"Now feast and festival in Arthur's hall:
Hark! stern Dundagel softens into song!
They meet for solemn severance, knight and king,
Where gate and bulwark darken o'er the sea."
- R S Hawker (1864)
Where History meets Legend
A ruined medieval castle on the Cornish coast, surrounded on three sides by azure blue sea, white sea-water spray crashing against the rocks, the birthplace of King Arthur: with such a dramatic setting how can one fail to be impressed with Tintagel?
No, English Heritage have not ruined the island – yet! Under immense financial pressure to become self sufficient as government (tax payers) money is withdrawn English Heritage must increase revenue from top draw attractions such as Tintagel. The so-called guardians of this rare piece of Cornish heritage have been accused of 'Disneyfication' of the site with the so-called Merlin carving on the rocks by the entrance to Merlin's Cave in The Haven and the bronze sculpture named Gallos, inspired by the Arthurian legend.
The face of Merlin causes the biggest concern, as a rock carving, at once it became a permanent feature. But it is unobtrusive and can't be found unless one gets down to Merlin's Cave. Whereas Gallos is clearly a modern sculpture and surprisingly does not feel out of place. Indeed, tourists queue up here to get their photograph taken by the bronze warlord. Only time will tell how this rare piece of Cornish heritage fares in the hands of its trusted guardians.
But next year (2019), English Heritage intend to build a bridge from the mainland to the island. This could be just too much; yes there are many steps to climb to the island but the effort is worthwhile and gives the feeling of remoteness. On achieving the climb you have left behind the mainland and the modern world and enter through a doorway into another realm; you have arrived at Arthur's Castle.
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Tintagel to the Arthurian legend in in his History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136, as the place of Arthur's conception after his father Uther Pendragon takes the form of Gorlois Duke of Cornwall by taking Merlin's potion. That night Uther enters Tintagel Castle and spends the night with Ugraine. In the 15th century William of Worcester toured Cornwall and recorded that King Arthur was born at Tintagel.
|The ascent on to the island|
The eccentric clergyman, poet and antiquarian, Robert Stephen Hawker (1803 – 1875), known as the vicar of Morwenstow, was inspired to write The Quest of the Sangraal after spending his honeymoon at Tintagel in 1823. Twenty five years later in 1848 Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, visited Hawker at Morwenstow, and sharing a deep fascination with Arthurian legend, the two travelled to the ruined castle at Tintagel. On completion of The Quest for the Sangraal, Tennyson is said to have declared that “Hawker has beaten me on my own ground.”
|The curtain wall of the 13th century Castle|
The birth of modern tourism in the Victorian period arrived in north Cornwall with the railway in Camelford and construction of the hotel overlooking the ruins of the medieval castle; Tintagel met the visitors' criteria of romantic wild landscape and fashionable coastal resort. The guide Florence Nightingale Richards, Keeper of the Castle Keys, would take visitors around the island pointing out such features as King Arthur's Seat, King Arthur's Cup and Saucers, King Arthur's Footprint. Tennyson's epic poem 'Idylls Of The King' (1859) inspired the Pre-Raphaelites leading to a re-discovery in the arts and crafts movement of the period and the Arthurian Revival.
The Arthurian association with Tintagel was accepted dogma until the 1920's when Henry Jenner the Grand Bard of Cornwall presented a paper in which he dismissed the Arthurian connections to Tintagel as a fraud. Jenner demolished the Arthurian connection and concluded that “historically and romantically, Tintagel Castle is rather a fraud” and argued for a religious function on the island. Jenner, who was responsible for the revival of the Cornish language, suggested that the name of the promontory was Norman-French, highlighting the similarity to a rock on the island of Sark which was known to the locals as “Tente d'Ageu”.
Tintagel was originally just the name of the headland promontory, where the curtain wall stands, connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus now greatly eroded by the sea. The village was known, until comparatively recently, as Trevena, meaning 'farm on the hill'. Oliver Padel of the Institute of Cornish Studies has argued that the name may originate from the older Cornish language: 'Din', meaning a fort, and 'tagell', meaning a place where two currents of water meet.
Jenner argued that Geoffrey introduced Tintagel Castle into the Arthurian canon because of its dramatic setting high upon the cliffs of the north Cornish coast. Jenner asserted that the medieval castle was not built until about 1230, nearly a hundred years after Geoffrey wrote his story and therefore could not possibly be an Arthurian site and therefore all subsequent accounts relating to Tintagel as Arthur's birthplace were derived from Geoffrey. He considered the Arthurian association was pure invention by Geoffrey as his own research found no such connection. Jenner's theory that Tintagel was a religious establishment, rather than secular, influenced archaeological interpretations of the site for the next 50 years.
In 1930, C. A. Raleigh Radford was commissioned by the British Ministry of Works to investigate the Arthurian history of the Tintagel site. He carried out excavations at the site, on and off, for thirty years. Yet, Radford's interpretation of the site concurred with Jenner's earlier suggestion that Tintagel was indeed the site of a Celtic monastery.
Radford envisaged Tintagel as Rosnat, created by the holy man St. Julitta, who arrived shortly before the year 500 with a group of disciples. A small group of Irish Saints Lives make reference to a place called “Rosnat” (or “Rostat”) where early saints received an education. Radford believed that Julitta equated with St. Juliana, one of the 'children of Brychan', a large family of siblings who became Celtic saints and have left their names in church dedications all over Cornwall. Today the low walls of the chapel still stand on the highest part of the island.
Henry VIII's antiquary John Leland visited Tintagel twice, in the late 1530's and early 1540's, following an itinerary similar to that of William of Worcester. Leland records that the chapel of “Ulette or Ulaine still stands within the dungeon”, while the remainder of the castle is in ruins. But Arthur is notably absent from Leland's record of his two visits to Tintagel.
