Tuesday, 30 October 2012

In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Two: Tintagel

  The village of Tintagel, on the North Cornwall coast between Boscastle and Trebarwith Strand, has been a popular visitor destination since the rise of tourism during the Victorian period. It is an area which, despite the trappings of the modern tourist industry, still retains a landscape of outstanding natural beauty and an atmosphere of impenetrable mystery. Various historical and archaeological investigations over the decades have attempted to shed light upon its allure, yet almost every conclusion reached has been ambiguous or refutable. Even the origins of its name cannot be traced definitively. A Cornish scholar named Henry Jenner, writing in 1924, suggested that the name was Norman-French, pointing out the similarity to a rock on the island of Sark that was known to the locals as 'Tente d'Ageu'. However, a Mr Oliver Padel of the Institute of Cornish Studies has more recently suggested 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.

  Moreover, it was not the original name of the present village. Tintagel was the name of the headland beyond the village, where the ruins of the castle now stand. The name of the village was, until comparitively recently, Trevena, meaning 'farm on the hill'. This too changed in Victorian times, for the sake of the burgeoning tourist trade.

O.S Map of Tintagel

So what caused this sudden, nineteenth-century eruption of interest in a remote Cornish settlement? The answer can be found in a combination of three factors: the connection with an important part of the King Arthur legend, an explosion of interest in that legend, and a rise in mobility.

  The arrival of Tintagel as part of the Arthur legend occurred circa 1138, with Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential work Historia Regum Brittaniae. This work laid the foundations of the network of interwoven legends known collectively as the Matter Of Britain.
  According to Monmouth, during the 'Dark Ages', Tintagel was the home of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. The High King, Uther Pendragon, became infatuated with Igraine and was determined to claim her. Gorlois responded, not surprisingly, by shutting her in their Tintagel fortress which, connected to the mainland by a narrow and easily defended strip of land, was virtually impregnable.
  Uther then devised a plan with his wizard, Merlin. One night, when Gorlois sallied forth on a sortie against Uther's camp, Merlin used his powers to transform Uther into the Duke's double. Using this subterfuge, Uther was able to enter the fortress and spend the night with Igraine, leading to Arthur's conception. The unfortunate Gorlois was killed during the sortie, and King Uther went on to marry his widow.
  Somewhat amusingly considering the Arthurian industry that has developed around modern Tintagel, Geoffrey of Monmouth fails to actually mention his birthplace. He names Tintagel as the location of Arthur's conception, but the subsequent passage regarding his birth does not site it anywhere. It has simply been assumed that, ipso facto, the omission is because the two events took place at the same location and Monmouth felt no need to repeat himself.

Fore Street, Tintagel

  Despite the huge swelling of Arthurian literature that followed Monmouth, the village of Trevena and its neighbouring medieval castle on the Tintagel headland (the construction of which probably provided Monmouth's inspiration) remained a backwater. Mobility was scant in those days, with most people being born, living and dying in their own neighbourhoods. The Victorian period changed all that.
  The railway came to Cornwall. Bank Holidays came into being, giving the populace increased leisure time. Coastal resorts and Romantic ideals of wild landscape became fashionable. As well as this, the arts of the period re-discovered Arthur, thanks to Tennyson's epic 1859 poem 'Idylls Of The King' and the efforts of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Burne-Jones painting
  The influx of tourists - and their funds - led to the name of the village fading into history, as Trevena adopted the more famous monicker of the nearby coastal promontory, and became the modern Tintagel. In the 1930's, the eccentric millionaire Frederick Thomas Glasscock (a custard tycoon!) fell in love with the village and its legends. He built the fanciful, yet colourful and imaginative King Arthur's Hall in the village and set up an organisation called the Fellowship of the Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Its Hall of Chivalry was constructed from fifty types of Cornish stone and contains seventy-three stained glass windows. The entire edifice is a tribute to the Romantic ideals which have driven the Arthurian mythos since Monmouth took an obscure post-Roman figure and turned him into an Emperor.

