In the early years of the 18th century Sir James Tillie updated his will and included a rather mysterious instruction about his last resting place. He was to be interred ‘in such a place at Pentillie Castle as I have acquainted my dearest Wife the Lady Elizabeth Tillie with.’
Shortly before his death Sir James (1645-1713) added a codicil to his will (it is not attached to the proven will in the National Archives, but is with the copy in Cornwall Record Office). He stated that he wished to be placed in a ‘Timber oake Chaire’, lined with crepe or flannel, in which he could ‘sit exactly fit Tight and Close’. He was then to be placed in a room in Pentillie Castle until a ‘Repository’ could be built to house his remains. He specified two spots on the estate: ‘Either on that Eminence called Mount Arraret or Pisgah’, with the former (nothing is known of the latter), a ‘finely wooded hill’, being chosen by his widow. Lady Tillie had also been instructed by her husband to erect a monument and inscription.
The earliest account to discuss the burial seems to be a manuscript history by the Cornish antiquarian William Hals, written sometime before 1737 and published posthumously in parts from 1750. Hals painted Tillie as a rogue and an atheist, and claimed to have it on very good authority that Tillie was buried in a seated position, finely dressed, and with his papers and pen set out before him, all encased in a wooden box or coffin. From Hals also came the story that Sir James was so sure of resurrection that he claimed he would be back at the castle within 2 years, and before long the story was also circulating that Tillie had instructed his servants to continue to bring meals to him after his death. All of this seems to be embellishment, and there is no mention of grand vestments, writing materials or daily dinners in Tillie’s comprehensive codicil.
William Gilpin, clergyman and promoter of the picturesque, perpetuated the story told by Hals in his Observations on the Western Parts of England, published in 1798. Gilpin’s text was then repeated, often verbatim, in a number of other publications in the next decades.
In fact Tillie’s burial was really only unconventional in that he was interred ‘by making an Arm’d chair and closeing up his body in it’, as a visitor in 1764 was told, rather than in the more usual prone position in a casket (although it was also still quite rare to build a mausoleum on a private estate rather than in the consecrated ground of a churchyard).
In 1810 the landscape gardener Humphry Repton created one of his famed Red Books for Pentillie. In it he proposed that the ‘small building’ on Mount Ararat be remodelled so that it might be appear to be an ‘isolated Tower of a ruined Castle’. Repton expert John Phibbs has suggested that the battlemented upper storey and the walled terrace were added at this date. This idea is backed up by earlier watercolours, which appear to show the mausoleum as a simple square tower.
The whole ensemble is shown in an engraving dated 1823:
For many years the mausoleum was in a neglected condition. The doorway was blocked up and only glimpses of the rather decayed and bramble-bound statue of Sir James were possible.
In 2013 a restoration was begun with the Pentillie Estate (seat of the Coryton family) receiving funding from Natural England and the Country Houses Foundation. As part of the project the Jessop Consultancy was commissioned to investigate the mausoleum, alongside Building Surveyor Richard Glover. Few records for the building of the mausoleum seem to have survived, although the (not always reliable) Cornish historian Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in his Cornish Characters & Strange Events that accounts for the construction survived, dated after Sir James had died and thus proving that the building was erected after his death. The site investigation however led the team to conclude that the mausoleum was a remodelling of an earlier tower or summerhouse.
Within the vault human remains were discovered along with pieces of wood with metal studs that spelled out Tillie’s initials and date of death. Enough remained of the decaying coffin for the specialists to confirm that he was indeed ‘placed in a wooden box […] but with a raised back section to imitate a chair’. Sir James’s remains were not disturbed, and the vault was resealed, but his statue was sent away for specialist restoration and then returned to the mausoleum, from where he continues to survey his domain.
Thanks to the team at Pentillie for welcoming the Folly Flâneuse and for the loan of the canine companions who guided us up the Lime Walk to the grade II* listed mausoleum.
Pentillie is now an events venue and there are holiday properties in the grounds. There are seasonal garden open days – check the website for 2023 dates in due course https://www.pentillie.co.uk
For more on Tillie see Stephen Tyrell Sir James Tillie: his Life, Houses and Eccentric Burial, Pasticcio (2016).
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