“[Lancelot and Gawain] ….. rode right busily on their journeys until they came into a very different land, scarce inhabited of any folk, and found a little castle in a combe. They came thitherward and saw that the enclosure of the castle was fallen down into an abysm, so that none might approach it on that side, but it had a right fair gateway and a door tall and wide whereby one entered. They beheld a chapel that was right fair and rich, and below was a great ancient hall. They saw a priest appear in the midst of the castle, bald and old, that had come forth of the chapel. They are come thither and alighted, and asked the priest what the castle was, and he told them that it was the great Tintagel.
"And how is this ground all caved in about the castle?"
"Sir," saith the priest, "I will tell you. Sir," saith he, "King Uther Pendragon, that was father of King Arthur, held a great court and summoned all his barons. The King of this castle that then was here was named Gorlois. He went to the court and took his wife with him, that was named Ygerne, and she was the fairest dame in any kingdom. King Uther sought acquaintance of her for her great beauty, and regarded her and honoured her more than all the others of his court. King Gorlois departed thence and made the Queen come back to this castle for the dread that he had of King Uther Pendragon. King Uther was very wroth with him, and commanded him to send back the Queen his wife. King Gorlois said that he would not. Thereupon King Uther Pendragon defied him, and then laid siege about this castle where the Queen was. King Gorlois was gone to seek for succour. King Uther Pendragon had Merlin with him of whom you have heard tell, that was so crafty. He made him be changed into the semblance of King Gorlois, so that he entered there within by Merlin's art and lay that night with the Queen, and so begat King Arthur in a great hall that was next to the enclosure there where this abysm is. And for this sin hath the ground sunken in on this wise."
He cometh with them toward the chapel that was right fair, and had a right rich sepulchre therein.
"Lords, in this sepulchre was placed the body of Merlin, but never mought it be set inside the chapel, wherefore perforce it remained outside. And know of a very truth that the body lieth not within the sepulchre, for, so soon as it was set therein, it was taken out and snatched away, either on God's behalf or the Enemy's, but which we know not." [Trans. Sebastian Evans, 1898]
However, the account of Tintagel in The High History diverges from Geoffrey in recording a chapel standing in the ruins of a castle in much the same as that of Leland. Yet, The High History was written down at least three hundred years before Leland's account and thirty years before the medieval castle of Richard Earl of Cornwall was constructed; does The High History contain evidence of an Early Medieval stronghold on the island of which the remains were present in Geoffrey's day?
|The island courtyard|
A grass fire swept across the island in 1983 revealing many small dwellings which lead to the questioning of Radford's monastic interpretation. Subsequently, more recent interpretations of the Tintagel site have come to a very different conclusion and favour a secular trading post.
A re-evaluation of the site was carried out by the Cornish archaeologist Charles Thomas who closely studied the pottery sherds uncovered by Radford. Thomas noted that the pottery, mainly amphorae used to transport wine and oil, represented material evidence of imported luxury goods and concluded that the site had been used by high status or royal individuals and dismissed the monastic interpretation of the site.
In medieval literature Tintagel was always referred to as a 'royal palace' and a dwelling of the rulers of Cornwall, notably the palace of King Mark in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. In the earliest Arthurian tales (such as Culhwch and Olwen) Arthur's camp, Celliwig, is always in Cornwall. However, this does not qualify as providing any sort of evidence for proof of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of the conception of King Arthur at Tintagel Castle.
The history of Tintagel, as with much of Britain, starts in the Roman period. Two Roman honorific markers from the area, one now in Tintagel church and one at Trethevy, a mile and a half to the east, suggest an Imperial presence in the area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Small amounts of pottery and some Roman coins found on the island appear to confirm limited Roman activity.
In 1998 English Heritage announced the find was of a piece of slate which swung the pendulum firmly back in Arthur's favour. Known as The Artognou Stone, the slate found at Site C on the Eastern terrace, bears the inscription:
PATER COLIAVIFICIT / ARTOGNOV / COLI FICIT
The name “Artognou” was proposed as a variant of Arthur and immediately led to speculation that it was confirmation of King Arthur's presence at Tintagel. English Heritage's chief archaeologist at the time, Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, seemingly carried away in the euphoria, described the discovery as "the find of a lifetime".
|A display replica of the Artognou Slate|
Further archaeological investigations, sponsored by English Heritage, confirmed Tintagel was indeed a post-Roman palace, possibly the seasonal seat of the kings of ancient Dumnonia (modern Cornwall and Devon). Sceptics may argue that archaeologists always seem to find what they want to find, especially when English Heritage are hoping to raise the Arthurian profile of Tintagel.
|2017 excavations on the island|
"I yearn that men I know not, men unborn,
Should find, amid these fields, King Arthur's fame!
Here let them say, by proud Dundagel's walls--
'They brought the Sangraal back by his command,
They touched these rugged rocks with hues of God:'
So shall my name have worship, and my land."
- R S Hawker (1864)
Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson
Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
Robert Stephen Hawker, The Quest of the Sangraal, 1864.
The High History Of The Holy Graal - Branch XX, Translation by Sebastian Evans, 1898.
Charles Thomas, Tintagel - Arthur and Archaeology, Batsford, 1993.
Rachel C. Barrowman and Colleen E. Batey, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London), Society of Antiquaries of London, 2007.
C A Ralegh Radford, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall : Official Guide, HMSO, Reprint edition, 1969.
Ronald Youlton, King Arthur. Tintagel Castle and Celtic Monastery, Tintagel Parish Council, 13th Edition edition, 1976.
Henry Jenner & J.Hambley Rowe, Tintagel Castle: Its History and Romance (1926), Oakmagic Publications edition 1999.
Photographs copyright © Edward Watson
* * *