Cornish Saints and Sinners: An Artful Maid

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The Legend of the Giant Bolster of St. Agnes, Cornwall
by J. Henry Harris

A N  A R T F U L

defeats a Giant

There were female as well as male saints, and when a woman came to the fore she made quite a sensation. St. Agnes was a woman. She was not born a saint, but became one. She was christened Ann, plain Ann, and was a good little girl, with blue eyes, and light brown hair much given to curl into lovelocks. She lived at home with her parents until, on growing up, she became restless and wanted to see the World for herself. She did not complain any more than other girls that her dresses were not tailor-made, and she had no particular grievance, only she felt that she must have a change. She wrote a dear little note, and enclosed one of her love locks, to her dear and loving parents, begging their forgiveness for all the trouble and expense she had been to them. Then she went off on her own.

She was supposed to have been delicate on the chest and, Cornwall having a great reputation for its good climate, she made all haste to get there. In those days there were a good many pilgrims on the road who used to entertain one another with stories of many lands and their adventures therein. Delicate little Agnes heard, in this way, about a famous Cornish giant, named Bolster. Mr. Bolster was in many respects a monster, and his story held great interest for little Agnes because it was said that he changed his wife every New Year's Day. He was called Bolster after the long pillow with which he used to smother his old wives. Agnes wanted adventure and, as her saint-like qualities developed, she felt more and more drawn towards Mr. Bolster, until one day she determined to confront him. It was a bold thing, but Agnes was bold and when she felt at all timid, she said aloud, "Courage!"

Mr. Bolster was a very fine fellow, the Colossus of his age. When his right foot rested on the summit of one hill his left foot rested on the summit of another. The only thing that ever troubled him were his corns, for, when the whether changed, he sometimes had such twinges, he thought he must have a conscience that had decided to bother him so. He often wished to be rid of it. At other times his "conscience" was passive. Agnes heard about the corns, and a light played in her eyes of heavenly blue. She had had an idea.

New Year was approaching, and Mr. Bolster was on the look-out for a fresh partner of his joys. When Agnes sighted him he was standing, with one foot on Carn Brea and the other on the Beacon, looking at the little virgins round about playing at "touch". His habit was to make his selection, watch the young lady home, and then, at New Year's dawn, carry her off just when she was busiest dreaming of mince-pies. Agnes guessed that the psychological moment had come, so she walked up Carn Brea and tickled Mr. Bolster's right foot with a bramble, quite close to his pet corn. Mr. Bolster, thinking that his "conscience" was at him again, lifted his foot angrily; but happily for Agnes, he saw her kneeling below. "Hello!" she shouted.

Agnes presented her card:

Beautiful Forever!
Miss Agnes.
Corns Extracted, Bunions Attended to.

Beauty at his feet, and the New Year near! Corns extracted! Was there ever such luck? Bolster took the little maiden up in his arms and promised, then and there, that she could be the next Mrs. Bolster. "Not long to wait," he added with a chuckle, the present Mrs. B. not having turned out to his liking.

Mr. Bolster had very much neglected his personal appearance lately. So, when he sat Agnes on his knee in the evening light, she began his education in such matters. "Beautiful Forever!" was her motto and her trademark. If Bolster only wore curls, what a head! If he had Hyacinthine locks, what an Apollo! Bolster looked at her dear little love locks and then put his great hand over his own hair, which was long and matted. He began to think that short, crisp curls would be an improvement after all. He did not surrender at once, but Agnes said she couldn't, she really couldn't, be the next Mrs. Bolster and trim his pet corns unless he had hyacinthine locks, like an up-to-date hero in a novel. She found a bit of chalk and drew on a blackboard the head of a Hercules with Apollo's Locks. Mr. Bolster was touched in a weak spot, and to keep him soft, Agnes vowed that she would never be Mrs. Bolster until he was such a man - such a curled darling.

Mr. Bolster's hair was long and matted. So, Agnes fetched a rake, and combed and combed until it all fell out and there was none left to curl. New Year came, and the current Mrs. Bolster went the way of all the giant's wives. Agnes sat upon Bolster's knee and wept because of her vow which she must keep - no curls, no Agnes. She stroked his bald pate, saying the new hair was sprouting already and it would curl so sweet, when short, that his own mother wouldn't know him. Then Agnes put him on a health diet to make him young again, but, when his hair really began to grow, she became afraid. She caught him heating the curling-tongs in secret, as though he meant business as soon as it was possible.

Agnes sat upon Bolster's knee and wept. He was so stout. She could not clasp his manly waist. He must become slimmer - he must, he must. The tears welled up in her beautiful eyes. Once more she touched the right spot and Mr. Bolster, the Colossus, melted once more. He'd do anything for her. So he took an oath at which even the stars trembled.

There was a little basin in the rock which the giant used for shaving-water now he had become a dandy. Water trickled down the crevice into the sea when the cork plug was removed. Agnes prescribed a little blood-letting - for she was skilled in phlebotomy - "just a basinful, you know," said she, with great pleading eyes of heavenly blue. Mr. Bolster threw his mighty arm carelessly across the basin. "Only a basinful this time," said Agnes, pulling out the plug when he wasn't looking.
"Wake me up when it's full," said Bolster.

The giant slept and slept, dreaming of Agnes, and the vital stream flowed and ran down the crevice into the sea. Agnes looked over the cliff and saw the sea blush, and blush deeper still.
"Is it nearly full?" asked Bolster, in a tone of lazy happiness.
"Not yet - not yet, my love," said Agnes, stroking his bald head where the curls were to grow. So he slept some more and woke again, and asked, "Is it nearly full?"
"Yet a little more. It runs so slowly now," said Agnes, and Bolster slept again.

Agnes looked over the cliff and the sea was deeply dyed: So great a stream had flowed from the mighty form, smiling in sleep, but pale in death. He woke again and tried to rise, but Agnes soothed him, saying, "But a little more, 'tis nearly to the brim." His last vision was of her.

So the land was rid of Bolster. The people, however, were not as thankful, to Agnes, as they might have been, so she left the area. She led a wandering life, making and selling an ointment which people rubbed over their eyes to make them see clearer. Her fame followed her wherever she went, and people began to praise her and dedicate churches to her. The place where Bolster was slain became St. Agnes, and the basin into which his life's blood flowed may be seen to this day. A pebble thrown in finds its way to the sea if there is nothing to prevent it.

The story is only one of a class, and it is quite easy to separate fact from fiction when you know how. In this case, Bolster was not a real person, but a snow-god to whom the people offered a virgin every New Year to make him melt and let the earth bring forth her harvest again. St. Agnes made the people see the error of their ways - that was the ointment she made for giving people clearer vision - and so it was said that she had slain Bolster. She was, no doubt, artful and was all the more popular in consequence; for it becoming a saying that "an artful maid is stronger than Bolster."

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Edited from "Cornish Saints & Sinners" (1906)  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC