The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.
Barely a ripple ran through the cultural sector nationally or here in Cornwall when, on 24 April 2014, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, announced that “the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities.”
Currently researching diversity issues, in rural contexts in particular, and working in Cornwall, I couldn’t understand why museums and the cultural sector here seemed ambivalent to this historic development. I have therefore been formally and informally advocating for greater consideration and awareness of Cornish National Minority Status in my work and to my peers, both here and nationally.
Thanks to an invitation by Cornwall Museums Partnership, I gave a keynote presentation on what National Minority Status means, how its governed and what features of Cornish identity museums could better embrace in their make-up and their work.
I have also advocated to the Museums Association in my capacity as regional representative for the South West. It was also a significant factor in my representations to English Heritage about their new interpretive treatment of Tintagel Castle.
Given the systemic inequality and unintentional bias that has been proven to exist in the museum sector (and in culture more generally), now is absolutely the right time for responsible institutions and individuals to better understand what Cornish National Minority Status means for them and their audiences.
Equality without prejudice
“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”
“It is without prejudice as to whether the Cornish meet the definition of “racial group” under the Equality Act 2010.”
In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 contains the diversity themes that dominate discourse around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage and concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics.
Under the act, National Minority status is not currently a protected characteristic but it is implied, with colour, ethnicity, national origins and citizenship under race. However, it has been made incumbent upon a successful case of discrimination being prosecuted before the Cornish would be considered a race in the same way as the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are. Interestingly none of those groups have been made to prosecute a successful case to provide their identity – they can bypass this process by virtue of their “national origins.”
What is a National Minority?
“to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.”
The Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It is based on Strasbourg. It comprises 47 member states of which 28 are in the EU. Founded in a post-WW2 world, along similar lines to the UN, in 1949. Its particular responsibility is “to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.” It is responsible for:
European Convention on Human Rights
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
Other charters and commissions: European Social Charter, European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.
About the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
Instituted in February 1995
UK ratified the convention 1998
Contains 32 articles
Member states have to report back periodically on request of the Committee of Ministers (UK submitted 4 to date)
Does not define a national minority
Each member state decides
The right to ‘self-identify’ important
Must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
Articles in the Convention with resonance to the museum and cultural sector
“The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.”
“The Parties shall encourage a spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue and take effective measures to promote mutual respect and understanding and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”
“The Parties shall, where appropriate, take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”
Article 20 has be criticised by some as a kind of get-out clause i.e. there will always been a reason, if increased consideration and recognition of a National Minority is considered politically unappetising, this clause may be invoked. Decide for yourself:
“In the exercise of the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present framework Convention, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.”
How did the Cornish prove their case?
“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”
What features of Cornish identity were put forward when campaigning for minority status?
This milestone is the result of a long and sustained campaign with a long history in the modern era for official recognition of the distinctiveness of the Cornish, rooted in a historical past, and Cornwall as a territory with particular characteristics that distinguish it from the “English counties.” A modern political consciousness of Cornish separateness goes at least back into the 19th century and dissent and rebellion against English rules goes back even further than that.
Evidence was gathered in at least two influential reports (see sources below):
The 2011 report by Ian Saltern on behalf of the Cornish Gorsedh, was the most hard-hitting in terms of evidence gathered and the strength of the case put forward, for example:
“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”
The case was also built on a positive vision of what official recognition could bring to Cornish and British society as a whole:
“National minority status will enable the Cornish to play a full and active part in British society, contributing to the diversity of the United Kingdom.”
Led by Cornwall Council and its predecessors, with a large collaboration of others the case for National Minority Status was based on:
History and Cultural heritage
Long-term association with a specific territory
The need was based on barriers to: “Maintaining, celebrating and asserting a distinct identity.”
Self-identification is a particularly important feature of Cornish identity, measured through the Census – and thereby addressing Cornish people outside Cornwall and also the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC) as a barometer of the growing consciousness of Cornish identity among young people: 37% in 2011 up to 48% in 2014.
The aspect of Cornish identity I find most compelling is that based on historical territorial integrity and resistance against England and English assimilation – something museums need to be acutely aware of, for example:
Kernow—suggested in use for “at least 2000 years” (unknown sources)
Early Anglo-Saxon references to Corn wealh – peninsula of foreigners
River Tamar as border with West Saxon kingdom since 10th c (no source given probably referring to a later 12th reference in William of Malmesbury including expulsion from Exeter—use of medieval history is needs more rigour)
Norman Conquest – creation of Earldom in 1068
Creation of Royal Duchy in 1337
Stannary Parliament and Courts
Laws of England intermittently applied to ‘Anglia et Cornubia’ into the 16th century
Foreshore Case arbitration case held between 1854 and 1858 between British Crown and Duchy of Cornwall over mineral rights.
Bona Vacantia – intestate property in Cornwall goes to Duke of Cornwall’s private estates, not to the Treasury via the Crown.
