Tag Archives: Folklore

Tintagel: Facts vs Fiction

On a cold and damp day in January the family and I decided to visit the famous site of Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall.

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Walking down the valley towards Tintagel Haven the castle’s outer ward can be seen in the distance.

For hundreds of years the site of Tintagel Castle has fascinated visitors and locals alike. Even without knowing any of its past the place oozes with untold stories and imaginations can run riot (which they have).

The Fiction

 

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The title page from N C Wyeth’s ‘The Boys King Arthur’.

Ask almost anyone about Tintagel Castle and immediately King Arthur and Merlin will come to the fore.  It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the History of the Kings of Britain sometime between the 1135 and 1138 who associated Tintagel with King Arthur as the place where Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon seduced/tricked Igerna into bedding him (Merlin and magic appear to be involved…) and so Tintagel became known as the place where King Arthur was conceived.  It should be noted that at no time did Geoffrey of Monmouth ever suggest that Tintagel was Arthur’s home or that the castle belonged to him.  The only connection was and is the story of his conception.

“The History nowhere claims that Arthur was born at Tintagel, or that he ever visited the place later in life, or that in any sense the stronghold became his property when he was King…On so slight a foundation, almost every subsequent writer was able to expand the conception of Arthur at Tintagel to his birth there and, by implication, ownership and even residency.”  (Thomas C. 1993)

Whilst it is understandable, after all this part of Cornwall with its dramatic coastline rather lends itself to stories of magic, romance, skulduggery and drama.  It seems a shame that the Arthur connections – real or imaginary – detract from the true story of the headland and its castle.

The Facts

The remains the visitor sees today can be divided roughly into two phases of occupation, post-Roman (5th- 7th centures AD) and after 1100AD.

The occupation of the headland in the post-Roman era was originally believed to have represented the remains of early Celtic monastery.  This theory has now been rejected and instead it is believed that the site is that of a “…high status secular settlement probably used by the Kings of Dumnonia between the Roman withdrawal in 410AD until the end of the seventh century AD, and it has now been identified as the Durocornouis (fortress of the Cornish)…” (Weatherhill C. 2009).

 

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Site A – the larger walls at the rear are the remains of the chapel whilst the low dry stone walls in the foreground are post Roman/early Medieval in date.

The buildings which are associated with this phase can be found clustered around the later medieval chapel, below on the cliff edge (just above the iron gate) and further along the headland.  Many of the buildings were revealed after a scrub fire on the headland.  Excavations have produced vast quantities of Mediterranean pottery such as amphorae dating to the fifth and sixth centuries.  The amount of imported pottery exceeds the amounts found on all other known post-Roman sites in Britain.

An often overlooked feature of the headland is the indentation known as Arthur’s footprint.  It is an eroded hollow in the rock on the highest point of the headland and shaped roughly like a footprint.  Its association with Arthur is irrelevant as it is more likely an indication of ceremonies enacted here during the post-Roman period if not earlier.

In parts of Ireland and Scotland there are places which  also have footprint type impression in rock and are associated with inauguration ceremonies of important people well into medieval times.  Symbolically, placing a foot in a specific place is representative of a persons right to rule over the surrounding territory.  Is it not possible that this example here at Tintagel was something similar and equally ancient.

“It can be wondered. therefore, if the occasions when the Dumnonian ruler and his court – or any other major chieftain in the post-roman south-west – came to Tintagel included public recognition of a king as replacing his dead predecessor, and whether this rock-marking figured in ceremonies.” (Thomas C 1993).

Perhaps the importance of Tintagel during this period cannot be over emphasised enough.  In 2016 three weeks of excavations were carried out by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit as part of a long term research project undertaken by English Heritage.  During this time the team dug opened trenches in two different parts of the island opening a small but fascinating window into Tintgels past.  Over 200 sherds of imported Mediterranean pottery were found alongside some fragments of high quality glass vessels.  All pointing to Tintagel being a place of great importance – unfortunately the dubious connection with King Arthur reared its head in the newspapers with headlines such as ‘Kings Arthurs Palace Found’ for which there is no evidence at all…For more well informed facts regarding last summers excavation follow this link to the EH blog – English Heritage Blog – Tintagel Castle Dig.

