An account of a British Sepulchral Urn, discovered in the neighbourhood of Place - J T Treffry, 1840

An account of a British Sepulchral Urn, discovered in the neighbourhood of Place, by J. T. Treffry, Esq., read Nov, 6th, 1840.


The mere word's a slave
Debauched on every Tomb - on every Grave
A lying trophy! and as oft is dumb
Where dust, and damn'd oblivion deck the tomb
Of honor'd bones indeed !"

Place, Fowey, Nov. 3rd, 1840.

Of the person, whose cineritious bones I have this day sent for your Museum, I know nothing - but I know enough of the ancient history of the Land where they were deposited, to conclude that they belonged to a Family of some consequence.

Before, however, I proceed further with this subject in particular, I think it necessary to say something in relation to the great number of bodies which, in rny excavations round Place, I have from time to time dug up. Those excavations I began upwards of thirty years ago just below the Castle attached to the house, where, at a considerable depth, I found a great number of bodies of human beings. I opened in fact the antient burial ground of the Kings of Cornwall then inhabiting this very Place under the name of "Cuni Court," - the King's Court or Palace.

That they were buried there at a very early period the following fact will prove, viz. the existence of the endowed Church and Cemetery when, in the reign of Richard the first, the Treffrys obtained Place by marriage.

The Castle before mentioned was first noticed by William of Worcester as an historian, and was built about or immediately after 1457, but in all probability the burial ground below it had then been disused for that purpose for centuries, it being clear (on the removal of the various strata) that such ground in 1457 was highly cultivated as garden ground, which on the building of the Castle, and the castellating the walls of the old house, or palace, was entirely destroyed by the rubbish arising from such buildings being placed thereon, on which rubbish in the course of time another very rich garden was formed, so that when I began to dig below the Castle walls, then standing, I entered into an exceedingly rich garden of great depth, then I came to the rubbish, also of considerable depth, below that was another rich and deep garden, and below that a great number of bodies, all laying in ground which had been long broken before they were deposited there. Several of the bodies were buried in their coats of mail, and with spurs, and some were buried with their rings on, of the latter I took one to London, and submitted it to the inspection of the best informed practical man that I could get an introduction to, who told me that it was a mourning ring for a female, being an oriental garnet in the shape of a heart set in gold over a purple foil, and highly enamelled. The gold so pure as I have hardly ever seen, and the ring, in his opinion, was made at Constantinople, before the arts were introduced into this country. One other ring which I found, was, perhaps, equally curious, though of brass, being evidently a wedding ring with the hands "joined together."

All those bodies were buried without coffins of any sort, some of them were divided from the earth by thin slate stones on their edge, others were without any division, and some had a rough common building stone of the country under the head, supporting it like a pillow. The burying in coffins indeed, was only confined to a very few people so late as the begining of the 17th. century. All the bodies, however, were laid east and west, just as we now lay them.

In another burial ground which I opened near by the back part of Place, or the Mansion, the bodies all with one exception, lay in the same way; and that exception was a body buried above two others, the under ones having a divison in their graves by slate stones on their edge, and the bodies lying east and west, whereas the one over, lay south-east and north-west, without any vestige of grave stones. In the last mentioned burial ground, I found neither coats of mail, spurs, rings, nor coins, though in the former many of each. As to the spurs, judging from the size and length of their necks, they were very powerful, and it would appear that they were secured to the heel by a thong.

Other scattered bodies I also dug up, one at the back of the Castle, with a small cannon which appeared to have burst in firing, that body, however, from the fact of the cannon being in the same grave, must have been placed there, probably, several centuries after the others.

In making the new road or drive to the house, I dug up others about half a mile distant, two of which, at four feet from the surface of the ground, lay in an excavation made in the rock. They lay contrary to the others with their heads south and their feet north, and on the right side of the body which lay on the eastern side, just between the head and the right shoulder, stood a pitcher, of brown earthenware, coarse in its texture, resembling in shape what we now use, and large enough to contain about three quarts of liquid.

No Urn, however, containing the ashes of any human being was ever discovered in the progress of my excavations hereabouts, until the beginning of last month, when in opening the ground for a new road into the town of Fowey, to avoid the steep and dangerous hill now leading there from the westward, at 215 feet south of the present road, and just under the brow of the hill, a workman, immediately under the field mould, or, as it is termed, meat earth (the whole of which from its dark hue and richness, had no doubt been repeatedly dug over and highly cultivated), at three feet from the surface, struck on a large stone, horizontally placed, which as you will see by the stone accompanying the Urn, has pretty evident marks of the force which was employed to remove it, by which unfortunately the Urn, before perfect, became broken. The shelf, or sub-stratum, was broken fourteen inches under the stone which covered the Urn, such covering stone being just between the earth and the shelf, and the bottom of the square pit, where the Urn rested, was four feet five inches from the surface. The sides of the square pit which contained the Urn, were kept open by four square slate stones; slate, from the country hereabout, though cleft something like rags, and of very light blue colour. The hope that treasure lay under the stone which covered the Urn, caused, I believe, its having been broken; much hidden money having, from time to time, been found round Fowey. But it is still much more perfect (though very similar in character) than most of those which have been dug from the barrows in Wiltshire.

The town which for upwards of three centuries has been known as Fowey only, occupies a part of the ancient town of Langurthowe; indeed, so late as the reign of Richard the third, in legal proceedings, the town or vill of Fowey, is identified as adjoining to the town, or vill of Langurthowe. The tenure of the manor or town of Fowey being then free burgage, and that of the manor or town of Langurthowe free soccage. Langurthowe lay west of Fowey church, occupying most of the ground round the vill between Fowey church and the wind-mill. I say most, because the manors were intermixed, and though till after the time of Elizabeth, the Treffry family kept separate rent-rolls for the manors of Fowey, and Langurthowe, the rents and services were soon afterwards so blended together in the same roll, that it is very difficult to identify many of the tenements.

The earliest deed which I have of Langurthowe is that of a lease granted by "Roger de Langurthou"1 (or Langurthowe) unto "Roger Carpenter de Fawe" at Michaelmas 1296, and, in setting forth the particulars of the property leased, the Wind-mill, parcel of that Manor, is incidentally mentioned; which fact directly contradicts the date assigned by our Chronological table as to the era when wind-mills were invented in England. Indeed, it is quite clear from the way in which the wind-mill is mentioned, that it was then no new building. This lease was executed at Langurthou, and no doubt at the old manor house which lay about 140 feet north west of the spot from whence the Urn was dug. John de Langurthou succeeded him, and he is the last of the family that I have any record of. The site of the mansion both for shelter and prospect, has but few rivals. In making the present new road to the town, I opened at the depth of seven feet under the surface, the old road leading to Langurthowe manor house, and it appears that formerly the land at the back of Langurthowe town was cultivated even deeper than that adjoining the anciently buried road, the soil at from 10 to 12 feet under the present surface not only affording evidence of having been repeatedly removed, but actually, on exposure, now producing, as if spontaneously, white clover. No doubt some people who take an interest in your museum will be able to state the time when human beings ceased to be deposited in Urns.

Extracted from the Twenty Second Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1840, pp63-67.