Friday, 30 December 2016

Tintagel: Creating Camelot - Part 1

“Answered Ulfin, when no power on earth can enable us to come to her where she is inside the fortress of Tintagel? The castle is built high above the sea, which surrounds it on all sides, and there is no other way in except that offered by a narrow isthmus of rock. Three armed soldiers could hold it against you, even if you stood there with the whole kingdom of Britain at your side.” - Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, (VIII.19)1

Geoffrey and Cornwall
In response to Utherpendragon's threat to lay waste his lands Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, retreated to the fortified camp at Dimilioc and placed his wife Ygerna in the security of castle at Tintagel on the coast. Uther then took counsel with Ulfin of Ridcaradoch, one of his soldiers and a familiar friend, telling him of his desire for Ygerna and that if he cannot have her he feared he would suffer a physical breakdown. Ulfin said they would find it impossible to breach the castle and suggested the king approach Merlin the Prophet. By magic, Merlin gave Uther the appearance of Gorlois, and he then entered the castle at Tintagel and slept with Ygerna, who that night conceived Arthur, the Boar of Cornwall.

Most modern commentators accept that Geoffrey must have had first-hand knowledge of Tintagel to provide his accurate description of the site on the north Cornish coast in his History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniæ, c.1136AD). However, it is often quoted that there is no record of the name before Geoffrey's work and therefore he must have invented it.

Oliver Padel cites several locations in Cornwall from Geoffrey's work suggesting that he very likely visited the area prior to writing his Historia. Gorlois is beseiged at Dimilioc.2 Lewis Thorpe identifies this as the Iron Age earthwork of three concentric ramparts and ditches bearing the name of Tregeare Rounds, known locally as Castle Dameliock, near the village of Pendoggett, five and a half miles south-west of Tintagel.3 Ditmas argues for the Iron age hill fort known as Dimilioc at St Dennis, 20 miles south of Tintagel.4

According to Geoffrey, Arthur's final battle is fought against Mordred at the bank of the Camblam, identified as the river Camel, barely four miles south-east from Tintagel. Just off the B 3314 between Camelford and Tintagel, by a stream at Slaughterbridge lies a 6th century inscribed stone, locally referred to as 'King Arthur's Stone', said to mark the spot where King Arthur met Mordred. And of course the name 'Mordred' is the Cornish version of the name 'Medraut' that appears in the 10th century Welsh Annals.5

Yet for all his apparent affection for Cornwall, Geoffrey places Arthur's court at the City of the Legions in south-east Wales, identified as Caerleon on the river Usk on the northern edge of the modern city of Newport. Geoffrey has Caerleon as one of the most important cities in Britain, so it seems an obvious choice for the seat of its King. However, he was probably influenced by the ruins of the Roman legionary fortress, Isca Augusta. If his abode was Monmouth, at least at one time as his name suggests, he probably had first hand knowledge of the ruins, just 20 miles south. In his preface to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur William Caxton describes the ruins of a city sounding very like Caerleon,“in Camelot, the great stones and the marvellous works of iron lying underground, and the royal vaults which many now living have seen.” However Malory himself locates Camelot at Winchester.6

Merlin and Cornwall
Prior to his Historia, Geoffrey circulated, certainly by 1135, the Prophetiæ Merlini, a short Latin work containing a number of prophecies attributed to Merlin. Geoffrey later included the Prophecy in his main work at Book VII, thereby introducing Geoffrey's wizard to the Arthurian legend.

Shortly after Geoffrey, John of Cornwall produced his own version of the Prophetiae Merlini, sometimes called The Prophecy of Ambrosius Merlin concerning the Seven Kings,which he claimed was revived from a lost manuscript in the Cornish language, which he translated sometime between 1141 and 1155 at the request of Robert, Bishop of Exeter.8

John has been accused of imitating Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini, but less than a third of the verse prophecies are mirrored in Geoffrey's work, the remainder would appear to be direct translations from a Cornish source and it is today argued that John based at least part of his Prophecy upon a genuine contemporary Cornish prophecy dating from about the early 12th century, correcting much of Geoffrey’s Merlinic prophetic material in the process.9

John includes a substantial amount of explanatory detail in the way of glosses, providing much detail deficient from Geoffrey's Prophecy. John includes a gloss at line 91 which refers to the entry of an old man into Cornwall, who then laid siege to the castle by the Periron, that is, Dindaiol. The Periron is identified as the stream that outflows at Tintagel (Dindaiol).

