The History of Penzance
The history of Penzance can be traced back at least to the Iron Age . Within the current parish boundaries of modern Penzance, evidence of early settlement exists in the form of the Iron Age Hill Fort known as Lescudjack Hill Fort.
The name Penzance comes from the Cornish for ‘holy headland’, referring to the Chapel of St Anthony that was situated on the headland to the west of Penzance harbour over a thousand years ago. Despite its long history Penzance was once overshadowed by the nearby town of Marazion . Unlike Penzance, Marazion is mentioned in the Domesday Book and was chartered in 1257 by Henry III ; making it the oldest chartered town in Britain. It was not until the 17th century that Penzance grew sufficiently to overtake Marazion in terms of local importance and size.
In the year 1322 Penzance, which had begun as a humble fishing village, became a town with a royal charter. It was still a relatively small town, but the charter gave it the right to hold an annual fair and a weekly market; in 1404 this was raised to two weekly markets and three annual fairs. These rights were vitally important to attract business from neighbouring locations and help a town to grow. During this time Penzance grew into a small but thriving port.
Unfortunately this and its coastal position in the extreme south west, gave rise to problems with pirates that spanned many centuries. From medieval times and for several centuries following, foreign raiders troubled the town of Penzance. They were often referred to as ‘Turkish Pirates’, but were mostly Barbary Corsairs, operating from the Northern African coastal countries such as Tunis and Algiers. The
most notorious of these were Hayreddin Barbarossa (Redbeard) and Oruc Reis, brothers who took over Algiers in the early 16th century and set up a base for pirates who raided European coastal towns as far north as Iceland. Penzance continued to be a target for pirates for centuries, with many people taken to be sold as slaves. The Barbary Corsairs operated and troubled European towns right up until the 19th
Raids by the Spaniards had also been a problem for some time, even after the Spanish Armada was repelled in 1588; Penzance was subjected in 1595 to a raid by Don Carlos de Amesquita and a force that he had been using to patrol the Channel. They raided and burned Penzance and several local villages, stole supplies and held a mass before departing.
The town was fiercely loyal to the King during the English Civil War , but suffered at the hand of Parliamentarians who twice put down the Royalist supporters and plundered the town each time. The fortunes of Penzance in latter centuries were largely due to royal favours. They were granted a Royal Market by Henry IV , the right to charge and retain Harbour Dues by Henry VIII and given the status of Borough by King James I . This all helped Penzance to grow sufficiently enough to overtake Marazion as the most important settlement locally.
By the beginning of the 19th century Penzance was established as an important regional centre. In 1814 the Royal Geographical Society of Cornwall was founded in Penzance and in the same year a dry dock was built; following an extension of the pier two years earlier. The growth of the town was further aided by the opening of the first railway connection to Penzance in 1852. This enabled the town to link local farmers with more profitable markets for their perishable goods. Modern day Penzance has a population of just over 21,000, a relatively small town by British standards, but still a tenfold increase since the beginning of the 19th century.
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