Here at St Ives Archive we take an interest in anything connected to the history and life of the town and area. So when our attention was drawn to an article in the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries which claimed that Lelant was probably the target of a Spanish raid in 1405 which left the village in flames and killed numbers of the inhabitants, we pricked up our ears. None of us had ever heard of such a thing in this area, although we were aware that it had happened to coastal towns along the south coast from Cornwall to Kent over the centuries of hostilities between Britain and the Continent.
The perpetrators of this particular raid were a combined flotilla of Spanish and French galleons and galleys under the command of Don Pero El Nino, Count of Buelna, and were made in revenge for the raids of an English privateer called Harry Paye, whose base had been Poole in Dorset. He had terrorised French and Spanish shipping for years and in 1398 had also stolen a valuable crucifix from the church of St Mary in Finisterre. An apology for this ancient crime was made by the churches of Poole and Parkstone in May 2008, when a specially crafted cross was sent to the mayor of Gijon.
The story of Pero El Nino’s life and exploits are written in a biography of him by his servant, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, published between 1431 – 1449, called El Vitorial. There have been several English translations of this including one by Dame Joan Evans, in 1928, called The Unconquered Knight. This translation states that after sailing up the west coast of France the party attacked and burnt a coastal town in Cornwall called St Ives. But the name of the place in the original Spanish is Chita or Chitta. So, why St Ives? There are no known historical records of St Ives being sacked and burned any more than Lelant, and the geographical description does not match either place more than many other Cornish ports.
The important factor here seems to be the name Chitta, which appears to have been the name that Cornish fishermen, captured by the raiders, told them the place was called. Lelant comes into the picture because some think that the word should be Chanta not Chitta, and that Chanta could be a corruption of the ancient name of Lelant, Lananta. At a very long stretch that might be so, but it would be very difficult to make an argument like that for St Ives which in Cornish is, Porthia, as we all know, and in Latin, Santa Ia.
Another problem with both of these suggestions is why would a raiding party heading for Poole, on the south coast, deviate around the notoriously dangerous Land’s End, to St Ives Bay, unless they were lost? And there is no hint of that in the account. They would also have had to make the return journey to reach their main objective of Poole.
What we do know from independent historical accounts is that after Chitta, the raiders attacked Dartmouth, Looe and Poole, also ventured a try at Plymouth and Southampton, but decided they were too big and well fortified to take on easily.
So where was Chitta? One strong clue to my mind is at Looe. It is in Cornwall and its geography fits the description in Gamez’s account far better than St Ives or Lelant. What’s more its present inhabitants believe that it was raided in 1405, and this is recorded in the town’s museum and in Philip Payton’s “A History of Cornwall.” The story is included in a fictionalised form by Carrick White in his book, Wrecks, Raids and Ambuscades. But the strongest evidence is in the ancient name for Looe which is Shutta. If you put Shutta into your search engine you will be presented with “Wikipedia – Shutta is a Northern suburb of Looe, Cornwall, or Ordnance Survey, Shutta, Cornwall – area information; or numerous advertisements for holiday accommodation in Shutta, Looe. There are street names like Shutta Lane, and Shutta Road in Looe.
The Cornish dictionary published by the Cornish Language Board, edited by Dr Ken George, has Shuta – a water conduit, and then the interesting comment: Included by Nance to explain plural noun Shutta, but no evidence of this word in Cornish. Origin Middle English, Old French a chute. So Shutta seems to be the plural of Shuta meaning more than one water chute. This would fit well for Looe as Shutta Road passes down hill towards the harbour in the salubrious district of Shutta. Incidently St Ives used to have a street called Shute Street into the 19th century but at some time its name was changed to Street an Pol.
If you were a Spanish sailor interrogating a frightened Cornish fisherman about the name of the port you were standing off and he told you Shutta, it’s not too unlikely that with the noise of wind and sea in your ears, that what you heard sounded more like Chitta, it’s certainly the nearest I’ve found so far to Chitta.
So all things considered, it seems that it wasn’t St Ives, or even Lelant, that was sacked that day in 1405, but Looe, where it’s an accepted fact of local history. Jolly narrow escape, St Ives, you probably wouldn’t have been in such a good position to petition the Pope for a new church to reduce your dependence on Lelant in 1408 if you had been rebuilding the extensive destruction of a 1405 sacking and burning.
By: Dr John Sell
Devon and Cornwall notes and Queries Spring 2021. 1405: The Spanish Destruction of Lelant, Cornwall – Andrew Breeze. Page 285
The Unconquered Knight: A chronicle of the deeds of Don Pero Nino, Count of Buelna by Gutierre Diaz De Gamez. Translated and selected from El Vitorial by Dame Joan Evans, B.Litt., F.R. Hist.S. published by the Boydell Press
Wrecks, Raids and Ambuscades, around and about Looe, by Carrick White. Published by Carrick-White Ltd. 2016
A History of the Parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor, by John Hobson Matthews 1892
Featured image: Map of Cornwall by Christopher Saxton, published in 1579 (Wikimedia Commons)