The Nailed Skull of Launceston Priory.
Taken from an article by Otho Peter published in the Cornish and Devon Post in 1909.
In days of old when the clergy were not allowed to marry there entered the Guild of Merchants at Launceston a man named Thomas Lanrak, who, to increase his business, sought to make friends with the ecclesiastics at the rich local priory. Among these was Wilshman, a thin, middle-aged, laughing-eyed canon. Lanrak on becoming acquainted with this priest, frequently invited him to sup at his table, which was presided over by Ena, his brisk and pretty wife, and by way of returning the compliment Wilshman spoke favourably of the merchant to his brother monks with whom he for sometime did good; but from a certain date this church patronage suddenly ceased, and the reason was not far to seek, for Lanrak on returning home one evening, when he was thought to be away, had caught Wilshman acting in too gailant a manner towards his wife and ‘shown him the door,’ whereupon the canon vowed that he would ruin him, and at once commenced to spread false reports alleging that Lanrak used light weights and neglected to attend mass and confession at his parish church, which so injured the repute of the honest man that he grew morose and ill tempered, and was in the end reduced to poverty.
At the time of this story a belief in the guardianship of patron saints was very prevalent, and on trade growing worse and worse, Lanrak being threatened with imprisonment for debt, his wife, the fair Ena, determined to intercede for help to her patron, St. Catherine. Accordingly, she went one evening to the little chapel of that saint, which stood westward outside the walls of the Priory, in order to place a votive candle there and offer her supplication. It was in the dim light of a spring evening that she entered the chapel. The smoke of incense filled the building and a priest was reading the 4th chapter of Judges where the doings of Kael, Heber’s wife, are recorded. Ena knelt with other present to receive the blessing at the end of the service, and then repairing to the altar lighted the candle and placing it in the stand before the image of St. Catherine prayed with her whole heart for aid and guidance. She remained so long in prayer that on rising from her knees she was startled to find that the rest of the congregation had left and that the priest, Wilshman, was coming towards her from the confessional recess, “The Saint,” whispered he on reaching her side, “has heard your prayer Ena, and has sent me to assist you.” “You,” said she in disgust, “I am sure my patroness would not employ a hypocrite as her messenger, so get you gone for I have no faith in you,” and adjusting her robe she started to leave; but the priest barred her way, and would not let her pass until she had promised that she would receive him if he called at her house on the following evening, by which time he had arranged that her husband should not be waylaid.
And it happened that on the next day while Thomas Lanrak was journeying homeward on the road from one of the distant towns where he had been obliged to go to find a market for his wares, he was set upon by hired men and struck down and left insensible by the roadside. Meanwhile the love-sick canon remained in the priory cloister impatiently counting the hours as they were marked off by beatings on the turret bell, for bells were not rung then as they are now. After vespers to keep himself occupied he retired to his study and started to copy a chapter from Job, and as his self-imposed task had designedly not been finished when curfew tolled, he obtained permission from the prior to remain up and finish it. When the other canons had gone to the dormitory and all was quiet, Wilshman quickly dropped his pen, and slipping on his cloak and cowl, stole quietly out at the postern gate into the Convent garden. Taking the path which led by the pond where fish were stored for fast times and Fridays and along by Wooda leat, he presently passed from the precincts of the Priory into the alley where Lanrak dwelt. On reaching the house he tapped softly at the door which was opened by Ena. “Good evening fair dame,” said he as he entered, “ I thought the path all paved with gold as I came along and now I feel in Heaven.” “I expect the traffic is light up there” replied she genially “else the angles wouldn’t use such material for paving. Oh how I wish some of it would find its way back to us poor mortals.” “That reminds me,” said the monk, “I have picked up a pocket full to give your husband, who, although he has done me wrong, I still consider my friend.” And so saying he took a handful of coins from his satchel and presented them to her. “Unfortunately” said Ena “my husband is from home.” “Then keep them for yourself” said he, but Ena pretended not to notice this and buried herself in preparing the table for supper.
Now Mrs. Lanrak, in planning what she should do when the dreaded monk called, had determined to follow in the footsteps of the Eastern woman whose story she had heard read in the chapel of St. Catherine. She commenced operations by gathering a plant of the poppy species known a ‘the greater celandine,’ which grew on lane hedges, and squeezing the juices from the stems smeared it over the inside of a horn cup that she intended to place by the plate of the Canon. When after his arrival all was ready for the meal and he was seated at the table, she filled this cup with strong ale and smiling coyly presented it to her unwelcome quest. “I wish you good health my sweet lady,” said the amorous priest as he quaffed the foaming liquor; and the while he was attempting to retain her hand the poison operated on his brain, and a deep sleep seizing him, he fell prone on the floor. Ena let him lie where he had fallen, but after waiting some time for Lanrak and finding he did not return she became impatient and, feeling unsure he had been trapped by the priest’s hirelings and resolving to revenge the underhand tricks which had ruined their home, she took a long iron spike in her hand and holding it towards the monk’s forehead drove it with a mallet right through his tonsure pate, and he died. Her husband had regained he sense sometime before this tragedy took place, and he was nearing home when he met his wife, who dreading to remain longer in the house, had started out to find him. “Hasten” said she “and I will show you your enemy.” Lanrak on seeing what she had done was greatly concerned and for some time could not think how to dispose of the body. Catching sight of some keys hanging on the priest’s belt he guessed that one of them would unlock the gate of the Convent garden, and decided that that would be a good spot to deposit the corpse, so he hoisted it on his shoulder, and asking his wife to go on before to give warning of the approach of anyone, he started off with his limp but heavy burden.
