Myths and legends have captured the human imagination for centuries, and have become a crucial part of our collective psyche, enchanting us with tales of gods, demons, monsters and magical places where good thrives and evil dies away. Some of these legends, grand and sweeping in nature though they may be, are obviously stories, with little or no basis in reality. But other legends – such as those surrounding a certain English magistrate named Jan Tregeagle – are composed of no small degree of fact, as well as epic fiction.
Although there are many fantastic stories surrounding the magistrate Tregeagle, the truth is that he was a real person and his deeds are well-documented. He was a magistrate, who lived and worked in the early 17th century, serving as a steward for the Duchy of Cornwall. He had a fearsome reputation and was known for being brutal to the tenants in his charge. Some of the grim rumours which surrounded him included that he had murdered his wife, robbed a poor orphan of his estate, and even that he had sold his soul to the devil, making him a very dark and Faustian figure indeed.
You might imagine that having such an unsavoury reputation might cause some sort of moral epiphany, but in Tregeagle’s case this did not occur. In fact Jan took so much delight in his cruel ways that even after his death he supposedly returned to the courtroom to plague the local tenants, on one occasion even appearing in court to testify that he had indeed deceived that day’s defendant into signing away his land. Once his evidence had been given, the spirit of the wicked lawyer could not be gotten rid of. He had no wish to return to his place in Hell, so it was decided that he should be given a series of impossible tasks to keep him occupied and to prevent the hounds of hell coming to herd him back “down below”.
These tasks included empting the Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor with nothing but a limpet shell, and weaving rope from the sands of Gwenvor Cove. The rope-weaving turned out to be not as impossible as once thought, and Jan Tregeagle completed the task by pouring freezing water over the rope to bind the sand together. A collection of local priests and exorcists came to the Cove and condemned him to continue with the task, stating that this time he was forbidden to go down to the water, and to this day – legend has it – the frustrated cries of Jan Tregeagle can still be heard during the dark cold nights, when the icy winds carry his voice in from the cove as he struggles to weave the rope.
Of course this is only one version of events. There are several different interpretations, depending on where you visit, and because of this the name Jan Tregeagle is spoken of from Land’s End to Porthcurno Cove and Bodmin Moor, where his ghost supposedly roams in bitter loneliness, uttering fierce and desolate howls as he passes by. Over many years his legend has developed and grown, making him world-famous for his wicked ways and almost mythical nature. Taking into account what we know about his temperament, we can only imagine that Jan would be delighted if he knew of his notoriety.