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History of Godolphin

View across the countryside from Godolphin Hill, Cornwall
View from Godolphin Hill | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Find out how the Godolphin estate developed through the ages from the Bronze age right through to modern day. Previous owners used the local tin resources to fund the building of the house standing today. The significance of Godolphin's role in Cornwall's mining history was recognised when it was included in the Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.

Early history

The earliest datable features on the Godolphin estate go back to the Bronze Age and are found at its highest point. At the top of Godolphin Hill is a rough circular enclosure. It's unclear whether these stones formed part of a settlement or were of ceremonial and ritual importance.

Changes on the landscape started around the Iron Age. During the mining period many ‘palstaves’ or Bronze Age axes were found on the site in a coffin. This is the earliest evidence of mining at Godolphin.

An aerial view of Godolphin House and the surrounding estate, in Cornwal
Aerial view of Godolphin House | © National Trust Images / Aerial-Cam

The medieval period

In the medieval period Godolphin Hill was probably common land to several local hamlets and used as a source of rabbits and seasonal berries. Evidence of surface mining and streaming have been found across the estate dating to this time.

A rising powerful family

It was during the medieval period that the Godolphin estate started to form. A rising powerful family called Godolgun acquired the land around the 12th century and built a defended house on the land around the late 13th century to early 14th century. Moated homes were built at the time to protect stock and produce from common thieves.

A defended house

Evidence of a defended house here comes principally from two sources. In 1478 William Worcestre included ‘ruined’ Castle Godollan in the settlement of Lodollan (Godolghan), in his list of Cornish Castles. Then, John Leland, writing in the late 1530s, tells of a ditch, and a pile of principal habitation of the ‘Godolcans’.

Tudor and Stuart history

Between the 15th and 17th centuries the family name changed from Godolghan to Godolphin. This was seen as a more agreeable name to the English elite with whom the family had increasing ties.

Mining intensified in the Great Work area as the tin lodes became exploited, leading to a great increase in the Godolphin family's wealth.

A deer park and rabbit warren

The hill and many fields were given over to a deer park and rabbit warren. These rabbit breeding grounds were a source of high-status meat and fur.

The deer park was used to farm for venison, but also would have been used for hunting as a leisure activity.

View across fields at Goldolphin House, in Cornwall, with abandoned pit head buildings in the foreground
Abandoned pit head buildings at Godolphin House | © National Trust Images / Aerial-Cam

The Napoleonic Wars

Some of the boundaries surrounding the estate were built by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. The Duke of Leeds had connections with prisoner of war camps and was able to source labour to work on the land.

These boundary styles are very rare and, outside of the Godolphin estate, they can only be found at Morvah in Cornwall and around Dartmoor prison in Devon.

The Duke of Leeds

In 1909 the 10th Duke of Leeds made a special visit to Godolphin. This was only the second visit, on record, that the Dukes of Leeds made to Godolphin in the 134 years they owned the estate.

A book was created to mark this event, with all the farm tenants listed in it, which can be found in our collections.

A special gift

This visit was quite an event; all the farm tenants at Godolphin pooled together some money to purchase a silver greyhound. The Duke was an all-round sportsman and was noted for breeding and racing greyhounds.

A world heritage site

On 13 July 2006 ten mining landscapes across Cornwall and West Devon were announced as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From 1700 to 1914, the metal mining industry played a vital role in transforming the way of life in Britain. It provided essential raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution.

Mining at Godolphin continued up to the 20th century, although it flourished around the late 18th century, much earlier than other Cornish sites.

Two adults walk through the garden in the sunshine at Godolphin, Cornwall

Discover more at Godolphin

Find out when Godolphin is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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The north face with the portico of Godolphin House in Cornwall on a sunny day

Visiting the house at Godolphin 

Godolphin House provides a unique place for guests to stay and is open to the public for the first week of every month from the first Saturday to the following Thursday, except January. Find out more about our opening times here.

Herbaceous borders in summer at Godolphin,

Things to do in the garden at Godolphin 

Godolphin’s garden paths provide a natural space that’s rich in history. Find out how the garden provides a home to the native Cornish bee. Explore the orchard, side garden paddock and King’s Garden.

Visitor walks along a dirt path at Godolphin Hill in Cornwall on a summer's day

Exploring the estate at Godolphin 

Discover the countryside and find out how a herd of cows can help butterflies to thrive. Take walks with far reaching views across the Cornish coast and discover local legend in this ancient landscape.

A colourful tapestry of a Cambridgeshire landscape, with buildings in the centre and the words Newmarket above


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.