International recognition of Cornwall in over 30 languages as a separate entity to England is a hard-hitting fact that is difficult to refute, and formed part of the case made for national distinctiveness. This is not afforded to other English counties which is why many Cornish people will rail against designations of Cornwall being in England.
The 2011 report makes direct reference to how Cornish culture and heritage should be treated by institutions with Cornish collections:
“National minority status will confer upon the Cornish the dignity of visibility. It will acknowledge that Cornish language, culture and heritage are the products of Cornish people – a group with historic national origins no less deserving of official recognition than the Welsh or the Scottish.”
No museum or archive collections were used as examples of Cornish distinctiveness and museums do not feature in the heritage and culture Case for Cornwall, March 2015 (relating to devolution powers to Cornwall Council).
It also directly challenges museums who abide by the Museums Association Code of Ethics which states a museum’s important position of trust in relation to, amongst others, source communities.
Ways museums, culture and arts organisations can reflect Cornish diversity
Embrace it! Don’t ignore it.
Look at your governance – ask yourself who makes the decisions?
Do you have a Diversity Policy or Action Plan? Do you state your commitment to the Cornish National Minority and Protected Characteristics?
Look at your programmes – what are the themes of your collections, exhibitions, learning programmes and events?
Partnerships: Who do you tend to work with? Who else could you work with?
What is the make up of your community (not just local area)?
Which audiences do you tend to aim for repeatedly, who isn’t joining in?
The hope is that the airing of these issues in a systematic, question-driven way will help everyone learn from the problems with new interpretation at Tintagel Castle. The key issues I raise are summarised below.
They are apposite not just to the situation at Tintagel but more widely concern methods of interpretation of Cornish history, medieval history, and the ways in which sites with multiple protective designations are treated by heritage agencies. I expand on these issues below (with pictures!)
Tintagel Castle and its setting are part of a site with multiple designations: Scheduled Ancient Monument, SSSI, AONB amongst others. English Heritage as property manager has asserted its dominance over the site with its recent and future planned interventions – why?
Tintagel Castle’s early medieval history as the seat of Cornish Dumnonian kings/leaders is over-shadowed by a Victorian populist idea of King Arthur whose links with Tintagel are no more significant than the literary/historical figure’s links with many other sites in Britain and Europe. Why is Tintagel used to propagate this myth?
Tintagel’s early medieval period is branded as the Dark Ages. Dark Ages is an obsolete, value-laden term, not even used by school teachers anymore. For this period in Cornish history some of the richest and most numerous archaeological finds have emerged – so why call it the Dark Ages?
Why were monumental artistic interventions chosen as a method of interpretation? Would English Heritage countenance similar interventions at Stonehenge or at other multipli-designated sites they manage? If not, why at Tintagel?
Why is the indoor exhibition centre so small and the space devoted to the Cornish history of the site under-stated when the shop areas are so large?
Is the occasional use of the Cornish language enough to signal the site’s Cornish distinctiveness?
Inviting audiences to ‘Step into England’s Story’ goes counter to the un-English history of the Cornish and Cornwall. How can English Heritage justify its use at the Cornish heritage sites it manages, and online, especially in the light of Articles 5, 6 and 12 of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities?
Given the disappointment in the pop Arthuriana presented at Tintagel back in 2010 (see below) who are the audiences for Tintagel Castle? As English Heritage’s fifth most visited heritage site is it being used as a cash cow and therefore privileging the undiscerning tourist over Cornish communities and other communities of interest? How is ‘popularity’ understood and is this a valid measure of success?
What audience development and research consultation were undertaken to inform the new interpretation, including the decision to make several artistic interventions on this multipli-designated site? How are the responses to new interpretation being recorded?
What can be done to improve or mitigate the concerns raised above and those by other professionals and members of the community?
Tintagel Castle itself is one of several historic sites in Cornwall actively managed by English Heritage Trust (now an independent charity licensed to manage the “national heritage collection” on license from Historic England). Many are free to roam/enter while a few are paid entry, such as Tintagel Castle, Chysauster Ancient Village and Pendennis Castle–larger complexes looked after by property managers or seasonal custodians offering visitors a more mediated experience.
As such, there are competing designations at Tintagel and different authorities that have a duty to protect its precious distinctiveness and those same authorities with reciprocal duties towards its communities.
The Home Nations, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have enjoyed autonomy over their historic environments and how it is interpreted for decades and given the spirit of Cornwall’s (first) Devolution Deal, and the context of Cornish National Minority Status, it seems to be an anomaly that Historic England and English Heritage continue to govern and make decisions on Cornwall’s historic environment (where decisions take place mainly outside Cornwall) without due care to include Cornish communities in decision-making and planning.
While Cornwall Council are currently planning to address the devolution of discussion and decision-making on the historic environment to Cornwall, in the form of a Board and Forum called “Heritage Kernow,” the set-up of this new group is yet to be publicised and its remit and constituents largely unknown.