 

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Reconstruction drawing of TIntagel in the post-Roman period – drawings based on the 1930s excavations – Picture from the English Heritage Blog site (see link above).

 

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Site B – the low walls in the foreground are post Roman whilst the inner and outer ward seen in the background are 12th century.

The second phase of settlement belongs in the twelfth century and is the result of building works done under the auspices of Richard the Earl of Cornwall.  Richard was made Earl of Cornwall in 1227 and in 1233 bought Bossiney and Tintagel from Gervase de Hornicote although it does seem that building works had already begun by this time.

Much of the impressive remains the visitor sees today are the ruins of Richards castle.  The inner ward is on the island and the outer ward is on the mainland side.  Originally there appears to have been a bridge between the two as by this time the land bridge had all but eroded away.

 

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The remains of the Great Hall of the inner ward.
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A reconstruction drawing of the 12th century Great Hall taken from an information board.

One question does need to be asked at this point – why did the Earl of Cornwall build a substantial castle here in Tintagel?  It is far from the centers of Cornish commerce and it is no where near the main routes into and out of Cornwall.  It defends nothing but open water.  In short it has no military value or function and is that not what castles are for?  So then, why Tintagel?

Richard was the second son of King John and by all accounts was an ambitious and educated man who had decided to make a statement.  He would have read Geoffry of Monmouth’s History and would have been told about Tintagel being the ancient seat of the rulers of Dumnonia.  His decision to build a flashy castle here was his way of saying to the Cornish people and others – “Here I am, your Earl – from this ancient seat of power I will rule”.

 Final Facts

·         The headland has two freshwater wells.

·         The Chapel is dedicated to St Juliot and is 12th century in date but seems to have earlier origins (see photo below).

·         The tunnel is an enigma, dug into the stone bedrock of the island with small iron tools, it is most likely medieval in date and it has been suggested it was a cool store for foodstuffs such as meat (see photos below).

·         Merlin’s Cave is a great place to explore at low tide but is unlikely to have anything to do with the Merlin of Arthurian myth.

·         The beach below the headland is known as the Haven.

In the end, it is fair to say the story of Tintagel Castle is not complete.  I, as much as the next person have a great affection of the Arthurian stories and if such stories provide impetus for the average person to visit Tintagel then all the better.  But personally the facts are the clincher – it is they which make the better story.

Sources

Thomas C. 1993 Tintagel – Arthur and Archaeology  English Heritage/Batsford.

Weatherhill C. 2009 Cornovia Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000BC – 1000AD. Halsgrove.

 

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From inside Merlins Cave looking out at the Haven –
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The feature known as the tunnel.
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Inside the tunnel – note the work marks on the wall indicating metal tools were used to dig the tunnel out of the rock.
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The remains of the 12th century chapel dedicated to St Juliot.
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Sheep have been reintroduced to the island in an effort to keep the vegetation under control.
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The Post Medieval doorway framing the view of Glebe Point.

 

 

 

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A Cornish Mermaid

“The village of Zennor, about a quarter of a mile distant (from Morvah), lies in a wild and stony district.  Within the very interesting church are some quaint bench ends, one which depicts a mermaid…” (The Cornish Riviera 1911)

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The pub and the church – two essentials in any village.

Zennor is a small but perfectly formed village nestled into the rugged landscape of west Penwith.  It has an air of having been around since the beginning of time and a quick survey of the surrounding landscape would seem to confirm this.  The ancient past is all around you in this part of Cornwall, whether it is the stone walls that snake across the land, the portal dolmens dating back to the Neolithic or the remains of circular huts with dates in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

But perhaps the most well known aspect of Zennor is its connection with mermaids.  In the church there is an ancient oak bench, which at one end has carved into it a mermaid holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other (the mirror is sometimes referred to either as a quince or a pomegranate).  As with all matters in this land of stories there is a legend attached to the chair.

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The mermaid chair.

