The Mystery of Sir James Tillie's Missing Corpse

By Chris Mills on at

Sir James Tillie was, by all accounts, a slightly strange chap. An eccentric Cornish landowner, he had a rather unique burial after his death, and to this day the location of his final resting place is a myth. Grave robbers need not fear, however; a new restoration of his mausoleum looks set to reveal the location of Britain’s most eccentric and elusive corpse.

Born to fairly humble surroundings in Gloucestershire in 1645, James Tillie rose through the ranks of the Newton Ferrers estate run by the Coryton family, ending up as the manager of the estate while John Coryton played at being a politician in Westminster. (See, even in those days MPs had two homes.) When Sir John suddenly died at the tender age of 58, his faithful servant James did what any ambitious commoner did in those days – married the grieving widow – and became owner of the Newton Ferrers estate. Wasting no time in spending his new-found riches, Sir James commissioned the building of Pentillie Castle (because you can’t be a true nobleman without a castle to call your own), and lived happily ever after.


An Englishman's home is, literally, his castle

His eccentricity shined through in his will, however. Rather than being buried like most respectful, God-fearing folk of the time, Sir James just couldn’t let go of his estate. His will stated that he should be “dressed in his best clothes, hat and pipe; bound to a stout chair, surrounded by his books and wine, and then placed at the top of Mount Ararat, a hill overlooking his estate, to await resurrection”. His loyal servants dutifully did as instructed for the next two years, bringing food to the slowly-decomposing corpse, until someone saw sense/they got bored, and the body was buried. Problem is, no one knows where the besuited corpse was moved to, and to this day the location of his final resting place is a mystery.

Sir James' original resting place

Intrepid Cornish historians and grave-robbers need not fear, though. A team of conservationsists have been giving the estate a thorough going-over, investigating a long-held theory of where the old knight might be hiding. In 1810, the estate had some fairly major building work done on it, designed by the then-renowned landscaper Humphrey Repton. It has been suggested that he modified the existing mausoleum, essentially building a new storey on top of it, creating a secret hidden underground vault.

This theory is looking ever more likely as archaeologists continue to explore the site, as preliminary digs have revealed a vaulted brick roof beneath the ground floor of the mausoleum – a sure-fire sign that there’s some kind of chamber beneath. Ted Coryton, the current owner of the estate, is hopeful that this will contain the remains of both Sir James, and hopefully his wife Elizabeth. After almost 300 years, I am doubtful as to what exactly might be left – all the clothing should have decayed, but how long wooden pipes can survive in a crypt is another matter.

Still, it’ll be nice for the resting place of one of Britain’s most elusive knights to be resolved. While this might not quite have the same awe factor as discovering the body of Richard III under a car park, it will finally solve one of Cornwall’s many local legends.

Image credits: BBC