Saturday 31 January 2015

Tintagel Castle

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin's feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried "The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!"

Island of Disenchantment
Straddled across the windswept precipitous headland, Tintagel Castle is half on the mainland, half on the island, connected only by a narrow neck of land which has led to the popular acceptance that the origin of the name arises from Cornish Dintagel; 'Dun' meaning 'fort' with '-tagell' meaning 'narrow place'.

Suggestions that the source of the name is from 13th century Norman French at first glance seem absurd but Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Brittaniae) c.1136 AD contains the earliest written mention of Tintagel in the tale of how Arthur was conceived there when Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, magically assisted by Merlin of course, seduced Queen Igerna, the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. We have no idea why Geoffrey would have chosen Tintagel as the site of the conception but we do know that he placed much of his Arthurian 'history' in Cornwall.

There is little evidence of any occupation before the Dark Ages, various small finds, including pottery and some late 3rd and early 4th century Roman coins, suggest activity on the headland but nothing more. From around 450 AD to 650 AD Tintagel was a prosperous and highly significant site. Its position made it highly defensible and most unusually it also has supplies of fresh water.

So many steps....
C A Ralegh Radford's excavations in the 1930s identified the apparent pattern of scattered small-scale structures as buildings of a monastic enclosure; the remoteness of the headland would be an attractive site to those seeking isolation. Radford worked at the site again in the 1950s and found nothing to change his mind. Indeed, some of the pottery fragments bore Christian symbols, taken with the wider distribution of these types of imported pots they appear to match that of early Christian inscriptions. Fragments of imported high-quality Mediterranean pottery have been found all over western Britain, but Tintagel has by far the largest quantity so far discovered. The pottery along with  Mediterranean glassware is evidence of trade with lands as far away as ancient Byzantium, possibly in exchange for desirable Cornish tin.

This remained the accepted interpretation of Tintagel island until Archaeological excavations, commissioned by English Heritage, between 1990 and 1999 re-evaluated Radford's work and concluded that instead of a small community of Celtic monks, Tintagel may have been one of Western Britain’s premier centres of Dark Age political and military power.

Remains of the 13th century castle
Radford, along with Geoffrey Ashe, co-founded the Camelot Research Committee in the 1960s with like-minded individuals under the direction of archaeologist Leslie Alcock in an attempt to discover Arthurian sites such as Camelot. Ralegh Radford directed excavations at Glastonbury Abbey between 1951 and 1964, the infamous burial place of King Arthur; Alcock directed excavations at South Cadbury hillfort from 1966-70 publishing his interpretation of his findings in the book 'By South Cadbury Is That Camelot' (Thames & Hudson, 1972).

The pottery finds, combined with the buildings on the headland suggest intensive occupation at this period, often interpreted as a seasonal stronghold of the Kings of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall).
The  high-quality Mediterranean pottery has also been found at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, a favoured suggestion for Arthur's Camelot. Then suddenly the pottery imports stopped.

Dark Age remains near the summit
After the mid-7th century there is little evidence of activity on the Tintagel headland for the next 500 years. During the 13th century, a castle was built on the site by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, which later fell into disrepair and it is the ruins of these buildings that dominate views of the site today. Once past the 13th century curtain wall to the Great Hall courtyard you are at will to explore the Dark Age remains that are generally distinguished as low grass-covered banks over the top of the island. If you know where to look you will find King Arthur's Footprint immortalised in stone at the highest point of the island. Nearby is King Arthur's Seat a cleft in the cliff. The rock here bears a peculiar series of hollows known as King Arthur's Cup and Saucers.

In about 1480 the antiquary William Worcestre claimed Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s birth as well as his conception but the identification of Tintagel as King Arthur’s Castle is not found until 1650. However, by now Arthur's base was firmly established at Camelot, wherever that was, and Tintagel,with little activity, slipped into relative obscurity until a late revival in the Victorian Age and became a tourist attraction.

