It is one of the loveliest spots in England; standing on a peninsula on a finely wooded hill, it lies embosomed in beautiful trees, that the sun seems to love, as it gleams golden on their green summits of varied tints and hues. North of Mount Edgcumbe are Stonehouse and Devonport; east of it Plymouth Sound; and south is the magnificent sea which forms the English Channel, with the stone breakwater stretching out to check and arrest the might of the great Atlantic waves.
All writers on England have expatiated on the marvellous beauties of Mount Edgcumbe, and Fuller tells us that the Duke of Afedina-Sidonia, Admiral of the Armada, was so struck with it that he had resolved to take it for his own residence as soon as he had conquered England. He had not yet met Lord Howard of Effingham and the Drake!
"The underlying secret of Mount Edgcumbe," says a popular writer, "is its variety - a variety that time cannot wither or custom stale."
This is quite true; there is at Mount Edgcumbe every variety of the picturesque; hill and dell, lovely lawns and verdant meadows, and bold and rugged heights; above all it has the great charm of the sea about it, a charm of the picturesque surpassing all others. The drive through the park everywhere skirts the harbour or the sea, and is wonderfully picturesque and beautiful. In the grounds are Lady Emma's Cottage; the Ruined Chapel; Thomson's Leap; the Temple of Milton, the White Seat; the Amphitheatre; the Arch; and the Zigzag Walks.
The house itself is a castellated building, parts of which date from the reign of Henry VIII., but it is all in perfect repair. The hall is very grand and has a minstrels' gallery; but the rooms are otherwise rather comfortable and elegant than imposing. There are some fine family portraits.
The Edgcumbes are of a very ancient Devonshire family. Richard Edgecumbe - the name was thus spelt at that period - Lord of Edgcumbe, in Milton Abbot, in 1292, was the direct ancestor of the present earl.
William de Edgcumbe married Hilaria, the heiress of Cothele, in the reign of Edward III. Cothele being in Cornwall, the Edgcumbes moved thither and resided at that beautiful spot for several generations, Richard Edgcumbe, grandson of the heiress and her husband, was an adherent of Richmond (afterwards Henry VII.). "He was," says Fuller, referring to this adhesion, in the time of Richard III., "so hotly pursued and narrowly searched for, that he was forced to hide himself in his thick woods at Cuttail (Cothele), in Cornwall. Here extremity taught him a sudden policy, to put a stone in his cap and tumble the same into the water, whilst those rangers were fast at his heels; who, looking down after the noise, and seeing his cap swinging thereon, supposed that he had desperately drowned himself; and, deluded by this honest fraud, gave over their further pursuit, leaving him at liberty to shift over into Britain" (Brittany).
Having thus escaped, Richard Edgcumbe joined the forces of the Earl of Richmond, came to England with him and fought side by side with him on Bosworth Field, which was fatal to Richard III., and placed a crown on Richmond's head. Edgcumbe's valour in that battle was rewarded by Henry with knighthood on the field, and after the earl's accession to the throne, by the gift of Totnes Castle and lordship. Sir Richard held many high offices, and died at Morlaix, while ambassador to France, 1489.
Piers Edgcumbe, his son, inherited his father's courage and intellect, and also received knighthood on the field from Henry VIII., at the Battle of the Spurs. Sir Pier's son, Sir Richard Edgcumbe, built the present home of the family.
The Edgcumbes have preserved their high character as loyal and noble gentlemen, through all following generations. They were created Barons in 1748, and Horace Walpole has described the second baron as "a man of fine parts, great knowledge and original wit, who possessed a light and easy vein of poetry," and who was also an excellent artist.
He never married, and the title and estates passed to his brother George, who was created Earl of Mount Edgcumbe in 1789.
There is a very singular story of a trance in this family.
The Lady Edgcumbe, believed to be the mother of the first baron - created 1748 - was supposed to be dead, and was buried in less than a week after she had expired. She was interred in the family vault. But the sexton had noticed a valuable ring on her finger, and resolved to take it. He went down into the vault, opened the coffin, and endeavoured to remove the ring; but it was small, and he could not get it off. He pressed, pinched, and pulled, and suddenly the corpse sat upright and opened its eyes. The man ran off in an agony of superstitious terror. The lady arose after a pause, took the lantern and issued from the vault, which happily the man had been too much alarmed to close. Her husband, sorrowful and sleepless, heard her voice, and admitted her at once. She had, of course, been in a trance. Five years afterwards her son, Sir Richard, was born.
Cothele (also, as we have seen, the property of the Earls of Mount Edgcumbe) is an antique and beautiful historic hall, and is called one of the "gems" of Cornwall.
It is an embattled building round a quadrangle, situated on the south-east slope of Kingston Down, and overlooking a mass of ancient woods of oak, elm and chestnut that descend to the very banks of the river Tamar. It is of granite and was begun by the Sir Richard Edgcumbe of Henry VII.'s reign, and carried on slowly through that of Henry VIII. It was completed in Elizabeth's time. It is one of the best existing specimens of mediaeval domestic architecture in England, ranking with Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire. The banqueting hall at Cothele is 42 feet long by 22 feet wide. It has a fine timber roof of Henry VIII.'s time, with intersecting arches in its compartments.
The walls of the hall are hung with old armour - there is that which Sir Richard wore at Bosworth Field - gauntlets, petronels, battle axes, spears, swords and bucklers, matchlocks and pistols; horns and trophies of the chase. The windows are richly emblazoned with the arms of the great western families: here are the shields of Raleigh, Tremaine, Carew, Courtenay, etc.
The memory of the founder of the mansion is indeed "kept living in his ancestral halls, where shame has never trod," for the table at which he dined, the bed in which he slept, are still pointed out to the visitor. All the rooms are hung with fine tapestry, which one has to lift to enter them. The hearths have handsome grotesque andirons for the support of logs.
Cothele was visited by Charles II., George III., and Queen Charlotte; and also by Queen Victoria and the late Prince Consort.