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Cornwall, Authenticity and the Dark Ages: Controversy at Tintagel Castle

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“Disneyfication, legend, England’s story and the Dark Ages are uncomfortable bedfellows in the wake of new interpretation at Tintagel Castle. The ongoing dispute is between English Heritage and Cornish heritage groups, politicians and medieval historians.

The Tintagel Controversy is double-edged. On the one hand, Arthurian legend is privileged over the Cornish history of one of our most rich geological, archaeological and historical sites. On the other, an anachronistic view of the early Middle Ages and a fear of confusing the public have brought the ignominy of the Dark Ages to Tintagel.

Tintagel Castle is English Heritage’s fifth most visited historic site and has been subject to a new interpretive approach including a small exhibition centre and outside interpretation prior to a more ambitious plan to reconnect the mainland with the island site via a showpiece footbridge.

The castle site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Site of Special Scientific Interest owing to its unique geology. It comprises an extensive early medieval settlement that has yielded exceptional archaeological finds from glass to eastern Mediterranean pottery, and the 13/14th century ruins of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle.

The artistic interventions on the site include a face of Merlin carved into the bedrock, a statue of King Arthur on the headland and other sculptural features from Arthurian Legend like the Round Table and Sword in the Stone. These features provoked accusations of “Disneyfication” and “vandalism” and much of the debate has been played out in the pages of the Cornish and national press, and on social media.

Given the already spectacular historical remains combined with the naturally enthralling seascape at Tintagel, what moved English Heritage to make these interventions, and for whose benefit?

Tintagel village already provides lots of opportunity to immerse in Arthuriana: The Arthurian Centre, King Arthur’s Great Halls, King Arthur’s Arms Inn. A faery-fuelled New Age idyll awaits all wannabe knights and damsels.

Back in the 1930s C.A. Ralegh Radford, Tintagel’s first archaeological explorer, downplayed the site’s Arthurian importance, noting in his guidebook, “No evidence whatever has been found to support the legendary connection of the Castle with King Arthur.”

Historically this has not changed and is openly accepted by English Heritage, peppered throughout low-level interpretation and in the current guidebook. Jeremy Ashbee, Head Curator, said of their balance of history with legend, “if you’re going to understand Tintagel, only telling the historical story is a very bad error, and it would be just as bad if we only told the mythical story.” However, the seduction of Arthur has clearly proven too much and wins the upper hand.

“The Legend Lives On” reads the headline on an English Heritage advert in a local tourist guide, also showing the image of a gigantic sword plunged into the heart of Tintagel island. In English Heritage’s leaflet promoting its Cornish properties, they woo would-be visitors to “Get swept up in the history of Tintagel… including the centerpiece bronze statue of King Arthur.”

When the 8ft statue was dramatically helicoptered into place, we witnessed a volte-face and its name changed to Gallos, a Cornish word for power. He stands alone with his back to the sea, facing his photo opportunity-seeking audiences.

English Heritage have been at pains to explain that the statue doesn’t have to represent King Arthur but could represent anything the visitor wished, and may even invoke the site’s older heritage as a seat of early medieval Dumnonian Cornish kings.

Since the former English Heritage split into Historic England and English Heritage Trust (now a heritage property management charity) they have reinvented their purpose and invite its millions of visitors to “step into England’s story.” Not only does this Victorian Anglo-centric narrative jar with Cornish history, which is distinctly un-English, it also brands the period from c.410 to 1066 as the Dark Ages.

A flurry of consternation amongst medievalists that this loaded and unnecessary term is still being promoted by a national heritage agency has resulted in a trending Twitter campaign #stopthedarkages.

English Heritage defended its use as a term more intelligible than the academically-preferred “early medieval,” which, it said is “popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans.”

The use of Dark Ages at Tintagel may serve to reinforce a stereotype that Cornwall was peripheral and insignificant. A chunky slate wayfinder points visitors in the direction of Dark Age Buildings and the exhibition devotes one-quarter of its interpretation to Dark Age Tintagel.

But Cornwall’s historical horizons are international. Its 400-mile coastline has provided stages for precocious Atlantic interaction and exchange for millennia. The archaeological evidence from Tintagel is overwhelmingly supportive of the theory that adaptable maritime communities travelled, traded and built.

The new English Heritage commits to authenticity as one of its values. “We 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.”

The authenticity of the Cornish Dumnonian settlement is stymied by the Dark Ages and plays second fiddle to the inauthentic mythos of a populist King Arthur which dominates visitor perspectives even before arriving. This is not good public history.

The controversy at Tintagel has telescoped the clash between the needs and desires of Cornish communities wanting, and deserving, a say in how their heritage is managed and interpreted, and how English Heritage deals with presenting a national narrative of England to its audiences.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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