An ongoing Parliamentary consultation of oral and written evidence called Countries of Culture is questioning how culture and heritage is supported, funded and how services are delivered, with a particular focus on the work of Arts Council England (responsible for central government funding for museums, archives and libraries and arts organisations) which has come under scrutiny for bias towards London, big cities and certain types of culture that may inadvertently be serving a minority elite.
Given the problematic context of other un-devolved English agencies, the challenges facing Cornish heritage and its expression become even more complex.
The approach to Tintagel is long and winding. We now arrive at Tintagel the wrong way round as this place was created to face the ocean. As you get to Slaughterbridge on the village outskirts brown signs confidently point you to the Arthurian Centre, an exhibition experience dedicated to Arthur afficioados, and so the seduction begins. From King Arthur’s Great Halls to Spriggans Cove, a mini Glastonbury awaits you.
“Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”
Tintagel village renamed itself/was renamed (apparently for postal reasons) from its Cornish name Trevena and has been identifying with its cultish fame ever since the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King andthe Great Western Railway started to provide easy access for pleasure tourists to Cornwall.
Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette conducted an ethnographic study of tourists to Tintagel in 2010, commenting on the interpretation of the time, “Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”
What, if anything, has changed in the most recent reinterpretation at Tintagel? If visitors were “left disappointed by the lack of authoritative on-site narrative” what is offered today?
This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:
My expectations and prejudices
The call to action: From what starting point or philosophy does the interpreter begin?
What expectations are raised before the visit?
What are the key messages?
How much interpretive space is devoted to them?
Who are the audiences?
1. Caveat emptor – Buyer beware
This is not a neutral descriptive review of what you can expect to find at Tintagel Castle but an an analysis of how new interpretation may impact on impressions of Cornish history and heritage.
My concerns as an heritage interpreter and medieval historian were raised before my recent visit following press coverage of new on-site sculptural interpretation, discussions with Cornish campaigners and groups and correspondence with English Heritage regarding their approaches to interpretation at Tintagel Castle.
It was important that I visited to see for myself to what extent the new interpretation enhanced or adversely affected the integrity of the site. I undertook this site visit at my own cost and in my own time.
2. Call to action – England’s story
English Heritage has reinvented its reason for being and marketing is playing a big role in bringing cohesion to its portfolio of 400+ historic sites in the national heritage collection (in England including Cornwall). That cohesion is represented by their strategic priority and call to action to, “Step into England’s Story.”
Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.
I am particularly struck by their commitment to authenticity:
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. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.
You have to dig deeply to find out about English Heritage’s attitudes towards community participation. The audience emphasis is on “the service we provide to our visitors.”
Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director says, “Whether on a famous battlefield, in the heart of a medieval castle, among the ruins of a once-great abbey or in the kitchen of a country house, the voices of our ancestors will sing out.” Whose ancestors is not clear, and as we shall see, the feeling of disconnection from local communities is felt keenly at Tintagel Castle.
The Story of England as a strategic interpretive aim of English Heritage is repeated in its manifesto called Our Priorities which includes: “We will create engaging and memorable experiences based on the story of England.” On involving others they say, “We will include the wider community in our work.”
Given the demonstrable upset caused by new interpretation at Tintagel amongst Cornish communities, and wider groups of interest, it is not clear what the extent of community consultation or feedback was, beyond the design consultation for the proposed new footbridge where candidate entries were displayed in the village.
However, the jury that chose the final design did not include any representatives from Cornish groups except for author Philip Marsden who is a trustee of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
The problem with such admirable ideals is that they can often mask actions which do not match but it remains relatively difficult to call them to account.
Having demonstrated above the growing official recognition of distinctiveness in Cornish identity, culture and heritage, Cornwall’s story does not easily fit into England’s story so what impact is this having on the Cornish historic sites, and their audiences? Is an Anglo-centric approach appropriate?
3. I blow my nose at you, so-called ‘Arthur King’, you and all your silly English K-nig-hts*
I picked up the latest free tourist brochure about Tintagel on the way–the type of literature a large number of the 200,000+ visitors a year are likely to also pick up–to find out some tit-bits of information, trivia, taxi numbers, restaurants and a place for local businesses to advertise.
On page 7 there is a half page advertisement from English Heritage headlined “The Legend Lives On. Explore the myth and mystery of King Arthur in breathtaking surroundings.” The graphic shows a gigantic fantasy sword plunged into an image of Tintagel island. Heritage marketing has improved so much in its authenticity in the last few years. This is seriously disappointing from a national heritage agency which ought to know better.
“Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”
English Heritage’s leaflet on its principal Cornish sites, entitled, “Castles of Cornwall” with Cornish language sub-title “Kastylli Kernow” and footer slogan “Step into England’s Story” highlights “New for 2016” features at Tintagel: “Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”
It is extremely hard to refute English Heritage’s clear bias towards pulling visitors to Tintagel Castle because of its tenuous Arthurian connections or question the agency’s desire to capitalise on the populism of Arthurian fantasy. By this point I was rerunning Monty Python’s Holy Grail in my head.*Gratitude to the Pythons for inspiring this bit of my review.
This is in spite of the rest of the village and other places mentioned already catering well for consumers of New Age Arthuriana. The only mention of anything else is “Dark Age settlements” and “Find out what inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build his castle here.”
The Cornishness of the experience is entirely absent in pre-visit marketing if you exclude the use of Cornish language sub-titles.
4. Imagined Arthur and Cornish history
Tintagel Castle, and indeed the broader cultural landscape that stretches beyond it, is widely acknowledged as a 5th-7th century (likely earlier and a bit later) seat of post-Roman kings who ruled over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia taking up most of the large South Western peninsular of Britain, including today’s Cornwall, large parts of Devon and parts of Somerset. Tintagel represents considerable continuity in power structures, contacts and legitimacy in early medieval Britain.
After the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century, the rump of this kingdom retained its territorial integrity up to today with its border with England consolidated along the River Tamar but the territory was not absorbed and pretty much left as a kind of protectorate and retained its specific constitutional status when the territory was retained as an earldom and then a Duchy in the 14th century.
The archaeological evidence, much of which still remains unexcavated, overwhelmingly supports the paradigm that Tintagel was a seat of power based on international maritime commerce that connected western Britain with the Mediterranean world in a big way.
This is a hugely significant story for Cornish communities and for scholars of early medieval culture but also for anyone wanting a better understanding of how different the topographies of Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean were in this period.
It is also extremely exciting history for any heritage interpreter to get their teeth into and for local and visiting audiences to learn about. It is unique to Tintagel and cannot be adequately told elsewhere. The popular stories of King Arthur can be told elsewhere.
The nature of publication in archaeology is hard-to-access and expensive so the social imperative of heritage interpreters must be to do as much as possible to convey the extent and distinctiveness of a site and its material culture to wide and diverse audiences and bring that scholarship to bear.
The tiny number of finds displayed in the exhibition centre do not do justice to the vast site archive that has been uncovered over the decades that Tintagel has been investigated. (Not sure where the remaining “several thousand pieces of pottery” and other site finds are.)
In my opinion, this part of Tintagel Castle’s story should lead the key messages. At present it plays only a supporting role in the interpretation presented in the small exhibition centre and is further denigrated by being branded under the banner of the Dark Ages.
Further, there are back references to Arthur in the interpretation, particularly in the interpretation of the so-called “Artognou Stone” presenting this period as part of an inevitable teleology leading to the more comfortable realms of Arthurian fantasy that continues in the section of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 13th century castle and Victorian re-imaginings in the 19th century.
The 3D model with unusual projections showing the contrast between early medieval and 13th-century Tintagel (era of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle) did attract the eye but it was hard to understand the passage of time being presented unless you also had half an eye on the flashing images surrounding the model. I did feel however that here was some effort to convey messages that were firmly rooted in the archaeology of the site and not in an imagined version of it, like we find outside.
Outside the small exhibition centre and on-site the privileging of a neo-Gothic version of King Arthur is undeniable.
English Heritage spokespeople were quick to point out that the carving of Merlin’s face into the SSSI-designated cliffs of Tintagel was really very small and admittedly it is very hard to find.
But then what is the point of it? If it is an activity to engage visitors especially families with young kids to search for Merlin’s face, what is the lasting imprint on that visit meant to be? And why does Merlin look like that? Surely the most popular depiction of Merlin in the modern day was that represented in the eponymous BBC fantasy drama.
Since my visit a bit of the nose of Merlin either fell off or was deliberately chipped off. Sadly the immediate reaction was that it was the responsibility of someone who didn’t like EH’s new interventions. However it may equally have been caused by someone wanting a souvenir, from natural causes, or by someone wanting to cause mischief with no sense of the controversy surrounding its creation. Whichever reason, it would seem disingenuous for this to be considered an ‘act of vandalism’ when the original carving may also be considered destructive because of the protected designation of the cliffs.
Already, the controversy surrounding this item of interpretation has started to remove people from its intentions and from representing Tintagel authentically. With Merlin’s Cave (a name for the beach only dating from the 19th century Victorian imagination) just below, was it really necessary to damage the cliff face to create a corporately-approved anthropomorphic image of Merlin? Was there another way to pique people’s own imaginations?
any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea
The statue of King Arthur or the figure it’s meant to represent in audience imaginations is an attempt to create a photo opportunity for visitors. The figure is 8 feet high and looms awkwardly on the headland. Sculptural interventions at ancient and historic sites will divide opinions in taste and how in-keeping or proportional it is with surroundings. In this already spectacular environment with imagination-provoking remains what is the interpretive purpose of this statue?
