrial sites (more on them next time) are in many ways more authentically Cornish than the honeypot locations beloved of TV crews and audiences.

And then there are the choughs.