A post for St James’ Day
The town of St Ives in Cornwall provides an unexpected link between an unusual burial commemoration on St James’ Day on 25th July and the more well-known celebrations in Santiago de Compostela, the traditionally accepted location of (most of) the saint’s remains, apart perhaps from an alleged relic – a mummified hand in St Peter’s Church, Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago (a.k.a. The Way of St. James) was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, and although by the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago, the route attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims worldwide following its declaration in October 1987 as the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe, and the naming of Santiago de Compostela as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The Camino can take one of dozens of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and as with most pilgrimages, this began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. Although only a few of the routes are considered main ones, the St Michael’s Way from St Ives or the church of St Uny, Lelant, to Marazion received funding for signage of the 12 mile “coast to coast” across Cornwall. Pilgrims from Ireland and Wales were said to be prefer to this to navigating around Land’s End en route to mainland Europe.
For those walking the St Michael Way, one of the early highlights is the monument to lawyer and former St Ives mayor, John Knill, and provides tenuous link to St James and a reminder of his unusual burial wishes, both those planned and those in practice.
John Knill Celebrations
These form “the most elaborate commemoration” of the cases studies in Clare Gittings’ Eccentric or enlightened? Unusual burial and commemoration in England, 1689 – 1823, (2007 Mortality 12 (4) 321). Some years before his death, Knill set up a trust to finance and oversee a 5-yearly ritual to be performed on St James’ Day, 25th July, involving: “10 girls of 10 years old or less, two widows, the mayor, vicar, and customs officer processing to Knill’s (empty) mausoleum on a hilltop and all dancing round it, finishing with everyone present singing the Old Hundredth ‘All people that on earth do dwell’.
Knill left funding for each of the participant, a dinner for the trustees and the upkeep of the memorial: he attended the first celebration in 1801 and the ritual has taken place every five years since then. However, Gittins notes “John Knill, who was an Anglican, may possibly have been prevented from being interred in his hilltop mausoleum because of a refusal to consecrate it”. Without further information, we can only speculate on religious sensitivities in the early 1800s, although alternative provisions were included in his will.
John Knill’s Will and Autopsy
Knill was subsequently a lawyer at Gray’s Inn, and his will specified that if he were to die within 30 miles of London:
“My Body should be sent to the Anatomical Lecturer Wilson Esquire who is also Surgeon Keeper of the late Dr. William Hunter’s Museum in Windmill Street or to his successor . . . to whom I give the sum of ten Guineas provided he shall dissect or cause to be dissected my Body . . .”
He also required that a further surgeon, George Davidson, attend his dissection at Hunter’s Museum. Gittins suggests that this may have been a precautionary measure since bodies were not always treated with dignity either during or after dissection. Davidson’s role was to ‘‘assist therein if need be’’ but particularly to:
“See . . . all my Bones . . . carefully put into . . . a wainscot coffin of the common dimensions for a man of my size namely five feet six inches and half high . . . to be interred in a private manner in the vault of the Church of St Andrews Holborn”.
The next John Knill Ceremony in St Ives will be on 25 July 2026.
[Updated, 26 October 2023 at 14:05]