King Arthur’s association with Tintagel in legend principally concerns his conception and the machinations of Uther Pendragon as presented in the stories of 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He bears a close resemblance to Gandalf in the recent film adaptations of Lord of the Rings. King Arthur as an old wisdom-figure does not have associations with Tintagel in medieval tales.
The legend of Tristan and Iseult (Eselt in its Cornish form) with its associations with Tintagel could have provided an opportunity to gender-balance interpretation, at least of legend, at Tintagel which, as it stands, is distinctly male.
In an interview with the Financial Times Jeremy Ashbee of English Heritage asserts the importance of balancing historical and legendary aspects of an historic site such as Tintagel. This is true and a challenge for any heritage interpreter. However, the authenticity of the figure is questionable, even when privileging the Arthurian legend of Tintagel over the site’s other histories.
Why does Tintagel need such visual focuses when, for example, Stonehenge does not? Who is making these value judgements?
If, as has also been suggested, that the statue could even represent the presence of Cornish kings from the post-Roman Dumnonian period when England did not yet exist and borders and frontiers were fluid and fought over, why is he represented like this?
Any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea–the source of contact, connections and wealth that is represented spectacularly by the archaeological finds from the site.
Overall this statue can only serve to reinforce populist acceptance of a Victorian version of King Arthur. It lacks the interpretive power to make any of the subtle points that perhaps the interpreters may have hoped it could make.
It is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding or interest in the audiences and communities English Heritage has a responsibility to serve through its custodianship of monuments in our national heritage. Still less does it serve the Cornish stories of Arthur or the Cornish history of the site.
Amongst the Arthurian interventions the most prominent remains at Tintagel Castle are those of the 13th-centry symbolic castle built on the orders of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Herein lies an exceptionally important milestone in the history of Cornwall. A most significant omission in interpretation is the castle’s potentially continued symbolic importance as a place of ancient legitimacy and power not just for Cornwall but for Britain and Europe.
The caption for a small illumination from a medieval manuscript showing the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall (an elevation from Earl) by his father Edward III in 1337 does not make the connection between this key date and the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall in the same year. By this date the Ricardian castle was already in a ruinous state but was clearly still important enough as a place of power to have a third phase of building in the 1340s.
Cornwall’s constitutional status was cemented as being different from the rest of England with the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall to directly benefit the first born male heir to the throne. The Duchy of Cornwall, and not the Crown, still owns the land at Tintagel Castle. The current Duke of Cornwall is Prince Charles and he remains a major landowner in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, originating from this period.
We are told in the exhibition centre that Richard chose the site at Tintagel for his symbolic castle because of its associations with King Arthur and to place himself in the “long tradition of Cornish kings, demonstrating his power over the Cornish people.” While the subject of the Cornish kings remains contentious because of partial and fleeting documentation, the lack of explanation as to why Richard would want to demonstrate his dominance over Cornwall, and how this led to the institution of the Duchy of Cornwall as a territory distinct from England in 1337 is a missed opportunity to emphasise the site’s importance in Cornish history.
In another post I outline problems with the interpretation of the early medieval period at Tintagel Castle, particularly its categorisation as the Dark Ages. They do no need re-stating except to reiterate that heritage interpreters must be careful of using value judgements in their presentation of historical subjects.
By and large the textual interpretation at Tintagel is even and un-provocative; this is in sharp contrast to the sculptural interventions outside which are provocative. The use of the headline term Dark Ages is provocative and generally degrades a modern understanding of this well-studied site for which there exists much historical and archaeological commentary. From a Cornish perspective, some historians have argued that it was more of a Golden Age for Cornwall than a dark one.
Choices in interpretive delivery are crucial here and wide research and audience understanding are needed to make those choices as well as possible within the resources available. For example, not even in the school curriculum is the term Dark Ages used to teach children about the early medieval period stretching from the end of Roman rule to the 11th century. Perhaps local schools are not a key target audience for EH at Tintagel?
The accompanying guidebook is really a post-visit souvenir. I would not recommend using it (as it recommends you do) while you clamber around the rocks and steep stair cases at Tintagel or you will fall over and do yourself an injury.
The key messages in the guidebook and the website are broadly reflective of what you find on site with Arthurian connections dominating the narratives that are presented, the presence of some Cornish history but not much, and the emphasis of Cornwall’s distinctive chronology, as compared with “England” assumed but not stated.
5. Interpretive value
Currently, the entire back wall of the exhibition centre currently serves to display different words in English and Kernewek–lending an air of Cornish authenticity that is not rooted in the history of the place and has low interpretive value except to suggest some distinctiveness to the place in which the visitors find themselves. What was the logic behind this? There is no call to action.
A version of the Cornish language in use today was certainly spoken throughout the medieval period here. The common language of the aristocracy in the 13th and 14th century of Richard Earl of Cornwall’s period and after was medieval French. Cornish is a protected minority language today and while it is good to see it in use at heritage sites it would have been more powerful to make this connection overt.