Hall Of Chivalry, Tintagel
  I found Tintagel in 1993 and have returned on countless occasions. When I take my children to Cornwall, we follow a ritual that we set up years ago. Our first port of call when we arrive in Cornwall is always Tintagel. We park, usually at the eastern end of the village close to the hamlet of Bossiney, take lunch at the small and intimate Primrose Cottage, then start walking. Usually, we perambulate the length of the village then take the Coastal Path north toward Rocky Valley. On return visits we tend to drive along the main street, passing King Arthur's Hall, King Arthur's bookshop, Pendragon Gifts etc., before turning left onto a narrow, tangential lane that curls its way to the cliffs, and the National Trust parking area adjacent to the Tintagel Parish Church of St Materiana. From here. it is a short but spectacular walk along the cliffs to the protruding headland that is the original Tintagel.

St Materiana's Church

  The church itself is a building steeped in mystery, much in keeping with its locale. Its origins are obscure.  Its saint, who has been proposed as Madryn the great-aunt of St David, is supposed to have set up both this foundation and the church at Minster near Boscastle, where her bones are said to lie. The building dates to the early 12th century, although its north-east chapel (once thought to be a later addition) may be a survival from an older, 11th century building. In the south transept may be found a Roman milestone, 1.5m tall, with the inscription (I)MP C G VAL LICIN (To the Emperor Caeser Gaius Valerius Licinius), dating from the year 313 or shortly after. It was discovered in 1989 at the south-east entrance to the churchyard, used as a lych stone upon which coffins were rested. There have only been five Roman milestones discovered in Cornwall, and one of the others lies at the neighbouring hamlet of Trethevy. This, plus the purported remains of a Roman camp adjacent to the church, adds weight to the possibilty that Tintagel was the mysterious 'Durocornavis', mentioned by Roman geographers but never satisfactorily identified.

Illustration of milestone in St Materiana's

St Materiana's, SE entrance to churchyard
  The church is adjoined by a churchyard surrounded by a low bank which dates back as far as the Age of Arthur, and burials in slate-lined cists have been discovered from the same period, although it is unknown whether these relate to an earlier site of worship in the compound or a contemporary chapel on the headland itself (of which more later). A curious monument near the churchyard's south-east entrance contains a lifebuoy from an 1893 shipwreck, commemorating both disaster and heroism.

  At 5pm on December 20th 1893, during a gale-force snowstorm, the Italian barque 'Iota', en route to trinidad with a cargo of coal, struck Lye Rock, a coastal promontory north of Tintagel. She had a crew of eleven. Nine of the crew managed to reach Lye Rock where they clung desperately, trying not to be swept away by the storm. Three Tintagel men on the scene, Thomas Brown, Charles Hambley and a blacksmith named Glanvill, clambered down the cliffs with a rope and, at considerable personal risk, managed to get the survivors to safety.
  One crewman and the cabin-boy perished. The grave in the churchyard is that of the cabin-boy, Domenico Catanese, aged 14. In acknowledgement of his courage, Charles Hambley was awarded the silver medal for bravery from the King of Italy.

  From St. Materiana, we strike north along the Coastal Path. The bulky headland is immediately visible ahead. At its base can be discerned a cave, a sea-worn passage that pierces through the rock, emerging onto the small, sandy Castle Beach. This is Merlin's Cave, part of the legend, site of an alternative version of Arthur's birth, where he is washed onto the beach from the bosom of the ocean. A gift from the gods, deposited below the great headland to be found by his future mentor.

Merlin discovers Arthur
  As we approach the headland, we discern traces of the great castle that was constructed by Earl Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, in the 13th century. For many years, the general belief was that the medieval fortress had been constructed in two phases: first by Earl Reginald, illegitimate son of Henry I, in the 12th century, then elaborated by Earl Richard later. The Reginald theory has, in recent years, been seriously questioned.
  The Outer Ward of Tintagel Castle actually sits on the mainland, guarding the narrow neck that leads to the headland. The eastern approach to this Ward is protected by a ditch, hewn from the very rock - but this ditch is not contemporary with the Ward. It is, in fact, much older...

