In the folklore of Cornwall, two figures enjoy special infamy. The first is a steward, spy, and magistrate from centuries ago, remade into a demon, a ghost, a giant, and a bird, among other identities. The second is a man dubbed the “Wickedest Man in the World,” notable for both his virtues and vices. I recently read a book on each of these individuals and their ties to Cornwall, and I wanted to share my thoughts on them. Given that both are difficult to obtain, I hope this might send others to seek them out.
The first book, John Tregagle of Trevorder: Man and Ghost by B. C. Spooner, was originally published in 1935. An abbreviated form of it was later published as John Tregagle: Alive or Dead. Mr. Tregagle (c. 1606-1655) was a steward of the Lanhydrock estate, and later became an extensive landowner in his own right. He sided with the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, providing intelligence on the movement of the Royalist forces. A lawsuit regarding a mortgage dispute garnered him a notorious reputation, which continued well after his death.
Following his death, a mythology grew up around John. Supposedly a court case became so heated that Tregagle was called up from the dead to testify. After this, however, he could not be sent back to hell, so he spent his time moving about the countryside, with the devil’s hounds snapping at his heels. Various parsons moonlighting as wizards – a common feature in Cornish lore – assigned him to various tasks, such as emptying Dozmary Pool with a seashell with a hole, or spinning sand into a rope. He has escaped these time and time again, causing storms and howling in remote places. And these are only the more conventional tales.
Mentions of Tregagle are common in folklore works, but no book covers the historical background of the man as well as Spooner. As such, this is an essential work for anyone interested in exploring more than the first layer of Cornish folklore.
A more recent insertion into the folk beliefs of Cornwall is the magician Aleister Crowley. A tale of him hinges upon a cottage in the hills around the village of Zennor in West Penwith. According to the story, Crowley was staying at this location when he became involved in a test of magical wills with Ka Arnold-Forster. This conflict led to a confrontation one dark night that ended with her death and her husband’s insanity.
Paul Newman’s The Tregerthen Horror, released by Mandrake Press in 2005, represents the author’s attempt to decipher the truth behind the myth. To do so, he spends a great deal of time describing D. H. Lawrence and other writers and artists who made their home in West Penwith in the early twentieth century. There are wonderful portraits of many of these individuals, and much allusion to fictional accounts and folklore of the reason. What is lacking, however, is any indication that Aleister Crowley came to Cornwall any earlier than a well-documented two-week trip to the Penzance area in 1937. If I read it correctly, there seems to be no reason why Crowley couldn’t have come to West Penwith, but there’s no positive evidence that he did.
Nonetheless, I found The Tregerthen Horror to be quite aesthetically pleasing, and it should be of interest to those who collect the folklore of Crowley or who are interested in the circles of famous artists that one time made their home in Cornwall.