Merlin's Cave
The cavern on the west side of the Haven is known as Merlin's Cave. This is a late addition to the Arthurian legend and known since the late 19th century and publication of Tennyson's Idylls of the King. It is here, according to Tennyson, that the infant Arthur was washed up on the shore.

Today the site is managed by English Heritage and many visitors, myself included, come away with a rather negative picture of the place of where King Arthur was conceived, or born, depending which legend you are recalling. The dominant remains are those built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in the 13th century. The Dark Age remains are slight and, as well laid out and identified as they are, are not much to look at and hardly inspire any connections to a 6th century power base of the  Kings of Dumnonia. The so-called 'Artognou' stone found on the headland in 1998 has no connection whatsoever with King Arthur although it was much publicised as such at the time of its discovery; no doubt it was good for business. Even the name of the island may be French. And to cap it all the video display shown in the EH visitor centre will certainly dispel any hopes of finding an historical Arthur here. I left this island of disappointments feeling rather flat like so many others.

On walking back up to the village, once named Trevana, but not shy in missing the opportunity of Arthurian exploitation, they changed its name to Tintagel to match the castle, you pass the King Arthur's Arms Inn and opposite is the oldest Post Office in the country, dating to the 14th century, complete with sagging roof.  Further along the high street passing a myriad of gift shops you arrive at King Arthur's Great Halls of Chivalry.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Coming of Arthur from Idylls of the King
Paul Broadhurst, Tintagel and the Arthurian Mythos, Pendragon Press, 1992.
Colleen E Batey, Tintagel Castle, English Heritage Guidebooks, 2010.
Oliver Padel, Cornish Place-name Elements, Nottingham: English Place-Name Society, 1985.

All photographs copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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Sunday 25 January 2015

King Arthur's Hall: Monument or Pound?

“Arthures Hall. A place so called and by tradition helde to be a place whereunto that famous K. Arthur resorted: it is a square plott about 60 foote longe and about 35 foote broad, situate on a playne Mountayne, wrowghte some 3 foote into the grounde: and by reason of the depression of the place, their standeth a stange of Poole of water, the place sett rounde aboute with flatt stones in this manner.” (Norden, 1584)

A Moorland Enigma
The mystery of the well known monument of King Arthur's Hall on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall has been noted since it was first recorded by John Norden in 1584. The site is shown on a map of 1610 as “Arthurshall”. Debate continues whether the provenance of this moorland monument belongs to Prehistoric or Medieval times. King Arthur's Hall is a rectangular enclosure, a rare 'un-British' monument, as Burl calls it and sees similarities to the rectilinear enclosures of Brittany. It's closest relation in Britain is the rectangle of the Stonehenge Station Stones. King Arthur's Hall is an enigma. Isolated and remote, its purpose and date remain shrouded in the moorland mist.

This listed ancient monument has been damaged by livestock in the past and is now fenced for its own protection. The bank has dropped over the years and excavation may uncover further fallen stones. The interior appears to have been lined by a continuous row of large facing slabs, most now either recumbent, leaning or buried. In the centre of the south side one of the stones has been set at right angles to the bank, seemingly deliberately marking a significant feature but unfortunately the opposite position on the north bank has been disturbed. A RCHME survey in 1986 discovered traces of cobbling in the north-west corner.

King Arthur’s Hall, also known as Arthur’s Hunting Lodge, is situated in an area of open moorland, Arthur’s Downs, that extends north towards the settlements and ritual monuments of Louden Hill, eastwards towards Garrow Tor and south to Hawkstor.

The name of King Arthur is attached to a variety of landscape features; the original myth now lost to us, but it is clearly ancient and in existence in the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend as shown in the Historia Brittonum. This 9th century document is our earliest account of a historical Arthur, the dux bellorum, the leader of battles, who fought twelve successful campaigns. Yet  contained within the same manuscript (Harlian 3859) and attached to the Historia Brittonum is the Mirabila, The Wonders of Britain, which includes a folkloric Arthur who's dog Cabal is as big as a horse and left his footprint in a rock. Another wonder mentions the ever-changing size of the tomb of Arthur's son Amr. The concept of Arthur throughout British folklore as a figure who hunted in the wild, untamed, remote parts of the landscape is apparent in Cornwall and clearly very different to Geoffrey of Monmouth's creation of an Emperor or a sub-Roman warlord. Whether there ever was such a man is open to debate but his legend endures across the wild moorlands.