John’s original manuscript spelling of 'Dindaiol' has been seen as providing a genuine Cornishness that he may have perceived as lacking in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth making it necessary for John to reproduce the Prophetiae Merlini in its correct, original form. Michael Faletra suggests that the second element of Dindaiol (from *tagell) allows identification of the form as uniquely Cornish rather than Welsh or Breton, thus demonstrating that a body of Old Cornish prophetic material, independent of Geoffrey, was in existence by at least the early 12th century.10

Significantly, then, in consideration of John of Cornwall's Prophetiae Merlini, it can be argued that the name Tintagel was known prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, indeed, the modern-day village of Tintagel was known as Trevena until the 19th century. The name is consistent with a Celtic etymology; Padel suggests that the name is from Cornish *dyn = fort and *tagell = neck, throat, constriction narrow, i.e. Tintagel = fort of the constriction, which is a very apt description of its setting linked only to the Cornish coast by a narrow isthmus. It would appear that originally the name Tintagel referred to the headland only.11

The ruins of the medieval castle on the mainland
If Geoffrey did not invent the fortress at Tintagel, and the medieval castle was not built until around 1230, a hundred years later, from the above, it suggests some form of promontory-fortress was situated on the headland for which memories, at least, survived in to the 12th century. However, prior to his Historia there is no record of any link to the site with King Arthur. Yet, Cornwall is known to have possessed a rich body of Arthurian folklore, not attached to Tintagel, before Geoffrey wrote his magnum opus.

Terra Arturi
Around 1142 Herman of Tournai’s wrote 'Miracula Sancte Marie Laudunensis' (The Miracles of St. Mary of Laon) which included an account of  a local Cornish belief in Arthur’s survival. Herman's work recounts miracles witnessed by nine canons from Laon cathedral on a fundraising relic tour through England in 1113.

Whilst travelling between Exeter and Bodmin, the canons were told that they were entering the “Lands of Arthur” and were shown various local sites that were associated with him, such as the Seat and Oven of King Arthur. The Seat has not been identified but the Oven was probably the ‘King’s Oven’ (furnus regis) recorded on Dartmoor a century later.

At Bodmin a man with a withered arm came to the canons of Laon seeking to be healed of his affliction. In conversation with the canons the man claimed that Arthur still lived. Members of the French party apparently made mock of him for talking such a nonsense. The Cornish crowd supported the man's claims in King Arthur's survival and a brawl broke out.

View from Tintagel
King Arthur’s existence in the form of a raven or chough is still extant in Cornish folklore and there are a number of sites which claim to be associated with Arthur in the Cornish wilderness. For example, there are numerous megalithic structures, Portal Dolmens, known as Coetan Arthur, or ‘Arthur’s Quoits’; on the lane to Trewethett Farm, near Bossiney, is a large rock slab, claimed to be the capstone of a collapsed Dolmen that was thrown there from Tintagel by King Arthur; in St Columb, Goss Moor, ‘Arthur’s Stone’ is said to bear the impression of the footprints of Arthur’s horse; 'Arthur's Hall' and 'Arthur's Troughs' on Bodmin Moor; ‘Arthur’s Hunting Lodge’ (or Hunting Seat) in Castle-an-Dinas; ‘Arthur’s (or Giant’s) Grave’ at Warbstowe;  'Arthur’s Chair’ at Tintagel.12

This shortlist is not exhaustive but sufficient to demonstrate Arthur was very much in existence in the Cornish landscape prior to Geoffrey's writings as witnessed by the Canons of Laon. Yet, it must be conceded, that there is absolutely nothing to connect Arthur to Tintagel before Geoffrey.

>> Continued in Tintagel; Creating Camelot - Part 2

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, Lewis Thorpe, translator, Penguin, 1966.
2. Oliver Padel, Geoffrey and Cornwall, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS 8), 1984.
3. Thorpe, op.cit.
4. E. M. R. Ditmas, A Reappraisal of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Allusions to Cornwall, Speculum, Vol. 48, No. 3, 1973, pp. 510-524.
5. John Morris, Ed. & Trans., British History And The Welsh Annals, Phillimore, 1980.
6. Caxton's Preface, p.xiii in Malory Works, Eugène Vinaver, Ed., Oxford University Press; 2nd Edition, 1977,
7. Julyan Homes, An Dhargan a Verdhin: The Prophecy of Merlin by John of Cornwall, Cornish Language Board, 2nd Edition, 2001.
8. Ibid. Holmes claims that John's original source must date from 950 AD.
9. Michael J. Curley, A New Edition of John of Cornwall's Prophetia Merlini, Speculum 57, 1982, pp.217-249.
10. Michael A. Faletra, Merlin in Cornwall: The Source and Contexts of John of Cornwall’s Prophetia Merlini, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 111, 2012, pp. 304-338.
11. Oliver Padel, Cornish Place-Name Elements, English Place-Name Society, 1985.
12. Thomas Green, Arthuriana, The Lindes Press, 2009.

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