Archaeological excavations at Tintagel this year led to what has been hailed as the discovery of 2016 generating a media frenzy with headlines such as 'King Arthur's Tintagel 'birthplace' dig finds royal seat' 13 claiming the discovery will ignite debate in Arthurian research circles because, in medieval tradition, Arthur was said to have been conceived at Tintagel.14
Tintagel and Arthur
After Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniæ, c.1136AD), Tintagel plays very little part in the Arthurian cycle and does not figure strongly in Arthurian Romance. Significantly, the tales of Tristan and Iseult are situated in the south-west of England and cite Tintagel as the seat of King Mark, ruler of Cornwall.
However, The High History of the Grail (Li Hauz Livres du Graal, or Perlesvaus) dated c.1200-10, Lancelot and Gawain visit a little castle in a combe in which the enclosure of the castle was fallen down into an abysm. A priest emerged from a chapel situated above an ancient hall and told them that it was the great Tintagel. When the knights enquired as to why the ground was all caved in about the castle, the priest replied that after King Utherpendragon had slept with Ygerna, after Merlin had changed him into the semblance of Gorlois, and conceived Arthur in a great hall that was next to the enclosure there where this abysm is. And for this sin the ground has sunken.15 As the Perlesvaus is claimed to have been written at Glastonbury in Somerset we should not be surprised if it contains first hand knowledge of south-west England. The anonymous author of the Perlesvaus, like Geoffrey, must have visited the site before Richard, Earl of Cornwall, built his castle in the 13th century.
|The Medieval Gateway on the Headland|
Around 1480 the antiquary William Worcestre claimed Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s birth in addition to his conception there as stated by Geoffrey. John Leland visited the castle in the 16th century and by 1650 the name 'King Arthur’s Castle' appears for the first time, which by now had become a tangled concoction of literary accounts entwined with local lore.
By the 19th century writers such as Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Swinburne, Thomas Hardy and the local Cornish antiquarian and poet Robert Stephen Hawker drew inspiration from visiting the dramatic cliff-top setting of Tintagel, and coupled with the legends, prompted the Arthurian Revival in the Victorian Age.
Local people like Florence Nightingale Richards, were by now acting as guides and escorting wealthy Victorian tourists through the ruins pointing out features linking the site to Arthur, such as Arthur's Footprint, which is reputed to have been imprinted in the solid rock when Arthur ‘stepped at one stride across the sea' to Tintagel Church (1889). The Parish church dedicated to St Materiana is one third of a mile distant - is this another reference to Arthur as a giant? Below the King's Seat on the highest point of the headland are a series of depression in the rockface known as Arthur's Cup and Saucers.16
|St Materiana's Church from the Headland|
“Ther is in this Castle a hole hewed out of a rocke, made in manner of a graue, which is sayde to haue bene done by a Hermite for his buriall; and the gravue will fitt euerye stature, as it is effabuled; but experience doth not so assure me.”
In more recent times this rock-cut depression has acquired its own identity and is now variously known as King Arthur’s Bed, Elbow Chair or Hip-Bath. However, there is no record of any of these 'Arthurian' features before the 19th century. Indeed, in 1863 when the scientist and antiquarian Robert Hunt visited Tintagel to obtain folklore he was told by the man in charge of the castle that he had no Arthur stories to tell. Charles Thomas notes that “nearly all overt Arthurian details first appear in print about 1870”.17
By the 20th century Arthur-mania had developed a firm grip on the Cornish village. The wealthy businessman Frederick Thomas Glasscock moved to Somerset from London and founded the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table converting Trevena Hall into King Arthur's Great Halls of Chivalry, famous for its stained glass windows featuring the Arthurian legend. Since the 1950s, the Great Halls has been used as a Masonic meeting place and home to the King Arthur Lodge.