The displays in the exhibition centre are roughly equally balanced to reflect different phases of Tintagel Castle’s history. While a tiny display serves the early medieval period of the site from where there certainly hails the largest amount of evidence in terms of artefacts, when compared with the exhibits used to illustrate the 19th century, there could have been the opportunity here to create the centre around these more prominently, and more widely, and an opportunity to diversify the range of interpretation currently on offer–particularly when it comes to the role of women in the early medieval period of the site.
I am sure there were lots of logistical problems for English Heritage undertaking this, not least negotiating loans and organising their mounting and care, but I can’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity to use this space more specifically to emphasise the huge number and range of evidence found in archaeological investigations at the site, even if they were exhibited in surrogate form. Perhaps this could be part of a future refurbishment of the centre together with some opportunities for audience interaction?
Outside the interpretive value of the artistic interventions have been stated above. There is not a huge amount more to say on this except that the choices that were made have monumentally privileged an inauthentic narrative over the chance of a more authentic one.
Perhaps the greatest concern I have about interpretive value at the site is the space devoted to merchandising and shopping opportunities, raising the stakes on the claim that Tintagel is being used as a cash-cow to finance other aspects of English Heritage’s work. The English Heritage branded goods and medieval souvenirs are generic and I could find none relating specifically to Tintagel.
This shop could be anywhere and serves to reduce the site’s distinctiveness in place. There is a lack of access to reference works to buy in the shop where a visitor could, if they wished, read more about Tintagel and its related history and archaeology.
I am a big museum shop aficionado. Museum shops are great opportunities to continue interpretation and permit visitors to take some of the authenticity of the place they have visited home. I would be interested to see what future lines emerge and whether they will default to the kind of Arthuriana you can already find in the rest of the village.
6. Audiences and communities
Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used.
Everything I have described above has at its root the diverse audiences and communities that historical sites, museums and others with authority are entrusted by society to serve.
The interpretation at Tintagel Castle does not feel like it is rooted in the community nor a result of good audience development work. Orange and Laviolette highlighted the problem of disappointment in their ethnography of Tintagel in 2010 (see above) and yet in 2016 after a new interpretive effort we are left with a similar feeling of disillusionment about not really being able to “know” a Tintagel beyond the imagination, myth-making and marketing.
Where exactly is Tintagel’s place in the histories of Cornwall, Britain and Europe and how can the communities that are connected to those histories better relate to the site in their lives and world views?
While visiting there were not many other visitors except for a large group of mixed-nationality students. They were being guided by a tour-guide who was presenting some questionable history to the audience. I would have loved to have surveyed the group afterwards to see what impression of Tintagel and Cornwall they left with.
Authority is certainly asserted by the tone and finish of the interpretive work at Tintagel Castle which leaves very little room for what different audiences, especially local ones, can bring. How is the new interpretation at Tintagel relevant to Cornish communities? Why is the tourist leisure family audience privileged, and if the new interventions were for their sake to drive more of them through the turnstiles, what impressions of Cornish heritage will be left with them?
What of the programming at Tintagel? Activity at historic sites, while potentially more expensive, can be a far better tool for interpretation than words on boards.
In 2014 the unique identity of the Cornish was officially recognised by the UK Government under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe, not EU) affording them the same right to officially self-identity as as the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, amongst others.
A significant part of the protection of the Cornish National Minority concerns the State’s (UK Government) undertaking to “undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.” (Article 5).
Articles 6 and 12 contain further obligations that are relevant to all public bodies who have responsibility for cultural heritage in Cornwall.
Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used. As English Heritage is de facto an arm of the state via license from Historic England, these responsibilities are particularly incumbent upon them.
But this is not about recriminations and blame, it’s about needing to open up lines of communication that are honest and transparent between all communities of interest so that the best result (there is no perfect) can be achieved. Having a say is important even if the point being made may be misguided. Agencies like English Heritage have a responsibility to listen and take action accordingly.
The growing need to mainstream diversity in our culture is apposite to this argument. A lack of consciousness of, or ignoring, the diversity in our communities will lead to poorer interpretation and a lack of engagement with heritage. We all want that not to be the case.
In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that a site as special as Tintagel, meaningful to Cornish people, meaningful to the millions that visit Cornwall every year, meaningful to those that have the privilege of being custodians, and meaningful to those with a love for good history, ought to have been treated with more loving care and respect in its interpretation that is currently evidenced.
I have presented Tintagel Castle as a case-study of Cornish heritage in conflict. There are others and it is about time we debated openly about why this kind of thing happens and how we can improve the situation. Can we expect better at other Cornish heritage sites, those run by English Heritage and those that are in the care of others?
“Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows.”
