Bolster by George Cruikshank (Taken from Robert Hunt's 'Popular Romances of the West of England')

The photograph below is taken from te St Agnes town website

Ranking equally with the Cornish Pisky, the Cornish Giants are without doubt the most well-known of the Duchy's mythical residents. It's almost impossible to travel anywhere in Cornwall without tripping over some reference to Giants; whether it's Cormoran at St Michael's Mount, Bolster and his unrequited love for St Agnes at Chapel Porth, or the monstrous ship-wrecking Wrath at Portreath.

There are also the tales of Jack the Giant Killer, a Cornish land who despatched many of the Giant race and made himself a hero at King Arthur's Court. While the story may not be known world-wide, elements of it have found their way into that most popular and enduring of English fairy tales (and pantomimes), Jack and the Beanstalk.

But who were there Giants? And where did they come from?

Giant Origins

Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Gaufridus Monemutensis, of Monmouthshire in Wales, is one of the earliest sources of the legendary beginnings of Britain. Geoffrey wrote Historia Regnum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) circa AD 1136. He uses earlier sources, including Nennius's Historia Brittonum and Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae. It was Geoffrey who first wrote about British Giants, when describing the origins of Britain

He states that when Brutus, the exiled Trojan son of Aeneus arrived at the islands of Albion, he renamed them Britain, after himself, intending that the name Britons would perpetuate his memory. His second in command, Corineus, was given Cornwall as his spoils of conquest and named it after himself. Geoffrey states that Corineus was:

"… a sober-minded man, wise in counsel, yet great of courage and audacity. If he were to come up against a giant he would overthrow him as easily as if he were fighting against a mere boy."

(Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, pages 72-73.)

Geoffrey states also that the land was empty at that time except for a small population of Giants who did not take kindly to Brutus's invasion. They attacked Brutus and his men on several occasions, led by their great leader, Gogmagog (or Gog Magog or Goemagot). Gogmagog was fierce and a great fighter but, after one particular battle near Totnes in Devon, was captured. Instead of killing him, Brutus kept him alive so that Corineus could wrestle with him for sport. The fight took place on Plymouth Hoe (now in Devon) and, needless to say, Corineus won and threw the Giant off a hill that is still called Gogmagog's Leap to this day. Figures of Gogmagog and Corineus were cut into the turf to commemorate the fight but were later overgrown. However, in 1494 the figures were re-cut in the turf on the supposed site. There is documentary evidence of the re-cutting in Plymouth library but the figures have long since been lost again.

Folklore tells us that evidence of the fight was discovered when the City of Plymouth was being built. Robert Hunt quotes William Scawen in his Dissertation of the Cornish Tongue:

'I cannot affirm with so much reason, as some of our neighbours have done with confidence, who say that at the last digging on the Haw (Hoe) for the foundation of the citadel of Plymouth, the great jaws and teeth therein found were those of Gogmagog, who was there said to be thrown down by Corineus, whom some will have to be the founder of the Cornish; nor am I able to assert that some instruments of war in brass, and huge limbs and portraitures of persons long ago, as some say that have been in some of the western parishes, were parts of giants or other great men, who had formerly had their being their.

(Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, page 463.)

(To read more about Brutus, Corineus and the Origins of Britain, follow this link to Bill Rowe's excellent website.)

(Note: In Tregony in 1761 a coffin was unearthed which was 11 feet long . Although the contents had crumbled to dust, a tooth measuring 3ins had survived prompting many to believe that giants really did once live in Cornwall.)

Giant Bolster on Bolster Day, St Agnes

It seems that the Giants had always been in Britain. However, it is most likely that the large stature of the Celts were actually the origin of the Giants. According to Hubert d' Arbois of Jubainville:

'The untoward Gogmagog was one of an elementary big-boned tribe whose divinities were Gog and Magog'

'…the various races that have successively inhabited Ireland trace themselves back to common ancestors descended from Magog or Gomer, son of Japhet, so that the Irish geneaolgy traditions are in perfect harmony with those of the Bible.'

(Jubainville, The Celts and Hellenes, 1897)

And Robert Hunt notes the following sources:

'This authority, with a great display of learning, proves that Gomer, the eldest son of Japhet, was the chief of the Gomarians, and that these Gomarians afterwards were called Galatians, or Gauls. We further learn from him that a section of the Gomarians were called Sacae, and that the Sacae went into Phrygia, and afterwards assumed the name of Titans. This race, "and especially the Princes that commanded them, exceeded all others in Bulk and Strength of Body; and hence it is that they have been looked upon to be terrible people, and, as it were, Giants. The Scripture itself, the Rule of Truth, even gives such an Idea as this, of those famous and potent men, who, according to it, ruled over all the Earth. Judith, speaking of them in her fine Song, called them 'Giants the sons of the Titans'. And the Prophet Isaiah informs us, also, that these Giants were anciently Masters of the World." This mighty race dwelt in mountains, woods, and rough and inaccessible places, and "they lay in the Hollows of Valleys, and the like Places of Shelter and retirement, because they had no Houses in those Times." The learned abbot proceeds, exerting all his powers to prove that the Titans were the true Celtae--that a people of Greece were the descendants of the Titans--that Gomerwas "the true stock of the Gauls "--and that Magog, his brother, "is also looked upon to be the Origin of the Scythians, or People of Great Tartary." To seize on another authority, who appears to connect the Oriental with the British cromlech, and through those the people whose remains they cover, we will quote Dr E. D. Clarke, who describes a Cyclopean structure visited by him near Kiel, consisting of three upright stones, supporting horizontally an enormous slab of granite. After mentioning several cromlechs of a similar character, and other "stupendous vestiges of Cyclopean architecture," he says--" There is nothing Gothic about them--nothing denoting the Cimbri or the Franks, or the old Saxons -- but rather the ancient Gaulish, the ancient British, and the ancient irish; and if this be admitted, they were Titan-Celts.'

(Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, page 39.)