There is another Cornish site known as Arthur’s Hunting Lodge at Castle-an-Dinas, near St Columb, from which Arthur rode in the hunt on Tregoss Moor; a stone in St Columb bears the four footprints that his horse made whilst he was out hunting. Nearby on Bodmin Moor, in the parish of North-Hill, are other prehistoric sites bearing the names Arthur’s Bed, and near Trewortha Farm, Arthur’s Troughs, said to be where Arthur fed his hunting dogs as recorded by the 18th Century Cornish antiquarian, Dr William Borlase, who, in 1754, said of the site:

'Round Arthur's Bed, on a rocky Tor in the parish of North-hill, there are many [rock-basins], which the country people call Arthur's Troughs, in which he us'd to feed his Dogs.'

The Hall
King Arthur's Hall is a rectangular enclosure measuring 47m by 20m, constructed  of banked earth and rough stones, of which 14 remain upright, with 25 leaning, 13 fallen and possibly another 5 visible. Modern estimates suggest there may have been as many as 138-140 stones, many of which may now lie beneath parts of the collapsed bank. An inturned stone in the south bank is set at right angles to the rest of the stones.

The earth banks are about a metre high and over 5m wide. The enclosure is aligned north-south with a gap, that may have formed an entrance, in the south-west corner. The reed-covered interior is a poorly drained, boggy rectangular hollow which usually contains a pool of water in a depression at the centre, 60cm lower than the surrounding moorland, from which the interior has been scooped out with the earth used to form the banks. The subsequent depression allows water to collect which has led to the suggestion that the gap in the south-west corner may not be ancient having been made for drainage; notably Norden's 16th century plan fails to show the gap in the south-west corner.

The enclosure is positioned on a slight ridge below the crest of the moorland plateau on King Arthur's Downs, being visible from about a mile distant but from the north only. Nearby to the south-east are a pair of ruined stone circles, 400m beyond these is the Leaze stone circle. About a mile and a half to the north are the Prehistoric settlements of Rough Tor and Louden Hill, with three further stone circles to the south.

There is evidence of substantial medieval settlement on Louden Hill with King Arthur's Hall situated near the boundary between the manors of Hamatethy and Blisland. Indeed, the Hall appears to have been present in the establishment of the manorial boundaries, which does not exclude an earlier date. On the contrary, boundaries tend to be 'one of the most permanent and ancient features of the English landscape' with Prehistoric monuments frequently used to establish boundaries in the early Medieval period.

Prehistoric Monument or Medieval Pound?
Many suggestions have been put forward for the origin and function of the Hall, ranging from a Neolithic mortuary house or enclosure, a Bronze Age ceremonial or ritual monument, a cock fighting pit to a medieval pound for stray animals. It is worth noting that a long cairn on Louden Hill was originally said to be a medieval structure and only correctly identified as prehistoric as late as 1984.

The very name 'King Arthur's Hall' is suggestive of a meeting place; thus it has been suggested that the upright granite slabs look like chairs, perhaps the place where King Arthur held counsel with his Knights? But according to a well-known website on ancient sites King Arthur's Hall has nothing to do with King Arthur.

The size of the construction of the monument and lack of original entrance tends to suggest it may be sepulchral in purpose, possibly a mortuary enclosure.  Many long barrow sites started off as small rectangular enclosures of earthen banks topped by a timber palisade, constituting a mortuary enclosure. British Neolithic mortuary enclosures were typically sub-rectangular banks with external ditches and raised platforms of stone or wood within them, thought to be used for the exposure of corpses prior to burial elsewhere. Remains of mortuary enclosures of this period are often found under long barrows. Long barrows are relatively rare in this part of the country with no more than a handful known in Cornwall. If King Arthur's Hall is a mortuary enclosure where is the sepulchre?

