In her blog, Karin Murray-Bergquist (Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland) explores a tragic event at the intersection of British naval history (and mythmaking), developing maritime technology, the erasure of local knowledges, and folklore.
The death by shipwreck of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, on the Western Rocks of the Scilly Isles, gave rise to a remarkable set of tales. The worst maritime calamity of its day, the 1707 disaster claimed the ships Association, Eagle, Romney, and Firebrand. With an estimated two thousand lives lost, the wrecks arose from a miscalculation of longitude, an error reflected in one of the main legends surrounding the wreck. Another legend may have been inspired by its location — a place associated with the practice of wrecking, luring ships onto the rocks to plunder them, as well as the slightly less murderous one of salvage. Together, these stories illustrate contemporary and subsequent attitudes about the disaster, and help us to understand some of the tensions of the time. Contrasting local and nationally supported authority, and influencing the course of scientific history, these legends of the wreck are particularly worth exploring for their fluid combination of folklore and history.
The Isles of Scilly (yes, it is pronounced “silly”) are an archipelago off of Cornwall, low-lying, rain-washed islands with a smattering of towns, best known for their unique narcissi and fishing and maritime history, including shipwrecks. Scilly is the supposed home of Saint Warna, patroness of wrecks and wreckers. Whether the saint ever wrecked anything herself is debated, however, she is the figure to whom residents might pray to receive a bountiful supply of flotsam and jetsam, received either by accident or with a little nudging by human agents. It is into this context that the legends surrounding the shipwreck emerge.
The Two Legends
The legend telling the story of the hanged sailor and the Cursing Psalm, which is recounted in Dava Sobel’s Longitude among other sources historic and modern, begins with the flagship of the fleet sailing towards the English Channel, and passing the Scilly Isles. One sailor approaches the admiral, concerned that the ships are too close to the infamous, ship-breaking Western Rocks, and recommends that the ships change course. He is a Scillonian by birth, and knows the islands well. The admiral, incensed that any common sailor could presume to know more than himself about his own job, has the man hanged, but allows him to read a final prayer before the noose tightens. The man chooses the Cursing Psalm, psalm number 109, repeating “certain imprecatory passages” — for instance, “let his wife be left a widow, and his children fatherless” — to drive home the point. Sure enough, not long after, the ships meet their doom.
The ring legend recounts the horrific sight of the bodies from the wrecks of the Association, Eagle, Romney, and Firebrand being carried to the windswept beach on the waves. The Admiral was lucky, at first. Instead of drowning in the wreck, he was washed ashore, and found by a local woman. She had her eye on the admiral’s emerald ring, however, and, instead of helping him, she murdered him to obtain it. The story supposedly came to light through the woman’s deathbed confession. Although it is an unverified story, first recounted in a letter decades later, it is also persistent.
Like much folklore, both of these stories have alternately been repeated as legend and as fact. The website for Westminster Abbey repeats the ring legend as historical, including the detail that the woman confessed on her deathbed. William Bottrell, in 1873, though repeating the hanged sailor story in Traditions and Hearth-Side Stories of West Cornwall, differs in his account of the ring legend, saying that the admiral’s body was recognised by a soldier and his wife, who sent the ring to his widow and were rewarded with a pension for life. Evidently, though both legends were part of the same body of stories, they did not always travel together.
But legend and history run together at a number of points. The site where the admiral was buried was said to be a place where no grass would grow, as a mark of his cruelty and injustice. Even the admiral’s reinterment at Westminster Abbey seemed not to have dampened enthusiasm for this aspect of the legend, as Bottrell in 1873 notes that the pit marking the spot is bare. While this is a detail often given less prominence in subsequent versions, it is in keeping with the way the hanged sailor legend and the ring legend often work together to portray injustice.
The dynamics of the tale shift with the combination of the two legends. The shipwreck becomes an act of hubris: it is not a lack of knowledge, but an admiral’s unwillingness to learn from a social inferior that is the fleet’s downfall. The decision to push on regardless — ignoring local knowledge and favouring official knowledge and authority — is at the heart of the hanged sailor legend. When told alongside the ring legend, it becomes a story about the inevitability of poetic justice. It is also a story with a central place in technological history. This is not a story of unfamiliar waters, after all, but of waters not quite familiar enough because they lacked the technology to determine the fleet’s exact position in relation to dangerous shores. The Longitude Act of 1714, which offered a prize to anyone who could determine a way of measuring longitude at sea, followed so closely on this incident that it is sometimes perceived as a direct result, invoked by one pamphlet prior to the act’s initiation. Although the problem of longitude was a much broader one, and although other factors were in play in the Scilly disaster, the lack of longitudinal knowledge should have encouraged reliance on local knowledge. The fact that this was not sought out, or indeed ignored, provides a driving force for the story as a cautionary tale.
