SITUATED in the Bristol Channel, the Isle of Lundy's nearest contact with the mainland is Hartland Point, 12.5 miles away. Clovelly is 15 miles, Instow 20 and Ilfracombe 24. The island is a gigantic mass of granite some three and a quarter miles long by half-a-mile wide, and stands nearly 500 feet above sea level. But the seas which beat against these precipitous cliffs are not more turbulent than the island's long and interesting history!
In the last 800 years there have been many owners, and judging by the rapidity with which it changed hands, one would have thought that it was rich with treasure for it was never ruled by one man for more than a few years at a time. Its attraction in the old days, of course, was that it was an almost impregnable fortress and to most of its owners it has provided a private hideout from those in authority. It has been a pirates' lair, a smuggler's headquarters and finally, an unspoit corner of near-perfect freedom, any attempts to destroy which, are strenuously and bitterly opposed by its present owner.
The first tyrannical owners of which anything is known were the de Marisco family, who, in the 12th century became (as was the habit of knights with Norman blood in their veins) ambititous and powerful. They recognised in the island a stronghold that could be held against all-comers, and hold it they did. Twice it was granted to the Knights Templar, but they were unable to take possession. In 1235, William de Marisco became implicated in the attempted murder of Henry III, and when suspicion rested on him, he promptly fled to Lundy. For the next few years he had a right royal time, collecting around him as pretty a company of outlaws and malefactors as can be imagined. He fortified the island and built a stronghold at the only landing place in the ten miles of coastline. Piracy, rapine, murder and even sorties against the realm became the order of the day, and they had but to return to the castle to be quite safe. Some victims would be taken back to be held for ransom, others as slaves, and those who proved obstinate were simply thrown over the cliff to the rocks and sea hundreds of feet below.
The remains of Marisco's castle still stand, and the walls are nine feet thick. No wonder, as the years went by, the King was advised by his nobles that the island was impregnable to ordinary assault, and the only hope of obtaining possession was by stratagem. Most unfortunately we have no knowledge of the artifices employed but doubtless thieves were set to catch the thieves, and eventually, after a 17-year run, William was captured together with sixteen of his chief accomplices. In the manner of his end there was certainly poetic justice, for he was hung, suspended on a hook, diembowelled, his bowels burnt and then his body drawn and quartered, a quarter being sent as a present and a warning to each of the four principle cities of the kingdom. No pity need be wasted on William, for it was the sort of thing his victims had suffered for years.
Lundy was then seized by the King, but strange to relate, within forty years the Marisco family were again in possession, but for a period which proved comparatively short. They then passed out of the island's history. There followed a succession of owners, and no greater tribute can be paid to its continued impregnability than the fact that, when it was held for Charles I during the Civil War, it was only after hostilities had ended eberywehere else in the realm that it was surrendered, and then only on the written permission of the King who was in captivity. Who knows, if Charles had retired to Lundy he might have kept his head!
For nearly the next hundred years the island was a veritable hornets' nest of pirates, French privateers, Spanish freebooters and the scum of the seas. It became one of the hazards of the mariners to take their ships up the Bristol Channel.
Of all the colourful personalities connected with the island, however, the prize must go to Thomas Benson, who was a Member of Parliament for Barnstaple in 1747. All the world has a sneaking regard for a rogue, if he be a pleasant and clever one, and Thomas, who ran a black market in galley slaves, was certainly a rogue with a quick wit and many qualities which could be admired. A member of an old Bideford family, who had become wealthy as merchants trading with countries of Europe and the Colonies, he inherited a fortune. He quickly consolidated his position as a man of affairs by entering Parliament, becoming a popular figure in the County and presenting a piece of Plate to the Barnstaple Corporation.
Undoubtedly with his eyes on the main chance, Benson then leased Lundy from its owner, Lord Gower, at a rent of £60 per annum and from then on it was easy. With his family record of merchants and traders behind him, he contracted with the Government to transport a shipload of convicts to Virginia. They were duly loaded and the vessel containing them set sail, but not to America as was the understanding! Benson had the vessel brought round to his island home and set the convicts ashore under guard. From then on they became his personal slaves.
Among the works carried out by the convicts was the great cave, which was excavated in the cliff face below the keep of the castle, as a store for the merchandise gained in his widespread smuggling activities. There is still much of the cave to be seen, for it has easily withstood the years and penetrates the cliff some 60 feet, being eight feet wide and twelve feet in height. Local legend, supported by an old map inthe Athanaeum Museum at Barnstaple, has it that in Benson's day the cave had two forks, one on each side and perhaps that is where some of the old smugglers' ill-gotten gains still lie. There is no substantial evidence, however, that the cave ever extended farther than can be now seen.
The convicts did their day's work and were then locked up in the fort under guard. Apparently, however, they did not count their blessings, for fourteen of them made their escape in a boat and landed at Hartland Point.
It may have been by this means that the authorities came to hear of the way Benson had defrauded them, for the whole episode was shortly afterwards uncovered. But Benson put on a brazen front. He unashamedly declared that it had been his intention all the time to unload the convicts on Lundy! Was not his contract to take them out of England, and had he not done just that? How the matter ended is not known, except that from then on the authorities kept their eyes on him and gradually his prestige declined.
He finally overstepped the mark in a gigantic swindle of insurance. A vessel, the Nightingale, was purchased and loaded with a valuable cargo of pewter and linen with salt as ballast, and was heavily insured. Again, having cleared the port on the mainland, the ship put into Lundy, where the cargo was removed and stored in the cave. The master of the vessel, by dint of either threats or bribes, became an accomplice of Benson and having unloaded her cargo, the vessel sailed again. Some days afterwards, when a homeward-bound vessel was sighted, the Nightingale was set on fire and scuttled. The crew were taken off the stricken ship by the other ship, which landed them safely at Clovelly.
It was a very neat plot and Benson would undoubtedly have got away with it, had not one of the ship's officers turned informer and revealed the full story to the authorities. They acted quickly, but not quickly enough. The captain was arrested, tried and hanged, but Benson was warned in time. He fled to Portugal and, it is said, entered the priesthood, but nothing was ever heard of him again.