The howl of John Tregeagle rolls across the moors and in and out of the lonely moor land villages. His wailing bites at the doors of stranded farmhouses and accosts strangers as they wander the lanes. Some say Tregeagle still rages through all of Cornwall; moaning along the north coast cliffs from Lands End to Bude, taunted by the snare of the devil and his hounds scampering back and forth along the southerly coast to Rame. On Bodmin Moor the voice of John Tregeagle cries loudest at Dozmary Pool; on a stormy night it can be heard wailing all around Bodmin town.
In contrast to the howling whinge of Tregeagle on the moors, was his role as Steward at the beautiful and tranquil estate of Lanhydrock. As he walked through the woods to the Steward’s lodge, Jan Tregeagle stamped his boots along a carpet of the most magical haze of bluebells. Alongside the gurgling river, he belched and sang a tuneless bark. In his job as chief Steward to the Lord of Lanhydrock, Tregeagle was in charge of the rents for land. Tregeagle was not an honest steward, he sat at his big wooden desk working into the night. He forged ancient deeds for a large area of lands around Bodmin and claimed all the rents for himself. He sold off bits of land to whoever asked. Instead of reporting the sales to the Lord, Tregeagle behaved as if the lands of Lanhydrock estate belonged to him to do with as he pleased. The land-owning families all round Bodmin got themselves in a pickle due to Tregeagle’s creative stewardship. Adding to this, Tregeagle was careless with his record keeping, rents and sales were not properly recorded, leaving only Tregeagle with the power to say who owned what.
Wicked was Tregeagle to a succession of wives and sons. Some said he’d murdered, all said he’d harmed. To all who came across him, he did some wrong. He amassed a great fortune through dishonest means and relished the excesses money allowed. An offer from the devil seemed trivial enough. Tregeagle had manipulated countless highborn men; surely swindling the devil could pose him no challenge. They struck a bargain. Tregeagle would wallow in excessive riches until the day he died, and in return he promised the devil his soul, an easy lie.
“A bargain ! A bargain’ he said out aloude;
‘At my lot I will never repine;
I swear to observe it, I swear by the roode.
And am readye to seale and sygne with my bloode,
Both my soul and my body are thine.”
Cleverly, or so he thought, Tregeagle found a way to bypass his part in the bargain. He paid the priests hard cash in exchange for immunity from his pact with the devil, a church burial, and the priests’ protection. The priests gathered round Tregeagle’s grave nightly, chanting to ward off the waiting darkness.
Tregeagle would not rest for long. Shortly after his death, two landowners both claimed lands to belong to them and entered into a bitter dispute ending up at Bodmin court on trial. Tregeagle had acted as Steward to one of the landowners. As we know, Tregeagle had forged deeds, sold off land and leased other parts, recording none of it. The lord of Lanhydrock having looked through his rent book, believed the lands to still belong to him and wanted his rent to be paid. The dispute could not be resolved and in deep frustration one of the landowners called on Tregeagle as a witness.
”Spirit of John Tregeagle, I call you forth to testify”
The court stood frozen in terror, and watched with growing horror as the evil spirit Tregeagle appeared from the dead. He gave the case in favour of the man who had recalled him.
When the trial was over the court felt pleased enough but the spirit turned and cunningly said, “You who have raised me for your own ends will not rest me with such ease.”
From that moment on, Tregeagle terrorised the benefactor of the trial, and indeed the whole of Bodmin, with his horrible hounding and taunting. Something had to be done, and the priory of Bodmin and the church men of surrounding villages gathered to debate a solution. They decided to tie the spirit to an unending task with the consequence of the devil if he paused. Bottomless Dozmary Pool on the high moor was chosen, a natural pool known to the early Celts as the lake of the underworld. Tregeagle was tasked with emptying it with a limpet shell. He was taken to the moors and bound to his task using powerful spells. Now, it didn’t matter all that much if Dozmary really was bottomless or no as the limpet shell given had a hole in it and as he bailed all the water slid back. Every day for years Tregeagle bailed and every night the devil’s hounds snapped at his heels as they tried to distract him.
One night a great storm raged above Dozmary Pool and Tregeagle was frightened and frustrated so he tried to run away. The hounds were soon snapping close behind and he was forced to double back to the lake. The only route was into the water where the hounds could not follow. Tregeagle waded through as the hounds bounded away round the edge of the pool, he reached the bank with a head start and ran across the moors. But the hounds were close behind,
Tregeagle ran and ran until he came to Roche Rock where he stuffed his head through the chapel window finding sanctuary and terrifying the hermit praying inside.
For many weeks Tregeagle clung there. The Abbot of Bodmin arrived with an army of holy men and took Tregeagle to the river Camel where his task was to spin ropes of sand. He toiled all day never daring to pause for fear of the devil and his hounds growling,
Every time he had spun a good length of sand, the tide came in and washed it away and Tregeagle screamed in anguish but he had to go on. Just as he had finished weaving a particularly strong rope of sand, a great storm bounded in from the Atlantic, whipped up by the devil. The people of Padstow started to leave the town in great numbers on account of the spirit’s frustrated and unbearable wailing. Hearing of this, St. Petroc came to Padstow’s aid. He made a chain with links of prayers to shackle Tregeagle and took him to the Loe estuary, near Helston.
Tregeagle was tasked with carrying sacks of sand across the river. One day he had a particularly heavy sack and he dropped it. Sand stacked up across the river creating what is known today as the Loe Bar. The people of Helston were as disturbed by Tregeagle’s incessant moaning as those of Padstow and something had to be done. As night fell, the hell hounds gleefully surrounded Tregeagle growling for his soul.
St. Petroc’s chain of prayers was redeployed. All the saints in Cornwall flanked Tregeagle as he was taken over to Porthcurno Beach. Here his task was to sweep all the sand from the beach and around the headland. With every effort he made, the winds and the tides washed the sands back again, providing him with an endless task at which he still toils to this day.
When his howling gets too much for the people of Porthcurno the saints take Tregeagle back to Helston. When his howling gets too much for the people of Helston, the saints take him back to Padstow. When the people of Padstow can bear the noise no longer, out comes the chain of prayers and Tregeagle is hauled back to Dozmary Pool.
On a stormy night you may hear the wailing and moaning of Tregeagle; perhaps if you listen again you may hear the echo of the hounds as they taunt him.
retold by Anna Chorlton
John Tregeagle of Trevorder, Barbara Spooner
‘Folklore of Cornwall,’ Tony Deane and Tony Shaw
‘Popular Romances of the West of England ’ Hunt
‘Folklore and Legends of Cornwall,’ Courtney
Tregeagle rhyme - An ancient Cornish Legend in two parts, John Penwarne
Image - The Looe Ditty Box