The Warning Legend
The identity of the common sailor whose warning went unheeded is not known, although he is said to have been a Scilly man (unlike the admiral, who was a silly man). Although the story only appeared in 1780, and although no one from Sir Cloudesley’s ship lived to tell the tale, its existence is compelling, as a representation of the preoccupations of those who feared something like this could indeed have happened. It demonstrates with some poignancy the risks that came from challenging an authority figure under eighteenth-century British naval discipline. Different sources on the legend vary on the details of how the sailor knew the rocks were near. In one version, the smell of burning kelp alerts him to the proximity of the shore. In another, it is the ships’ estimated distance from the St. Agnes lighthouse, the sailor’s reckoning proven to be correct when the fateful light came into view.
One of the story’s less plausible but more powerful points is that no one aboard the Association survived. The question arises (as so often): if there were no survivors, then where did the stories come from? Bottrell’s version of the narrative answers this question by claiming that a single sailor survived and he was the source for the whole grim story. The website “About Scilly,” on the other hand, presents the origin of this story as likely being a meeting of the ships’ commanders prior to the wreck, in which Captain Sir William Jumper, of the Lenox, suggested that the fleet was too close to the rocks. This story is recounted in James Herbert Cooke’s 1883 paper on the disaster, naming the master of Jumper’s vessel (not clarifying whether he meant the captain himself, or the sailing master) as the dissenting voice among the crowd. He was overruled, but if his suggestion was recorded in the log of one of the vessels, or if a survivor simply recalled the event, the story may have been transformed into the version that gained prominence through repetition, to become a more pointed critique of Admiral Shovell’s leadership. If this was the case, it must be noted, the transformation happened quickly. It also highlights the power imbalances at play and the ignorance of local conditions.
The story recounted in 1780 brought both local knowledge and longitude to the forefront: if the admiral had listened to someone who knew the waters, it is evident, he might have lived to tell the tale. However, there is a complicating factor in the subsequent narrative of the Longitude Act. The development of a standardised means of determining longitude at sea would not only reduce the danger of running aground, but it would also allow official knowledge — based on technology — to succeed even without local knowledge — based on experience. Although the sailor’s warning follows a moving arc, heightening the tension of the fateful decision through the tragic plight of a well-meaning individual, the lesson taken from the wreck itself seems not to have been that local knowledge was of greater value than matters of rank. The ability to match that knowledge with onboard technology, though overall a fortunate development, also raises questions about whether respect for information based on experience has indeed increased since that time.
The Ring Legend
Two contrasting accounts of the role of a valuable ring belonging to the admiral provide an illuminating look at the relationship between the Scilly Islanders and the fleet. In the first case, as mentioned above, an islander or islanders find the body of Sir Cloudesley without recognising him, and remove the emerald ring from his dead finger. The value of the ring is remarked upon, and eventually this leads to the identification of the body, and the admiral’s reburial in Westminster Abbey. In the second case, a woman finds the nearly-dead admiral either on the beach or at her door, and kills him, taking the ring for herself. It is this version that was published “under the authority of the Earl of Romney,” the grandson of Sir Cloudesley. This originates from a letter that was, according to Westwood and Simpson, written around 1790, and recounts the deathbed confession of the murderer, who said she could not find peace until she had revealed her deed (99).
The plausibility of the murder would have been increased for the audience by the fact that laws surrounding salvage prevented the removal of goods from shipwrecks with survivors. While it was intended as a means of protecting property from plunder, the law also caused a great deal of fear and mistrust of coast-dwellers. Survivors of shipwrecks were said to fend off would-be rescuers with whatever projectiles they could find, suspecting them of murderous intentions (Westwood and Kingshill 64). This knowledge would cast doubt upon the legend from the historical perspective, as it functions to highlight these fears, particularly in Cornwall and Scilly, which continued throughout the following century and often hinged on wrecking.