In recent weeks the ancient site of Tintagel in North Cornwall has been the subject of controversy. The conflict is between the re-interpretation of the site by English Heritage and Cornish groups and individuals who say that the Cornish history of this major heritage site has been sidelined or ignored in favour of the mythos of King Arthur which has become synonymous with the site and attracts many a tourist to visit this part of the world.
The controversy is a great shame and may have been avoided if Cornish stakeholders had been more involved in the re-interpretation process from the beginning. Artistic interpretations of Merlin (a representation of his face carved into the hallowed rocks), a proposed giant sculpture of Arthur and other artistic representations from Arthurian Legend (Round Table, Sword in the Stone) have been the focus of conflict but so have other forms of interpretation and narratives presented at the site. The bridge (apparently representing Excalibur) has probably been the least controversial and most exciting part of the new developments.
Tintagel is English Heritage’s fifth most popular heritage site. Even before the former English Heritage split into Historic England (who now take care of the statutory and academic duties) and English Heritage (now an historic property charitable trust) EH was not best known for novelty in interpretation or presenting visitors with anything other than well-preserved ruins. It was EH’s style to remain faithful to the state in which they found and preserved an ancient site or property, perhaps maintaining a well-manicured lawn to set off the old stones or walls.
It is therefore easy to see how a breath of fresh air into this enigmatic site was both desirable and overdue. The castle’s visitor centre houses several of the archaeological finds from the site and has been recently redisplayed. Now sights are turned to the ancient monument and landscape themselves including the famed rock, hard to access by foot owing to erosion of the old land bridge (cue: Excalibur). Principally led by Kernow Matters to Us, but also supported by Cornwall Association of Local Historians and some Cornish politicians and other knowledgeable individuals, the frustration and anger at the changes to the site have made headline news.
The national press like competitions for bridges and they like a bit of historical controversy so the combination ensured that words such as Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows—to the detriment of the real issues that the Tintagel Controversy represent. Following the protestations against the new additions (some of which are already in place) and also the nature of the new interpretation at the site, various parties have come out in favour of the changes, not least the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, an art critic who occasionally lapses into historical comment.
…a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians.
In a piece written last week in response to the points made by those who are against the new additions to the site, Jones rallied his readers to revel in English Heritage’s changes at Tintagel to keep “Britain’s greatest legend alive.” (Read the full article.)
Those who follow me on Twitter saw that I got angry enough to provide a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians. It’s always difficult to do this without bringing even more attention to a pretty poor article. Even if it was intended to provoke a reaction, it is so full of holes that it would be wrong for this to stay on the internet without some kind of retort so those that are interested enough in the subject may have an alternative viewpoint to reference.
So here’s an essay of responses to everything that is questionable about Jones’s piece on Tintagel, medieval history and Cornish historians:
He said: “King Arthur forged our Britain.”
Not really. The medieval British Isles were fragmented, politically and culturally, and even if you did believe there was an historical King Arthur his efforts to create Britain can’t have been very effective. However, King Arthur has been a foundation figure in European literature since the early Middle Ages and a powerful persona set up in opposition to invading and settling forces including Anglo-Saxons and Normans—arguably more instrumental in forging the Britain we know (or at least the England we know today).
He said (image caption): “Tintagel in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur – and mythic seat of England.”
England did not exist when Arthur was reputed to have been born some time in the fifth century (400s) (Cornwall did, though, known as Dumnonia). England did not start taking shape until the mid-tenth century when the fractious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fiefdoms were variously united under one king since the reign of Athelstan (924-27).
He said: “What’s wrong with carving Merlin’s face into a rock? Nothing, if you care about keeping Britain’s greatest legend alive.”
Would you carve a random Druid’s face into Stonehenge? Or a dinosaur into Dorset’s Jurassic coast? Probably not. Arthur’s legend has been doing quite nicely without needing a Merlin to stare out of Tintagel’s rock. But this kind of thing is always going to divide opinion, and as the artist Peter Graham commented, it is a “temporary intervention” as the wind will eventually erode it away. That’s my opinion as a heritage interpreter. Interpretive sculptures date quickly, add to the monumentalisation of historic sites, can detract from authenticity and often do not provide the kind of wow factor many assume they will. I am more in favour of using programming to bring drama to an historic site i.e. live interpreters, theatre, plays, performing artists.
He said: “Tintagel is a real medieval castle, ruined but spectacularly posed over the sea – but the main reason most people would make the trek there is a fascination with King Arthur.”
Tintagel Castle has a fabulous (and real) history beyond its literary associations with King Arthur just as other sites related to the Arthur myth such as Glastonbury (Avalon) do. Tintagel was for a time the seat of or at least strategically important to Cornish leaders, some of whom have been attributed as kings. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the idea of kingship varied enormously and powerful kings were tolerated (loyal) petty kings of places that were not politically sensitive to them (the Isle of Man had kings at least in title until the role was absorbed into the Crown. Now Elizabeth II is also Lord of Mann).