Tintagel headland, showing features on the plateau
Merlin's Cave
  As it draws level with the Outer Ward, the Coastal Path dips into the narrow, stream-fed valley that connects the village to the Castle Beach. Local tourism demands have led, inevitably, to this valley being dubbed 'The Vale Of Avalon'. Its attractive stream, babbling and rolling down the gradient, reaches the beach as one of the many small and attractive waterfalls that dot the North Cornwall coast.

Castle Beach and Waterfall
  At the bottom of the valley, close to the head of the waterfall, is a slate building used by English Heritage as a Visitor Centre and Gift Shop. Almost oppsite sits another building, a cafe and ice cream parlour. This cottage was, in late Victorian times, the home of one Florence Nightingale Richards, whose father ran a Mill the remains of which can be found further up the valley. Florence '...continued for many years until extreme old age to escort parties of visitors around the island, faithfully pointing out King Arthur's Footstep, a mark impressed on the rock when the legendary hero placed one foot on the island and the other on the church tower! There were also King Arthur's cups and saucers and the Duke of Wellington's rock - a natural rock formation said to resemble the features of the Iron Duke. But perhaps the most impressive of all was the person of Florence herself, whose strange and rugged appearance made her seem like some character straight out of the Arthurian tale.' (1)

Florence Nightingale Richards

  A path swerves left just beyond the Visitor Centre. From here we could descend to the Beach, step tentatively into the darkness and rumbling resonance of Merlin's Cave, gaze up at the waterfall or pick out the traces of late-Victorian lead-silver works. Or we could ascend, past a small wooden hut where the English Heritage gatekeeper sells tickets, up the winding, seemingly infinite steps that hug the side of the slate cliff and carry the hardy visitor upward onto the headland, the almost-Island at the heart of the Arthurian mythos.

Not for the faint of heart!
  Before actually reaching the plateau, a broad terrace is guarded by a crenellated slate wall, the entrance to Earl Richard's Island Ward. Beyond, the remnants of a Great Hall with antechambers. Beyond these, the path splits again; upward leads to the plateau, downward to a series of smaller terraces on the northern face of the headland.

Entrance to the Island Ward
  Along these smaller terraces lie a series of small rectangular structures, the foundations of ancient cells. They are far older than the castle buildings and, indeed, are contemporary with the Age of Arthur. Because the remains of a chapel of the same date exist upon the plateau, it has long been thought that these cells formed a monastery during the Dark Ages. It has been associated by some with 'Rosnat', an unidentified monastic centre mentioned in a few Irish sources (the word 'ros-nant' meaning 'promontory of the valley').
  However, more recent archaeological work has demolished these long-held beliefs regarding the 'monastic' cells... in principle, due to the huge amounts of imported Mediterranean pottery now known as Tintagel-ware. Although this pottery has been found at a numbert of coastal sites in the West Country, at Tintagel it has been found in unprecedented quantites. It is now clear that these buildings are connected with a high-status, probably seasonal trading centre, controlled by a powerful local figure. The rock-hewn ditch on the mainland, behind the Outer Ward, dates from this period.
  Only one inscription has come to light, however; investigation of these terraces in 1998 led to the discovery of part of an inscribed stone, being used as a drain cover. The nature of the inscription, with different styles of overlapping wording, has led to the conclusion that it was either a 'practice' dedicatory slate, or merely graffiti.

