Natural England - A tomb with a view

A tomb with a view

15 February 2013

Has the mystery of Sir James Tillie’s final resting place been solved?

View over Tamar Valley from Pentillie Castle
View over Tamar Valley from Pentillie Castle © Sammie Coryton / Pentillie Estate

Recent renovation work on a historic estate in south west England, which has been supported by Natural England, has helped unravel the 300-year old mystery of a missing Cornish aristocrat.

The glory of Pentillie Castle is its spectacular setting looking over the Tamar valley and river in Cornwall.  It was a view that the Castle’s builder, Sir James Tillie, was determined to continue enjoying even in death.

Sir James, who built Pentillie Castle in 1698, left instructions in his will that when he died, his body should be placed in an open windowed room in his favourite folly on the highest point of his estate.  He was to be dressed in his best clothes and seated in his favourite chair, with food and drink and a crate of books by his side to await the day of resurrection, which he expected to be imminent.

When Sir James died in 1713, his servants faithfully obeyed his orders for the next two years but, according to family tradition, when there was no sign of resurrection and they could bear it no longer, they had his remains interred and a marble statue put in his place.  But there was no record of where he was buried, and it has always been assumed that his remains were moved to a local churchyard.

That’s where the story ended, until the recent renovation work on the folly got underway. Beneath the floor of the building, the project’s archaeologist, Oliver Jessop, and building surveyor, Richard Glover, unexpectedly discovered a set of stairs leading down into a previously unknown vaulted space.  Entering the room, Mr Jessop found a 2.5m square space, lined with lime plaster and with a beautiful brick vaulted ceiling.  He initially noticed a leather and stud covered wooden object, possibly all that was left of a stout chair.  Then further investigation revealed the presence of human remains and it quickly became clear that the mystery of the true resting place of Sir James Tillie had finally been solved.

Ted Coryton, who along with his family has steadily been restoring Pentillie Castle and its grounds since inheriting the property five years ago, was there when the vault was opened: “It was an exciting moment, to finally uncover the truth and to know that Sir James was in fact in his mausoleum after all,” he said.  “Over the past 5½ years we have researched much about him and the castle, so to finally tie up the loose ends was extraordinary.  There is no doubt these are very old remains, and all indications are that it is Sir James Tillie.  There was no sign of his pipe, books or wine but there was the remains of a chair that looks typical to the 1700’s when he would have been placed there.”

In line with Sir James’ original wishes, the vault was resealed and the Coryton family were joined by the other partners in the project in raising a toast to Sir James, with some sloe gin Ted had made himself with berries from the estate.

As part of an Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Stewardship agreement, Natural England has been supporting restoration work on several buildings in the grounds of Pentillie Castle.  The folly, known locally as The Mausoleum, had seen little maintenance for many years and the Grade II listed building was in urgent need of conservation work.

Financial assistance for this restoration project was provided by both Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship HLS scheme and the Country Houses Foundation.  The walls of The Mausoleum have been re-pointed and consolidated, the cracks repaired, and the crumbling castellations rebuilt.  As part of the renovation, Sir James’ statue has gone to Cliveden Conservation in Bath for specialist restoration.

Hugh Tyler from Natural England said, “We are delighted to be able to support the Coryton family in what is a unique opportunity to ensure this important and historic building is maintained in the beautiful landscape of the Tamar valley for many years to come.”

The wider HLS agreement at Pentillie also supports conservation work on the oak woodland and reedbed in the Tamar-Tavy Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)external link.  Management under Environmental Stewardship is helping to manage and enhance these important habitats.  The wider parkland grassland areas at Pentillie are also covered by the HLS and support extensive grazing of the grassland as they were historically managed.  The HLS agreement includes educational access options and local schools visit the estate to discover more about its history, the food it produces and the conservation work carried out on the land.

The commercial side of Pentillie is also a success story.  The Coryton family balance the conservation of the history and biodiversity of Pentillie, while also running the house and wider estate as a viable commercial enterprise.  After only three years of operation they have received several top awards for their B&B facilities.  Beef cattle are reared on the estate with the meat sold through local retailers.  The castle orchard has been replanted with traditional old Tamar Valley varieties of apple and cherry trees.

The exterior of the mausoleum can be viewed on garden open days and tours over the next few months.  For more information visit the Pentillie Castleexternal link website.