The Island has a long and complex history: this page attempts only to offer an overview, and is an ongoing project.
Lundy was separated from the mainland during the Palaeolithic era, and since then has developed its own personality. One of the strangest feelings on the island is how similar it is to areas such as Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor, yet has that “lundy effect” that differentiates it.
There is plenty of evidence of early Bronze Age settlements: such as those that can be seen at John O’Groats on the northeastern corner of the island. But written record is scarce, although Lundy features heavily in the oral tradition of the early Celtic British: see Mythology.
Written record, like so much of the British Isles really starts post 1066. And today’s understanding of that record owes much to the work of Tony Langham and his wife Myrtle. Unfortunately, Tony died some years ago and I never met him, but I owe so much to Myrtle for igniting the interest I have, and for indulging me with her time and materials. I should point out, however, that any errors in this brief history, are the result of my own misunderstandings and my own responsibility. Myrtle is, conversely, the absolute authority on the history of the Island, and I would recommend any of her books on the subject.
A time of great interest is the period when the island was in the possession of the de Mariscos, who built their stronghold in the area now known as Bulls Paradise.
The origins of this family are vague, and it has been suggested that a William de Marisco was the illegitimate son of Henry I, born in 1100. The Mariscos had gained possession within the reign of Stephen, but with the accession of Henry II in 1155, they entered into dispute with the King who gifted the Island to the Knights Templar. This was a prolonged dispute, and when King John acceded in 1199, he confirmed the grant to the Templars.
It made no practical difference, as the de Mariscos held tightly to their domain. As a renegade family, they were involved in many illegal practices, most significantly piracy. They simply acted as though they were above the law.
Following a century of delinquencies, the dice were rolled for the last time in 1235. A Royal clerk, Henry Clement was murdered and so started the concerted effort to rid the then King, Henry III, of this unruly family. In 1238, an attempt was made on the Kings life by a man who later confessed to being an agent of the Marisco family: there could be no coming back from such an act of High Treason.
But anyone who visits Lundy can appreciate that the Island was inhospitable to attack, a natural strongpoint. Defenders were afforded great views, and attackers would meet great natural obstacles. But its great weakness is the weather: fog and mists on the island are frequent and intense. On a misty day, all the natural advantages of visibility are lost, and on such a day in 1242, aided by someone on the island, the Kings men seized the defenders. William de Marisco was hung, drawn and quartered for his alleged part in the plot.
As a means of stamping his authority, on the Bristol Channel as well as the Island itself, Henry commissioned the building of the castle, sometimes (erroneously) referred to as the Marisco Castle, and completed in 1244.
Although the de Mariscos managed to be associated with the Island for decades later, their influence was at an end, and their part in Lundy history fades away: but they set the trend for colourful and charismatic Island governance. They certainly are the most famous of the Pirates who lived there.
But the Mariscos were just the first in a long line of interesting characters that have governed the Island: be they tenants or indeed owners in their own right.
One of the most famous was Thomas Bushell, a silver miner and staunch Royalist, who was appointed Governor of Lundy by Charles I during the Civil War. Bushell was licensed to strike coin on behalf of the King, at Aberystwyth Castle, and his work and responsibilities had involved him in frequent travel between South Wales and the Royalist strongholds of the West country. His star was on the wane, however, as he was so closely allied with the King. Lundy was one of the last royalist bastions to fall: any advantage in gaining it, from a parliamentary perspective, was surely not worth the risks involved. But such was Bushells reputation, that he was afforded great respect by the victorious Parliamentarians, however on leaving the island he went into hiding to avoid his creditors: he died in debt to the considerable amount of £20,000.
Thomas Benson was a local merchant of the mid 18th Century, successful from the then major ports of Bideford and Barnstaple. He was MP for Barnstaple, and Sheriff of Devon, very much the prominent and respectable citizen: and like so many others, very much a man who indulged in the less legal aspects of his profession. Such was his facade: his exploits are very much those of legend, and his story is surely worthy of a film!
One of his exploits was to gain a contract for the shipment of convict labour to the colonies of North America: but Benson saw advantage to this, and shipped them just as far as Lundy, enslaving them and keeping them locked away in the cave below the Castle: now known as Bensons Cave, although it is probable that it pre-dates him; (see photograph below). Graffiti exists to the present day, of initials and dates of the poor souls that were so abused. Interestingly, these references correspond to the Court records of the day.
But his undoing was "The Nightingale Scandal". The Nightingale was the oldest of his large fleet of merchantmen, and was nearing the end of her days. Benson loaded her to the gunnels with cargo, insured her further, and seemingly dispatched the vessel to the North American colonies. Of course, she made it so far as Lundy, where the goods were carefully unloaded and the ship was sent on her way, to be set on fire and scuttled some 10 miles west of the Island. A textbook insurance scam. However, during a drunken evening, one of the disgruntled seamen spilt the beans: and Bensons days were over. He fled the Island, allegedly ending his days in Lisbon.
The location and nature of Lundy was sure to make it an attractive base for many throughout history. The Island therefore features heavily in the stories of European piracy. And not just European: one of the strangest and most bemusing episodes is when Lundy was "conquered" by Barbary Pirates. It is often claimed that the flag of Islam flew from Lundy for a brief period in the early 17th century when Lundy was chosen for a base for their more northerly activities. The Barbary pirates were a huge and well documented scourge particularly of the South West. Their coastal raids were infamous, where they would raid small villages, seizing entire populations to ship back for the White Slave Trade. However, their hold on Lundy, such as it was, was for a very brief time, and they left no lasting mark on the Island: there are stories of a treasure hidden on the Island, although of course no clues to its whereabouts.
The Old House in the 19th Century
The Lundy we see today owes much to the Heaven family, who bought the island in the 1836, and interestingly are the only owners to have made their permanent home there. Millcombe was built as their family home, and much of our current knowledge owes this family a great deal, as their ownership coincided with the advent of photography. As previously mentioned, sites like the Giants Graves and the Kistvaen were located at this time.
The present church, dedicated to St. Helen, was erected in 1897. It is not my favourite piece of Lundy architecture: typically Victorian it appears very suburban, not of the Island. And yet in true island style, it also has its peculiarities. There are suggestions of strong Masonic / Templar influence, and its alignment is apparently wrong ( it doesn't follow a true East West alignment), and yet also seems to reference the esoteric and arcane.
But Lundy was further developed during the ownership of the Harmans: and they are responsible for many of the characteristics of Lundy. Martin Coles Harman was a great naturalist, and in the best traditions of English eccentrics.
He did much to conserve the wildlife and indeed introduced the Sika deer and Soay sheep to the Island, along with the ponies. He had a great sense of Lundys autonomy from the mainland, and developed the Stamps and coins that are so famous today. He attempted many things to ensure Lundys appeal to the visitor: famously, even allowing the building of a 9 hole golf course just north of the Old Light. Almost inevitably, it didn't succeed, but remains a favoured location to visit.
His family inherited the Island on his death; unfortunately though, the requirements of continuing and maintaining Lundy were an unbearable burden, and in 1969 they sold the island to the National Trust, financed by Sir Jack Hayward, who negotiated the lease to Landmark Trust, who administer ( and finance) the Island today. The levels of investment have been immense, but have at last guaranteed the future of Lundy. Much has changed in that time, with comfort levels rising greatly, without diluting the sense of remoteness and tranquility.
There will never be enough space to discuss the history of the Island in depth. But the visitor cant help but to see it at every turn.