Prehistoric enclosures of rectangular construction are relatively rare but a similar enclosure exists in Brittany, which has been identified as a Bronze Age cremation site, and a similar ramparted construction at Lough gur in Ireland has been dated to the Neolithic. Without excavation and the absence of any archaeological finds the date and purpose of the monument must remain speculative. Recent work has shed some light on the monument but essentially King Arthur's Hall retains its mystery.

Clearance work at King Arthur's Hall conducted by members of The Heritage Trust in 2013-14 revealed a revetment wall was constructed to retain the inner bank. This brief investigation concluded that over time the earth had covered over the top of the revetment wall suggesting that the structure was originally a rectangular enclosure from which the earth was extracted and banked up on four sides, forming a sub-level receptacle with an apron between the excavated area and the banks. By removing some turf it revealed the depth of the excavated area appeared to be shallower at the perimeters and deeper in the middle. This false receptacle would have filled with water, either rising or from rainfall. Was this simply a medieval dew pond constructed for watering livestock? The continuous bank would make that seem unlikely.  So we are back to the possibility of a prehistoric enclosure for ritualistic use.

King Arthur's Hall may have experienced several construction sequences over time; Burl suggests the enclosure may have started life as a 'megalithic rectangle' similar in appearance to the monument at Lanveoc, Finistere on the Crozon peninsula in Brittany, also aligned to the cardinal points but with the longer sides arranged east-west.

The banks of King Arthur's Hall may have been added later in the medieval period and the enclosure adapted to form a pound for stray animals. But the apparent lack of any portal arrangement considered with the 'awkward' siting of the entrance in the south-west corner of the enclosure argues against King Arthur's Hall being originally conceived and constructed as an animal pound, which, from the prehistoric period onwards, were commonly constructed using drystone walling techniques – not megalithic stones.

The construction at King Arthur's Hall is unusual in that typical prehistoric earthen enclosures tend to have the bank created from the spoil of the ditch. There is no evidence of a ditch here, as noted above the earth banks have been created by scooping out the centre to a depth of 60cm. This technique of scooping material out for the banks was widely used in the construction of henges in Ireland, but almost unknown in Britain. Mayburgh henge in Cumbria is another rare example in Britain.

In parts of King Arthur's Hall where the stones remain in place, presumably in their original position, they appear to have been arranged alternately low flat-topped slabs and taller pillars 'like the parapet of a disjointed battlement'; an arrangement that would be pointless in an animal pound. Burl considers the stones are embellishments and notes a similar observation in the West Kennett Avenue at Avebury where paired yet contrasting stones (male and female?) are used in prehistoric ritual monuments. The stones at  King Arthur's Hall rest against the bank rather than revetting it as in the Grange henge in Co. Limerick, Ireland.

It would appear King Arthur's Hall is not typical of British prehistoric construction and therefore we do not recognise it as such. Instead of assigning the monument to the  medieval period as an animal pound we need to recognise it as a Neolithic monument constructed using a conglomeration of prehistoric methods taken from Ireland and Brittany.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
John Norden, A Topographical and Historical Description of Cornwall, 2nd edition, 1728.
Diana Coles, 'King Arthur's Hall; Megalithic Monument or Mediaeval Pound', 3rd Stone magazine issue 39.
Aubrey Burl, Great Stone Circles, Yale, 1999.
Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale, 2000.
The De Lank to Lowermoor water main, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, commissioned by South West Water and English Heritage and carried out by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (now Historic Environment Projects), Cornwall Council. Draft October 1994, revised March 2011

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Monday 12 January 2015

Anglo Saxon Coin Hoard Found in Buckinghamshire

One of the largest hoards of Anglo Saxon coins ever found in Britain was discovered on farmland in Lenborough, Buckinghamshire just before Christmas 2014 during an annual end-of-year rally for members of the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club. The find has been sent to experts at the British Museum for analysis.

