Book of the Week: Paths to the Past

12 Mar|Francis Pryor

The ruins of Tintagel Castle

In his new book, archaeologist Francis Pryor tells the stories of Britain’s landscapes. It’s a lovely and gentle historical journey that brings in archaeological findings and personal anecdotes. In this extract, Pryor looks at Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. 

Tintagel is a small rocky promontory on the north coast of Cornwall, with remains of a thirteenth‐century castle and a sheltered sandy beach, known as the Haven. The surviving walls of the castle have to be among the most romantic ruins in Britain. It’s not the – rather ordinary – medieval stonework that conveys the atmosphere, but the castle’s setting: cliffs, jagged rocks and the constant angry presence of the sea. This landscape, like others in the south‐west, has never been smoothed over and rounded by glaciers, so the rocks still appear sharp and jagged. It is a place that has been the subject of myth and Arthurian mayhem ever since c. 1136, when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).

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Arthur’s conception and birth at Tintagel, as portrayed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, was very strange. His father was the legendary Welsh king, Uther Pendragon, who was disguised by Merlin’s magic to resemble his worst enemy. In this disguise he slept with Ygrain, Duchess of Tintagel, his enemy’s wife, at her castle. The result of their union was Arthur. In the Middle Ages, myths and legends were reinforced by physical objects, such as pieces of the True Cross, or the bones, or limbs, of saints. But in 1191, King Arthur’s corpse was revealed, thanks to another king – this time a real one – Henry II (1154–89): the body was ‘discovered’ by monks at Glastonbury Abbey, just two years after Henry’s death, and most probably on his suggestion. The remains of Arthur, who was ‘found’ with his wife Guinevere, were immediately buried in an elaborate tomb at the abbey, following which, thousands of visitors flocked to pay their respects2 – unsurprisingly, this had a galvanizing effect on the abbey’s finances. It also transferred the magical power of Arthur from Wales to England, which was probably Henry’s intention from the outset. As political PR moves go, this has to have been a master‐stroke. It’s just the sort of romantic fantasy that social media today would have seized upon.

Of course it’s easy to dismiss such legends as ‘false news’, but we should also try to see them for what they were: stories that gave the ruling powers their legitimacy, popularity and authority. Again, nothing changes. But they did also help support monasteries and the Church, not to mention the many inn‐ and shopkeepers who served pilgrims in places like Glastonbury.

The real facts behind Tintagel are just as remarkable as the legends, and there are some fairly obvious clues to help us reach them, including the Great Ditch, the standing castle walls and some mounds and very low ruins on the promontory itself. These would have fired the curiosity of any visitor who knew about archaeology. And one of those was the distinguished Professor Ralegh Radford, who undertook a series of excavations from 1933– 39. He revealed the walls of rectangular buildings (which are still quite clearly visible as low, grass‐covered banks), which could be dated by pottery to between the fifth and seventh centuries ad. The pottery itself was remarkable as it included many fine pieces from the eastern Mediterranean. These would have been landed by ships berthing at the Haven and we now know that Tintagel was part of a regular trading network that linked western Britain with Iberia and the Mediterranean. The main export was tin – as in Roman times.

So Tintagel was clearly a very up‐market, elite settlement, where people were feasting and drinking imported wine. It has even been suggested that it may have been a royal centre for the fourth‐ to eighth‐century Kingdom of Dumnonia, which included Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset. This seems to me entirely reasonable. Legends rarely appear out of the blue: there is usually something to inspire them.

Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. Paths to the Past: Encounters with Britain’s Hidden Landscapes (Allen Lane, £16.99) is available to buy here.