It is clear that both versions cannot be true, but the repetition of the latter has made it difficult to trace a historical source for the fate of the ring itself. It also provides an interesting counterpoint for the legend of the hanged man, demonstrating the class and regional prejudices that lay below the surface of the story. While the Scillonian shipmate tried to save the fleet, the unknown woman showed no attempt to help the admiral, fulfilling the curse of the unjustly executed sailor. As legends often do, these ones reveal questions that have remained relevant since, namely, questions of expertise ignored and figures of authority being held accountable for errors with grave consequences. While the ring legend drew upon specific fears of its era, the danger at the centre of the cautionary tale is that of ignorance and excessive status outrunning actual qualifications.
The story of Sir Cloudesley’s demise was bound to generate folklore, as one of the worst naval disasters of its time. The scale of the wreck was staggering, and published reactions ranged from factual to poetic. A pamphlet published in November of the same year lamented the admiral’s death, while the ball was arguably set in motion, or at least spurred on, for the Longitude Act, mentioned above. This act of parliament, which offered a substantial reward for the solution to the difficulty of determining longitude while at sea, addressed the pressing need to match the technology of navigation to the increasingly complex and bustling world of maritime transport. Interestingly, another act was used the previous year to strengthen prohibitions against wrecking, by reinforcing the medieval statute decreeing that any wreck with survivors could not be legally considered a wreck, though the Wrecking Act would not come into effect until the middle of the century. Possession of the ship and all items on board stayed with the owner, and while this was in some cases seen as further incentive towards murdering survivors, it is important to note that wrecks without survivors were considered property of the reigning monarch, though salvaged goods were still sold despite their legal status.
The disaster and its subsequent representations are a study in the formation of legend in a single event, as well as several shifts of priorities, as one part of the story or another has been highlighted or changed in each retelling. The repentant attitude of the ring thief is not a feature of Sobel’s retelling of the legend, but the murder is instead presented as sheer poetic justice (13). The story of the hanged sailor sometimes includes macabre details, such as the man’s body resurfacing after being thrown into the sea, accompanying the storm (see page 42). This provides a more supernatural interpretation of the story while, in other versions, his death is less mystically charged and more a grim illustration of the ignorance that power can engender. Together, the stories portray the islands as dangerous on two levels, one based on geography and one on assumptions regarding their people. In their combined persistence and mutual flexibility, often told in conjunction, these legends provide an interesting insight into anxieties over knowledge and power and the ways in which such stories could be used to advance the storytellers’ priorities.
“Archives and Artefacts.” Via Crayford History. Accessed March 2022.
“A Famous Scilly Myth Debunked.” 20 August 2018. http://aboutscilly.com/a-famous-scilly-myth-debunked/.
—. “Sir Cloudesley Shovell and the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707.” 31 August 2018. http://aboutscilly.com/sir-cloudesley-shovell-scilly-naval-disaster-1707/.
Bottrell, William. Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41761/41761-h/41761-h.htm. 1873. Penzance: Beare and Son.
Cooke, James Herbert. The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell on the Scilly Islands in 1707. Paper presented 1883 to the Society of Antiquaries.
Courtney, M.A. “Cornish Folk-Lore.” In Folk-Lore Journal. 1887. London: Elliot Stock. https://electricscotland.com/history/men/folklorejournal05folkuoft.pdf.
Cox, Sue. “The Cornish Wreckers.” February 2015. http://www.torontocornishassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Cornish-Wreckers.pdf.
Jones, William. Finger-Ring Lore. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43707/43707-h/43707-h.htm. 1877. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly.
Pearce, Catherine. “Neglectful or Worse: A Lurid Tale of a Lighthouse Keeper and Wrecking in the Isles of Scilly.” September 2008. In Troze: The Online Journal of the National Maritime Museum of Cornwall, vol. 1, no. 1. https://nmmc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Vol_1b_Wrecking-1.pdf.
“Sir Clowdisley Shovell.” Via Westminster Abbey. 2002. Accessed February 2022.
Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. 1995. London: Bloomsbury.
Tony, Allen. “HMS Association, 1707.” Via Wreck Site. 26th October 2007. Accessed February 2022.
Westwood, Jennifer and Sophia Kingshill. The Fabled Coast: Legends & Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain & Ireland. 2012. London: Random House Books.
Westwood, Jennifer and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s