Metal detector Paul Coleman found a lead-lined container buried two feet under ground containing more than 5,000 silver coins made in the reigns of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) and Cnut (1016-1035). Mr Coleman knew they had stumbled across something significant when they picked up a signal the size of a manhole cover. The coins were hidden inside a lead bucket with the top folded over. If the coroner rules the coins are legally treasure, as expected, he could be in line for a six-figure payout which he will share with the landowner.

It is thought that the coin hoard could be connected to a mint established by Æthelred at Buckingham only 15 miles away from the find site, one of 70 active at the time, including Winchester, London and York, during a remarkable period of history which pioneered the mass production of the solid silver currency in England.

Æthelred became King of England around the age of ten following the murder of his half-brother Edward II in 978 at Corfe Castle, Dorset, after reigning for just three short years. Edward was the eldest son of King Edgar but was not his father's acknowledged heir and his succession was disputed.

Æthelred was not generally suspected of being directly involved with his brother's murder, but the attendants of his household certainly were with many, such as the chroniclers John of Worcester and Henry of Huntingdon, pointing the finger of suspicion firmly toward his mother Ælfthryth. The suspicious circumstances of Æthelred ascension to the throne, and the growing legend of St Edward the Martyr, made it difficult for the new king to rally the nation behind him against the raiding Danes which had plagued his reign from the 980s onwards.

Æthelred failed to win or retain the allegiance of many of his subjects  and was given the epithet 'Un-raed', often interpreted as 'Unready' taken to mean 'no counsel', but actually a miss-translation of the Old English for 'bad-counsel', seemingly a reflection of the poor advice he received during his reign, and a deliberate pun on his first name meaning 'noble counsel', typical of the royal House of Wessex.

On St Brice's Day 13 November 1002, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danes in England to eliminate potential treachery. Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, was said to have been among the victims. Her death is thought to have been a primary motive for Sweyn's invasion of western England the following year, in which he campaigned throughout Wessex and East Anglia in 1003–1004.

The Buckingham mint remained active during the time of Cnut, with Æthelred pushing his people hard to raise Danegeld (literally 'Danish tax'), to pay tribute to the Danes. But the pay-off's failed to stop the Danish raids and he fled to Normandy in 1013 when Sweyn dispossessed him.

Following Sveyn's death in 1014 Æthelred returned to England but died  two years later in April 1016 during the invasion of Cnut, the son of Sweyn, that sailed up the Thames with a force of more than 10,000 men. He was the first king of England to be buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. Cnut consolidated his position by marrying Æthelred’s widow Emma. Cnut's empire now stretched across the sea to Denmark, and even extended his rule into Norway and parts of Sweden, known as the North Sea Empire.

The lands of Cnut the Great 1016–1035 (Wikimedia Commons)
Æthelred's oldest surviving son, Edmund Ironside, led the English against the Danes between 1014 and 1016. Following victory for Cnut at 'Assandun' in Essex on 18th October 1016, Edmund conceded all territory north of the Thames while his realm was reduced to just Wessex. But when Edmund died barely two months later in November, Cnut inherited the whole kingdom.

We will never know who buried these coins during these turbulent times or why they never recovered them. However, it is difficult not to speculate on the context of the Buckinghamshire hoard being entangled in Danegeld payments and Danish incursions.

Only half of the 5,251 coins of the Buckinghamshire Hoard have been cleaned so far but all have proved to be in excellent condition and, as coins of the two kings known in the hoard, Cnut and Æthelred, rarely fall below £200 per coin, the total value of the find could be around £1 million.

In July 2009  metal detector Terry Herbert discovered the largest ever hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure in a field at Hammerwich, near Lichfield in Staffordshire. Consisting of more than 3,500 gold and silver warrior artefacts, the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ was valued at £3.3 million.


Buckinghamshire ancient coin hoard find 'unprecedented' – BBC News 03 January 2015
Metal detecting club finds Anglo Saxon hoard – Museums Association 07 January 2015

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