 

“One Christmas morning, long ago, so the local tradition runs, the mermaid came to the church, attracted by the marvellous singing of the squire’s son, a handsome youth, who considered by the ladies of Zennor the most desirable “future husband” in the district.  Moreover, so the story goes, the mermaid changed herself into a beautiful human maid wearing a gown of woven silver filament, which gave off a bright incandescence, and sitting beside the squire’s son she cast a spell on him.  Suddenly a terrific storm raged around the church and several flashes of lightening zigzagged at the windows, filling the church with a blinding glare.  The storm only lasted a few moments, and when it had abated the mermaid had vanished – and so had the squire’s son.” (Cornwall by R. Thurston Hopkins date unknown).

There are a few variations on this version but the essentials stay the same.  In the official pamphlet from the church at Zennor the legend tells “…how a beautiful young woman in a long dress used to sit at the back of the church listening to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. One evening she succeeded in luring him down to the stream which runs through the village.  Together they went down the stream and into the sea at Pendour Cove, now known as Mermaid’s Cove.  It is said that if you listen carefully on warm summer’s evening you can hear the pair of lovers singing together.”

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Detail of the mermaid chair – the comb and the mirror are recurring themes in depictions of mermaids.

It is believed that the carved chair which commemorates this story dates back to the late Medieval some five to six hundred years ago.  Stories of mermaids go back centuries, the first record of a mermaid tradition comes from the Assyrians and in Ancient Greece the mermaid was the symbol of Aphrodite who was not only the goddess of love but also the sea. Tumultuous and unpredictable, both can be said of the sea and love.  In many stories surrounding mermaids they are both beautiful/kind and ugly/evil – the two sides of the same coin.

It is not surprising then to learn that in the churchyard at Zennor there are many unmarked graves of unknown sailors who died during shipwrecks on this perilous stretch of coastline.  The sea can be both kind and bounteous but can turn in an instant taking life without remorse.

“It is a fact that, to this day, the women of the choir at Zennor sit between the male choristers and the church porch, and this, the village people say, is to protect their menfolk from the wiles of seductive “merry maidens”.” (R. Thurston Hopkins)

During the Middle Ages the mermaid appears in carvings at churches around the UK, becoming a symbol for the evils of lust, the fishy tail reminiscent of the scales on a serpent providing a link to the idea of ‘original sin’.  The mirror and the comb features in many depictions and are sometimes regarded as symbols of the mermaids (and thus female) vanity and it is through vanity that sin occurs.

Throughout time men have gone to sea to make their fortune or simply to provide for their families, it is a fact that some have never returned leaving families behind wondering what had happened to their menfolk.  Perhaps the legend is born from a truth – the mermaid is the capricious sea – a beautiful woman who lures men away often never to be seen again.  Is it not said that the sea is a ‘harsh mistress’?

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

The Church  itself is dedicated to St Senara  – the earliest record of a church here dates to 1150 AD but the circular shape of the churchyard and the 6th century saints name would indicate that there has been a church here from around the earlier date.  St Senara is often associated with the legend of Princess Asenara of Brittany who married King Goello.  Her stepmother was jealous of her beauty and accused her of infidelity condemning her to be burnt however when it was found that she was pregnant her gaolers nailed her into a barrel and set her to sea.  It is said the child was born in the barrel and named Budoc, eventually the barrel washed up onto the Irish coast and Asenara and Budoc stayed for awhile.  As in all good stories King Goello discovered the truth of the matter and Asenara returned to Brittany with Budoc via Cornwall. Along the way they founded the parishes of Zennor and Budoc (near Falmouth).

Within the church there are two fonts, one is Norman in date and the other is 13th/14th century in date and is still in use today.

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

In 1270 the church was appropriated by the Provost and Canons of Glasney College, at this time much of it was rebuilt.  The builders were housed in what is now ‘The Tinners Arms’, the local pub which was built in 1271.  In 1450 the tower and north aisle were added to the church.

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One of several stone crosses to be found in the churchyard. These originally marked the path for the ‘coffin way’.

Apart from all the great scenic walks (‘the coffin way’ to St Ives being one) around the area there is also a working water wheel and local museum – ‘The Wayside Folk Museum’.  This is a private museum of rural and local artefacts with everything from stone axeheads dating from the Neolithic to farm implements from the 18th century.

NB – It has come to my attention that The Wayside Folk Museum has closed and was sold recently (2016).