Tintagel through the Ages
Archaeology has failed to find Geoffrey's fortress at Tintagel, or indeed any fortress that preceded it. Thomas Charles lists five main periods of activity at Tintagel.
|Period II remains near the Headland summit|
Period III starts at the end of Period II, around 600, to 1230 when Richard, Earl of Cornwall built the medieval castle. The chapel, standing among the ruins of 5th - 7th buildings (perhaps that witnessed by Lancelot and Gawain in the Perlesvaus), dates from this Period, probably around 1150. The Domesday Book survey of 1086 fails to mention Tintagel, but the first allusions to the headland as a stronghold of Cornish kings falls within this period.20
The construction of the Castle in 1230-40 marks the commencement of Period IV. The structural sequence of the Castle has yet to be determined as much of its remains are now missing. The Post Medieval period to present, Period V, commences from the 16th century; by now the castle is in ruins after hundreds of years of neglect.21
Ralegh Radford's monastic interpretation has now been shown to be incorrect. Several works have since re-evaluated Radford's findings, although there are very little records surviving from his excavations, the ceramic assemblage from his excavations, and analysis of the Medieval literature and historical documents, led to general dissatisfaction among archaeologists of his early monastic interpretation.
Further archaeological excavations in the 1960s and again in 1976–81 recovered a remarkable quantity of imported pottery datable to the final Roman and mostly the early Post-Roman period through to the early 7th century. In the mid-1980s a fire on the Tintagel headland led to considerable erosion of the topsoil, and over 100 more building foundations than were recorded by Radford could be seen. Ceramic analysis suggests that Tintagel was the leading centre in south-west England for trade with southern Gaul, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa.
|Living on the Edge: building remains on the terrace|
A radiocarbon dating sequence for the phases of building on the Lower Terrace suggests that the final phase of occupation dates to 560 - 670. However, this is just one site and cannot as this time be accepted as representative of the abandonment whole headland.
Evidence of Arthur?
In 1998 a broken inscribed stone, known as the Tintagel Slate or Artognou Stone was found within a sealed 6th century layer on the eastern terrace of the site. The stone, which was broken and re-used as part of a drain, has two inscriptions. Charles Thomas later dated the slate to the 6th Century, which initially caused a frenzy of claims in the press as evidence of King Arthur at Tintagel.
Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, at the time chief archaeologist at English Heritage, is reporting as saying that “Tintagel has presented us with evidence of a Prince of Cornwall, in the Dark Ages, living in a high-status domestic settlement at the time Arthur lived. It has given us the name of a person, Arthnou. Arthnou was here, that is his name on a piece of stone. It is a massive coincidence at the very least. This is where myth meets history. It's the find of a lifetime.” He added the inscribed name was “close enough to Arthur to refer to the legendary warrior king”.
Charles Thomas has suggested that Tintagel was the *Durocornovio (‘Fort of the Cornovii’), as listed in the Ravenna Cosmography, which the Roman coins may support, and both commercial and locally made pottery of the 3rd and 4th centuries. After the Romans, the site's role in the kingdom of Domnonia seems to have provided an important link to the world far beyond the British Isles with imported artefacts found at Tintagel alone demonstrating that from about AD 450 until about AD 650 Tintagel was a prosperous and highly significant site, closely involved in trade with the Mediterranean world.
The headland was found to be covered with many small rectangular buildings, some visible today. However, the exact nature of Post-Roman Tintagel remains elusive with the main focus of activity for this site in the centuries immediately following the Roman withdrawal. The best interpretation on current evidence appears to be a seasonally occupied fortress or royal seat of the post-Roman kings of Dumnonia, which would agree with the tales of Tristan and Iseult which cite Tintagel as the seat of King Mark. After the mid-7th century there is little evidence of activity on the island for the next 500 years.
To date, no evidence of any catastrophic destruction has been found. However, the latter half of the 6th century and the 7th century were notorious for a plague pandemic which, having killed millions throughout the Mediterranean world, almost certainly devastated parts of Britain arriving through a key trading centre such as Tintagel.
