So did he or didn’t he?
Arthur, that 6th century king who permeated Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain: was his home on the precipice-high cliffs at Tintagel island, Cornwall?
These days it is a dizzying slate-footed home for rare hardy birds and tourists. In winter the winds whip it cruelly, but in summer the breezes whisper through the rocks and tunnels and ruins of a bygone place.
Geoffrey thought it Arthur’s home, and Alfred Lord Tennyson seemed to agree. And who could not, having seen this vast tall natural spit of land, towering above them, covered in ruins fraught with puzzles, almost completely severed from the mainland?
I walked down the steep slope on Saturday last with Felix, Maddie and Ruth. We were determined to see Merlin’s Cave, if Merlin’s cave it be, which lies on the beach at the foot of the island.
Tintagel is thought, following excavations, to have been sub-Roman: a settlement which sprang up in the wake of the departure of the Romans. Archaeologists have found rich pickings, evidence of finds from Visigothic Spain and the Byzantine Empire, of Mediterranean oil and wine jars which betray evidence of sophisticated trading with those in sunnier climes.
And there is a king-making place. They call it King Arthur’s footprint: a man-made hollow in the stone at the island’s highest point on its southern side. It is thought this could be a place where chieftains were inaugurated.
It is all hazy hearsay and speculation, the remit of the New Age taleweavers, is it not?
One find casts a thin sliver of doubt on our scepticism.
In 1998, Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division had a team working up on the island. Team member Kevin Brady found a slab of stone, one half of something larger, being used as a drain cover for a building.
It had two inscriptions on it.
The first was just four letters, and no-one has any idea what these might represent.
But the second smaller inscription was an eclectic mix of latin laced with Irish and British. It read: “PATER / COLI AVI FICIT / ARTOGNOV.”
Which is generally thought to translate as: “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had (this) made”
Well, you can imagine the hullabaloo as folks began to realise that the name of Arthur was awfully like Artognou. Meaning ‘Bear knowing’, it squares up to names like the old Breton Arthnou and the Welsh Arthneu. Not only that, but the stone was firmly anchored at the time when Arthur was said to be running the Camelot setup.
Typically, archaeologists distance themselves as far away from these theories as they possibly can.There is absolutely no reason to suspect a link with the Arthur of all those stories and histories.
The stone sits in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, Cornwall’s capital. It remains tight-lipped about whether the once and future king ever laid hands on it.
Maybe we will have to wait for his return to find out the truth.