Two heads in Cornwall

BIRDS WITH TWO heads have fascinated me ever since I first became interested in Albania when I was about 15 years old. Just in case you did not know, the flag of Albania (and several other countries) bears an eagle with two heads. Another place that uses this imaginary bird with two heads as a symbol is a place I visit frequently: Karnataka State (formerly Mysore State) in the south of India. Currently (June 2021), unable to visit either Albania or India, we are on holiday in the English county of Cornwall. At least two Cornish families have employed this imaginary double-headed creature as a symbol: the Killigrews and the Godolphins.  The famous banking family, the Hoares, also use the double-headed bird on their crest. A branch of this family might have originated in Cornwall (www.houseofnames.com/hoare-family-crest).

In the Kings Room at Godolphin House, Cornwall

I do not know for sure when or why the two-headed bird was adopted by these leading Cornish families, but here is my theory. John (1166-1216), King of England from 1199 until his death, had a son, his second, called Richard (1209-1272). His older brother, who became King Henry III, gifted him the county of Cornwall, making Richard High Sherriff of the county as well as its duke. The revenues collected from his county made Richard a wealthy man. Cutting a long story short, Richard of Cornwall was elected King of the Germany in 1256, often a position held by candidates being considered for becoming Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed him to become known as the ‘King of the Romans’. He was the ruler (but not the emperor) of the Holy Roman Empire, a position he held until 1272, when he was replaced by Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-1291). Richard hoped to become emperor, but never made the position. His crest bore a single-headed eagle, but that of the realm to which he aspired, The Holy Roman Empire, employed an eagle with two heads. At this point, I enter the realm of speculation. I suggest (with no evidence to back this up) that some noble families in Cornwall, who might have been associated with Richard, might have borrowed the double-headed eagle of Richard’s German kingdom for use on their family crests to enhance their family’s importance. Or, they might have used it in deference to Richard.  But, as my late father-in-law often said, I am only thinking aloud.

Recently, we visited Godolphin House, a National Trust maintained property just over 4 miles northwest of Helston. Set in lovely gardens, the house is what remains of a building that dates to about 1475, built by John I Godolphin. It was part of a far larger building, much of which is in ruins. It has a good set of stone outhouses. Godolphin built his house about 7 years after the death of the Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468), also known as ‘Skanderbeg’, whose coat of arms, helmet, and seal includes a double-headed eagle. I do not know whether Skanderbeg was aware of the Godolphins, but it is possible that the reverse might have been the case, as much was written about the Albanian hero, even soon after his death, and many members of the Godolphin family were well-educated.

The name ‘Godolphin’ is derived from several earlier versions of the family’s surname. In 1166, there was reference to ‘Edward de Wotholca’. A record dated 1307 mentions the family of ‘Alexander de Godolghan’, who died in 1349. It was he who built the first fortified residence at Godolphin, the name that the family eventually adopted. John I Godolphin demolished the first dwelling and replaced it with what was the basis for the existing building.

The Godolphins of Cornwall included several notable figures. Sir Francis I Godolphin (1540-1608) constructed extensive defensive works to protect Cornwall and The Scilly Isles against Spanish incursions, as well as improving the efficiency of his tin mines. His son William Godolphin (1567-1613) was a loyal supporter of royalty during the English Civil War. It was said that the future King Charles II visited Godolphin House and stayed in what is now known as the ‘King’s Room’.  

Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645-1712) was involved in the Court and Parliament during the reign of Queen Anne, which ran from 1707 to 1714. His most important position was First Lord of the Treasury. During both Anne’s reign and that of her predecessor, King William III, he was strongly associated with the military career of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Sidney’s son, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) was also a politician and a courtier. Although he was born in London, he represented the Cornish constituency of Helston, which is not far from Godolphin House. Francis worked his way up the governmental hierarchy to become Lord Privy Seal in 1735. a position he held for five years. In 1698, Francis married Henrietta (1681-1733), eldest daughter of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The Godolphins were spending hardly any time in Cornwall by the 18th century. From 1786, Godolphin House was owned by the Dukes of Leeds, who never lived there. Despite its now distant connection with the Godolphin family, their double-headed eagle can still be spotted around the house. There is a fine example in the Kings Room and several more on the hopper heads at the top of the rain collecting downpipes.

Whether or not birds with two heads fascinate you, a visit to Godolphin House, remote in the Cornish countryside, is well-worth making, not only to spot the mythical birds but also to enjoy fine architecture and wonderful gardens.

1 thought on “Two heads in Cornwall

  1. A very nicely succinct account. All I can offer as a minor observation is the way in which the name Godolphin seems to have exported itself into other great family trees in Devon and Cornwal – by marriage. The Godolphins seemed to have been a fecund family.

    _______________________ Brian Gerald Champness

    ________________________________

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