Where History Meets Legend
Evidence for a real King Arthur has evaded identification for over a thousand years. Archaeology has failed to positively uncover any firm trace of his existence; at best we can only be certain of his existence as a character of literature and legend.
|The Medieval Courtyard on the Headland, overlooked by the Camelot Castle Hotel|
I last visited Tintagel in 2013 feeling somewhat disappointed with the place. Since that visit English Heritage (EH) has made many changes to enhance the visitor experience (their words, not mine). EH certainly makes the most of Tintagel as its top Arthurian draw and fifth ranking visitor attraction. It has to now it is a Trust since the government separated it off from Historic England. The Government claims "The new charitable status will give English Heritage freedom to raise funds – with a target of finding a further £83 million from third parties.... ....so that, within ten years, it will be self-financing and no longer depend upon support from the taxpayer."22
With a huge financial burden placed on EH one can understand the pressure to increase visitor numbers. EH are currently presenting a fresh interpretation of history and legend at Tintagel, ever hopeful of increasing visitor numbers and revenue. In their mission statement on their website EH claims to “seek to be true to the story of the places and artefacts that we look after and present. We don't exaggerate or make things up for entertainment's sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.”23
As part of EH's plans to improve the “visitor experience” at Tintagel Castle, the Beach Cafe has been refurbished and a new exhibition constructed exploring the history of Tintagel Castle and the Arthurian legends. Ongoing plans for Tintagel, EH claim, will include an “imaginative new outdoor interpretation” that will feature interactive exhibits and informative panels in addition to a range of artworks crafted in bronze and stone bringing history and legend to life. A new bridge linking the medieval castle to the headland is planned for 2019. A series of panels will reveal 1,500 years of Tintagel's past which will create a journey of discovery where the visitor can explore the history of the castle and the role that legends have played in shaping the site - from a royal stronghold to thriving trading port, to a castle of romantic stories.
Yet, the new EH interpretation has led to claims of “Disneyfication” of the site and questioned the organisation's responsibility as Guardians of Heritage.
A stone compass points to places connected with the tales of King Arthur. Merlin's face has been carved in the rocks on the beach and on the island and a bronze sculpture, named Gallos, inspired by the legend of King Arthur and the historic royal figures associated with Tintagel, has been mounted on the Headland. This dramatic site in its cliff-top setting, rich in history, really does not need this fusion of history and legend.
In August 2016 another press frenzy ensued when English Heritage-funded archaeologists from of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit on a 5 year program announced they have discovered the impressive remains of a probable Dark Age royal palace at Tintagel that immediately became linked with King Arthur. The one-metre thick walls have been interpreted as those of the main residence of the 6th century rulers of an ancient south-west British kingdom, known as Dumnonia.
“The probable palace which the archaeologists have found appears to date from the 5th and 6th centuries AD – which would theoretically fit well with the traditional legends of King Arthur which placed him in precisely those centuries. Whether coincidence or not, the way in which the new evidence resonates with Britain’s most enduring and popular medieval legend is sure to generate renewed popular and scholarly interest in the site.”24
However, English Heritage cannot be held accountable for the reaction of the Press, yet a 5 year excavation plan is bound to produce ample Arthurian publicity for the site, increasing visitor numbers and we will almost certainly see further press releases like the "Artognou Stone'" debacle in 1998.
Is this Camelot? Certainly not. According to a retired professor the true location of Camelot is a small Roman fort at Slack, situated on the Roman road from Chester to York, outside Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, known as Camulodunum.25
Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson
Notes & References
13. King Arthur's Tintagel 'birthplace' dig finds royal seat - BBC News Cornwall - 3 August 2016
14. Dark Ages royal palace discovered in Cornwall – in area closely linked to the legend of King Arthur - David Keys Archaeology Correspondent, The Independent - 2 August 2016
15. The High History Of The Holy Graal, Translation by Sebastian Evans, 1898, text based on that published by J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1910.
16. Paul Broadhurst, Tintagel and the Arthurian Mythos, Pendragon Press, 1992.
17. Charles Thomas, English Heritage Book of Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology, Batsford, 1993.
22. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Press Release 6 December 2013.
23. English Heritage Mission Statement
24. Dark Ages royal palace discovered in Cornwall – in area closely linked to the legend of King Arthur by David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent, The Independent, 2nd August 2016.
25. Ex-Bangor University Professor reveals 'true Camelot' - BBC Norh West Wales 18 December 2016.
Authority, authenticity and interpretation at Tintagel by Dr. Tehmina Goskar
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