In July 1457 Elizabeth Treffry was left to defend her castle, Place House, and the major port town of Fowey on her own. At this time the south coast was frequently raided by French and Breton marauders eager to disrupt the growing maritime trade of England and Cornwall (and to annoy the king, Henry VI who had been engaged in the last bit of the Hundred Years’ War with France that had ended in 1453).
Her husband was absent at the King’s Court during one of these raids so it was left to Elizabeth to rally local people and co-ordinate a six-week defence of Place and Fowey town and harbour. Allegedly, she came up with the idea of repelling those rascally French pirates by pouring hot molten lead all over them.
Or so the chroniclers say…
The Lady of Place
Elizabeth Treffry the legend was immortalised by Cornishman Henry Sewell Stokes in the poem The Lady of Place, published in The Voyage of Arundel and Other Rhymes From Cornwall (1884). The poem starts by setting the scene of the bravery of Fowey sailors (also pirate raiders) who become known as the Fowey Gallants, themselves the cause of much misery for the communities on the northern coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Although a few townsmen tried to repel the French who were raging through the town, Elizabeth Treffry found the defence a sorry state of affairs:
But she was there, that Lady,
To play no woman’s part ;
Though the great sufferings of her town
Had pierced her gentle heart :
And into action she sprung:
Still calm look’d forth the Lady
From her embattled wall ;
Her presence was a power, her voice
Thrill’d like a trumpet’s call.
The Fowey Gallants fought under her banner to rid the town of the French:
Three cheers, then, for the Fowey gallants !
For the Lady three times three !
And, if the French should come again,
May our wives as fearless be !
Suggesting Elizabeth Treffry a good role model for the women of his day, Sewell Stokes ends the poem with a moral:
Changed is the world, much changed since then,
Yet will they come once more ?
Who knows – or cares – or fears ? who doubts
We’ll serve them as before ?
Grace Darling died but yesterday,
And others of her race
May yet be found to emulate
That Lady brave of Place.
Elizabeth Treffry is now the figurehead of the Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Collection which is held by the Hypatia Trust. When the collection was formally launched in 1996 (by her only living descendant David Treffry), Hypatia was looking for a female figure to create a strong image and inspiration for the collection. Elizabeth Treffry seemed to sum up everything that is good about women and the Cornish spirit.
The collection is currently based in Penzance, West Cornwall and is in the process of being professionally curated and catalogued. It comprises over 3000 books and archives documenting women’s lives, work and achievements, including those who have shaped the Duchy’s character and reputation. We are actively fundraising to ensure the collection becomes an essential part of Cornish and Scillonian heritage and move it to a new publicly-accessible home.