Folklore Thursday: Bolster
Perhaps the most notorious of all the Cornish Giants is Bolster, a vicious and tyrannical Giant who terrorised the people of the land round about as well as his unhappy wife. Bolster’s home, with which he is forever associated, was Bryanick or Buryanack, ‘the Sparstone Grave’, now known as St Agnes Beacon, which, legend has it, was built by the Giant himself. An ancient earthwork at the base of the hill which extended three miles from Trevaunance Cove to Chapel Porth is known as ‘The Bolster’.
Bolster was among the largest of the Cornish Giants – so immense was he in size that it was said he could stand with one foot on St Agnes Beacon and the other on Carn Brea, six miles apart. Notorious for his cruelty and foul temper, Bolster would destroy local people’s crops and scatter their livestock, sometimes even stealing the animals from them. He would torment and brutalise his wife who, like many of the female Giants in Cornish lore, is unnamed in most versions of the legend, though it has been suggested by one author that her name was Gonetta. Bolster forced his wife to work hard on useless labours, one of which involved making her collect rocks and carry them in her apron up to the top of the hill where she would place them in piles. Groups of stones and rocks gathered together at the top of St Agnes Beacon are said to be evidence of this futile task undertaken by Bolster’s wife.
Where Bolster’s story takes an interesting but dark and twisted turn is when he falls in love with a woman – a human woman – named Agnes, after whom Bolster’s hill of St Agnes Beacon and the town of St Agnes are named. Agnes is something of an elusive figure; there is no clear consensus as to who she really was. In some versions she is a local village girl, in others she is a missionary, in others she is a nun. In all of them, however, the tale is the same: Bolster falls helplessly and hopelessly in love with Agnes, a beautiful young woman of great virtue and exceptional cleverness who wants nothing to do with him. But the Giant stalks her incessantly, following her everywhere, declaring his love for her, pining over her, berating her, raging at her. Agnes tries everything and anything she can think of to be rid of him – ignoring him, attempting to shame him into leaving her alone by pointing out that he is married, praying to God to alleviate her distress and send the Giant away, enlisting a knight named Sir Constantine and his fellow warriors to challenge Bolster to a duel – but all to no avail.
One day it appears that Agnes accepts Bolster’s feelings for her, but she tells him she will need proof of his love before she can love him back. At the end of the cliff at Chapel Forth there is a hole that leads down into a cave. Agnes tells Bolster that if he fills the cave with his blood, she will believe that he loves her and will reciprocate his love. Eager to prove his passion and believing that, as a Giant, he can fill the small hole easily, Bolster stretches his arm across the hole and cuts his skin with a knife. A torrent of the Giant’s blood issues forth and gushes into the cave. After hours and hours, however, despite the Giants’s blood pouring out, the hole is still not filled. With such loss of blood over such a long time, Bolster becomes weaker and weaker, and only at the end does he realise what has happened. The cave in the cliff opens out at the bottom into the sea and the Giant’s blood has been flowing out with the tide, turning the ocean red. Agnes had known all along that the cave was a sea cave and had tricked Bolster, who by this time is too weakened and exhausted from loss of blood to staunch the wound. Thus, the dreaded Giant Bolster dies by the side of the sea, finally vanquished by the woman he loved, liberating Agnes, his wife, and all the local people to whom he had brought so much terror and grief. To this day, the hole at Chapel Porth retains a red stain where Bolster’s blood flowed down the cave wall.
Every year before the Spring Bank Holiday in May, the Festival of St Agnes and the Giant Bolster is held, in which the legend is re-enacted with giant puppets and actors, alongside performances and entertainments of traditional Cornish dancing and music.
Morgan meets Bolster and his wife during the course of her adventures in Book III.