Save from the fitful light from a clouded moon the night was dark and the only sound that caught the ears of the conscience stricken couple were the hooting of owls and creaking of branches swaying in the wind. At length they reached a tree known as ‘Hunters Oak’ that marked the southern limit of the priory property, and finding a gate in the hedge near it had been left on the latch, passed through. Among the apple trees inside the garden was a tool house with some timber and nails lying in it, and they placed the body, hoping that those who found it would think that Wilshman had tripped and fallen on the spike that still stuck in his skull. Then without meeting a soul Lanrak and his wife made their way home to their house.
The following day this affair happened to be that on which the half yearly Court was held at the priory. On such occasions the drowsy hamlet was turned into a holiday centre where large numbers of the able bodied folks living in East Cornwall gathered to pay their tithes or settle disputes, and spend a merry time at the shooting butts and in joining in and looking on at cock fights, bear baiting, side shows, quarter staff, and other sports, which were always arranged for such occasions. The prior had of course noted Wilshman’s absence when the roll of the canons had been read on this revel morning, but as the transgressions of that brother were well known and generally laughed at instead of being found fault with, he omitted to order out a search party as all were too busy, for the weather promised to be fine and the people began to arrive right early. They came on horseback and on foot and soon made a beehive of the cloister and courtyards around the Convent, where booths had been set up at which the canons and their servants were shortly doing a roaring trade in the sale of holy relics bread and ale, and other good things. As the heat of the sun increased many a vassal became flushed and a bit quarrelsome and one named Simon of Bossinney made himself especially conspicuous. It was then the rule to pay tithe with a tenth of the goods in which the tenant traded, and pigs, fowls, wool, leather, calves, lambs, and other live and dead, chattels littered the premises. Simon was a fisherman and had brought a maund of fish as payment for his dues, but as these after their long journey over land were far from fresh, the canon at the receipt of custom refused to take them. Simon then upon used foul words and struck the monk. On this assault the priest, being a member of the church militant, deputed a clerk to attend at the desk and stepped outside with Simon to see if they could not come to terms over the matter. The celebrated fight that followed is noted in the annals of the priory as one which caused blood to flow freely on sanctified ground, and as having taken place just inside the entrance to St. Thomas churchyard, near the river. In the forth round the fisherman, by dealing the priest a clip under the ear, is reported to have felled him, and the place where his head struck the ground may still be seen for the prior when he subsequently purged the spot from the pollution of bloodshed had ordained that the grass should always grow green there as a memorial of the sacrilegious event.
Only one witness had been present at this fight for it happened in the dinner hour when most of the people were feasting at the tables in the cloister and refectory. Simon, sobered at what he had done, rushed to the river to get some water to dash into the priest’s face, and as this was no avail he became fearful and asked the onlooker to help him carry the body to the Convent garden where it would not for a while be seen. On reaching their goal with the body they made way for the tool house before mentioned, and had just reached it, when they were startled by finding that the shed was already occupied by another monk who seemed to be asleep, so they quietly dropped their load outside and then made off trembling exceedingly.
The priest, who had only been stunned by Simon, presently recovered and sat up. At first he felt dazed and surprised to find himself so far from the Convent, then he washed his face and bruises in a neighbouring stream called Harper’s lake and was about to return to his work when through the open doorway of the tool house he espied the missing Wilshman lying inside. “Wake up brother,2 he cried, “come and help me back to the Convent for my head is giddy.” On receiving no answer he walked towards the body shouting “Up up though drunken sleeper.” And as there was still no response he turned the corpse over with his foot, and seeing that the canon was dead, hurried off as fast as he could to spread the news, and sent out a hue and cry after his late opponent, Simon of Bossinney.
When they heard that Wilshman’s remains had been discovered, Thomas and Ena Lanrak were in great dread that they would be suspected and found guilty, but as they had mixed with the throng at the fair, and on the next day attended the canon’s funeral and shown no outward sign of guilt, they may have escaped punishment. There is at any rate no notice of their apprehension, or trial, in either the MSS or the priory register books, but I have no doubt that the monk’s skull with the nail through it was subsequently often before their mind’s eye, and they little thought that it would be unearthed before the resurrection day as it was when that portion of the priory site which is on the Launceston Gas Co’s land was uncovered not many years ago.
As to the charge against Simon this was proved literally down to the ground, for the blood stains marked the spot where he had fought the monk, and the witness of the fight appeared against him. The prior’s verdict on this culprit decreed that he should stand on the stool of penitence in the parish church once every year until such time as he was told to stop, and from thence proclaim to the congregation the sin he has committed. But Simon on hearing that the prior’s jurisdiction was questioned by the Crown authorities at Dunheved appealed to them, and on the case being re-heard at the Assizes he appears to have been forgiven on the payment of a fine.