Sir James Tillie, the man who built Pentillie Castle in Cornwall in 1698, specified in his will that, rather than being buried, he should be dressed in his best clothes, bound to a stout chair and placed with his books, wine and pipe in his favourite folly, awaiting resurrection.
So the excavators who have found human remains, a collapsed coffin and the possible remains of a wooden chair, encased in a brick vaulted chamber under slabs of granite flooring, have firm foundations for believing they may have located Tillie’s body, faithfully buried 300 years after his death.
“Despite all the theories that we had banded about as we tackled the restoration of the mausoleum – the strange, bricked-in windows, the false ceiling joists, the inverted v-shaped roof, the steps that seem barely connected to the main structure – this was certainly not on the list,” admits Ted Coryton, who has carried out extensive improvements to the castle since inheriting it with his family five years ago.
“It was an exciting moment, to finally uncover the truth and to know that Sir James was in fact in his mausoleum.
“During the past five-and-a-half years we have researched much about him and the castle, so to finally tie up the loose ends was extraordinary.
“There is no doubt these are very old remains, and all indications are that it is likely to be Sir James Tillie.
“There was no sign of his pipe, books or wine but there were the remains of a chair that looks typical to the 1700s, when he would have been placed there.”
Accompanying a team of masons, Coryton won permission from the Ministry of Justice to remove the stones and enter the room, accessible via eight steps down to a stone floor and lime plastered wall.
The chamber measures little more than two square metres, with the remains found beneath a series of leather-covered degrading planks.
Sir James’ servants are said to have brought wine and food to the body for two years, at which point their nerves caused them to inter his remains and build a marble statue in his place, which is currently undergoing specialist restoration by conservators in Bath.
Ivy has been cleared, walls have been repointed, crumbling castellations have been rebuilt and cracks have been repaired at the Mausoleum, where centuries of neglect meant the floor needed to be stabilised, leading to the emergence of the vaulted structure.
Natural England and the Country Houses Foundation have backed the restoration, led by building surveyor Richard Glover and archaeologist Oliver Jessop, who has carried out lengthy investigations of the fabric of the building and made the initial descent into the room.
“It has been a very exciting discovery,” he says. “It is an important find in the history of Pentillie.
“The discovery of a body in the vault contradicts local tradition and adds another twist to the eccentric goings on of the Coryton Family".
Coryton raised a sloe gin to Sir James on the day of the discovery, and remains apologetic for taking so long to make the breakthrough.
“There are no plans to exhume to body or undergo any further DNA tests,” he adds.
“There is not really any doubt about who the remains belong to.”
- A series of Garden Open Days and guided garden tours will take place at the property between now and July. Visit www.pentillie.co.uk/events-at-pentillie for details.
© Pentillie, courtesy John Danks, BBC