Dark Ages cells on the terraces
  It has become known as the Arthur or Artognou Stone, and has been securely dated to the 5th/6th centuries by its stratified context and the typography of its inscriptions.
  At the top of the stone is a deeply incised, incomplete inscription that may represent an Early Christian motif. To its left and slightly overlapping it, is the lighter inscription that caused much excitement when first revealed: PATERN [--] COLI AVI FICIT ARTOGNOU, meaning 'Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made [this].
  Much was made of the root Art-, sometimes Arth-, the Celtic word for Bear, and naturally it was seized upon by some as evidence that perhaps Geoffrey of Monmouth had not been merely exercising his imagination. Sadly, most serious scholars have rejected the idea, pointing out that the Art- prefix was popular at the time (which in itself suggests that there existed a well-known figure whose name included that element!) and that Artognou was merely one of many variations.
  It remains, however, an amusing coincidence and one which serves only to strengthen the mysterious and inspirational nature of Tintagel.

The Artognou Stone
Inscriptions on the Artognou Stone
  The alternative path from the Great Hall climbs upward onto the plateau. From this windswept zenith, commanding views of the rocky coast can be enjoyed in two directions. Here can be found another plethora of time-worn remains; a medieval garden, a tunnel carved into the rock (its age and purpose unknown), and the remains of a chapel.
  The chapel originates not with the medieval castle but with the Dark Ages, and may be more or less contemporary with the high-status trading settlement. It was built from the remnants of what may have been a late Romano-British farmstead, and formed the nucleus of a small monastic settlement. Perhaps the occupants took care of the buildings of the trading centre during its dormant wintry periods, in return for being allowed to reside in such a remote and well-fortified location? Its existence probably prompted the eccentric archaeologist Ralegh Radford, digging in the 1930's, to associate the entire site with monastic purposes. This erroneous belief, only recently overturned in favour of the secular trading station, only started to be seriously challenged in the 1980's after a grass fire swept the headland. This loosened the topsoil and revealed the presence of dozens of hitherto unknown buildings, leading to the more recent investigations that have redefined the whole site.
  This small monastic concern, the possible 'Rosnat', was created by the holy man St. Julitta, who arrived shortly before the year 500 with a group of disciples. They probably originated from Wales,
 and Ralegh Radford believed that Julitta was 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. Whatever his identity, his foundation lasted for three centuries and outlived the secular trading centre.

St Julitta's Chapel
  Slightly to the north of the chapel ruins, a rocky outcrop stands above a sheer slope that marks the eastern edge of the headland. One can stand on this outcrop and gaze across at the mainland cliff, to the dots of people walking the Coastal Path, to the squat tower of St. Materiana's church.
  What this imaginary viewer almost certainly will not know is that a recess exists in the base of this outcrop, a couple of metres below his feet. It is possible to carefully approach from the side and sit snugly in this recess, the castle visitors above blissfully unaware of your presence. I have done it myself, about a decade ago, on a hot Summer day. Armed only with a bottle of water and a historical illustrated gazateer called 'Cornovia' (£7.95 from King Arthur's bookshop!), I sat in the shade, enjoyed the view, enjoyed the ambience, enjoyed the book, enjoyed the thought of the pasty from Tintagel's Pengella bakery that I would scoff on my way home, and felt as close as I've ever felt to being immured in the Arthurian mythos. In this spot, you can happily cast aside all objectivity and hope, even believe, that the great man rose from this rocky prominence. Tintagel, regardless of Durocornavis, Rosnat, Arthur and other unproven theories, is still a place of possibilites, an island of imagination, a living evocation of history and legend, a palimpsest of enigma. It is the resonant, beating heart of the British imagination.

Island Ward (foreground), Outer Ward (background)

Soon: Part Three, The Battle of Badon

(1) Canner, A.C. The Parish Of Tintagel: Some Historical Notes, Russell Press 1982 (reprinted 1992)

Further Reading

Anne Berthelot King Arthur, Chivalry and Legend Thames & Hudson 1997
Craig Weatherhill Cornovia, Ancient Sites of Cornwall and Scilly Cornwall Books 1997
Leslie Alcock Arthur's Britain Penguin Books 1971
A.C.Canner The Parish of Tintagel, Some Historical Notes Russell Press 1982
R.J.Hutchings The King Arthur Illustrated Guide Dyllansow Truran 1983
Duxbury, Williams, Wilson King Arthur Country in Cornwall Bossiney Books 1979

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