The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth grew from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College were founded (1216)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England
The current castle ruins relate to the period of Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, in the 1230s. Richard was the second son of King John (of Magna Carta fame) and courted legitimacy that mattered in royal European circles (he later became King of the Romans or Germans) and Christian immortality (he went on the Barons Crusade in the 1240s). You certainly get some of this history through EH’s new interpretation on slate blocks around the site and the addition of Kernewek (Cornish language) titles is a nice touch.
Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors.
The gaining popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century retelling of the Arthur Story in his History of the Kings of Britain brought Tintagel to Richard’s attention and proved an alluring prospect full of the symbolism that excited him and would help him authenticate his dominion in Cornwall–a century later cemented by the formation of the Duchy in 1337.
The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth continued to grow from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College in Penryn were founded (1265)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England but one with social and cultural networks stretching—by sea—to mainland Europe and beyond (some amazing archaeological late antique/early medieval finds from Spain and the Mediterranean at Tintagel corroborate this view).
Some of the Cornish kings themselves are shrouded in myth such as King Mark (uncle of Tristan of the great romance with Iseult) but others seem to have more historicity attached to them depending on your attitude to the contemporary sources that contain reference to them, from mid-fifth century Erbin ap Constantine recorded in the Welsh annals to King Geraint attributed to the early eighth century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and contemporary ecclesiastical letters. A thorough shake down of our sources for this period is probably long overdue, but not for now. Nevertheless, Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors. Come on, this is more than the story of grain stores and lime mortar that Jones jests about later in his piece.
He said: “I am impressed that Cornwall can boast 200 historians – the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus must be huge – but come off it.”
Here Jones refers to the Cornwall Association of Local Historians (CALH) but assumes for some unknown reason that the only historians worth taking notice of must work for the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus. Well you’ll be hard pushed to find more than those than you can count on one hand there, but beyond, there are a huge number of people who have studied, researched and written on Cornish history and even professional historians outside Cornwall who might count themselves in their number. I am not a member of CALH nor an employee of Exeter but I do have two degrees in History and have studied and analysed more medieval charters than most–so me included.
He said: “Arthur was already famous when Britain was just a minor island off the shore of medieval Europe.”
Yeah well. Go back to school. These were not the Dark Ages and while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s literary weavings definitely did launch the Arthur myth into medieval courtly circles Britain was definitely not a minor island off mainland Europe. See above, the English monarchy was deeply entwined with those of France and Germany. All the aristocracy, even the Cornish aristocracy of the 12th-14th centuries spoke French—you did if you wanted to get on in life. There was no fog on the horizon of the English Channel or Atlantic seaboard and people and ideas in mainland Europe and Britain were more connected then—by constant sea travel—than in many ways they are now. They went on Crusades together. They went on pilgrimages thousands of miles long together.
A note on the Dark Ages: Medieval historiography has eschewed this outdated term for 30 years or more. It is therefore disappointing that EH has carved it into a slate slab at the site. This is not good interpretation as it is going to perpetuate a very outmoded and unsubstantiated view of the past.
Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.
He said: “These historians who say English Heritage should tell the real story of Tintagel rather than focus on the “mythical fantasies” of King Arthur fail to grasp the nature of cultural history.”
I think it’s fair to say who here has failed to grasp the nature of cultural history. Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.
He said: “In many ways, the myth of Arthur created medieval civilisation.”
This is definitely a go back to (a good) school moment. There is no such thing as “medieval civilisation.” Medieval historians and archaeologists and art and literary historians have spent decades debunking the teleological and pejorative, origin of nations, 19th century view of the Middle Ages.
I highly recommend Prof. Patrick Geary’s seminal (and bloody good read) book, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe if you want a decent understanding of how medieval history was later (ab)used to influence popular perceptions of the period. However if you want to talk about medieval cultural history in Cornwall in the Middle Ages there is no shortage of sources if you look hard enough, from unicorns at St Buryan and beast-headed Evangelists at Gulval to the mystery plays written in Cornish contained in the late 14th-century Ordinalia.
He said: “The British may have invented Arthur, but Arthur in turn legitimated the idea of Britain as a great nation.”
See above. Anachronistic.
He said: “Arthur is woven into the landscape and identity of Britain, and we’re very lucky to have such a great global myth written into our rocks. People visit Greece to see the land of the Greek gods; in just the same way this is the land of Arthur.”
I haven’t yet come across anyone who has travelled to Greece for work or play who has done so to experience the land of the gods—I think it exists better in the imagination and on film. Certainly if that is what people come to Cornwall for, we are not short of some of our own fabulous and rich stories of fairies, giants, monsters and other-worldly folk that make some of the Arthurian stuff seem a bit pedestrian. Go and find the giant’s heart at St Michael’s Mount.
He said: “English Heritage is evidently aiming its Arthurian reboot at families, and doing its bit to keep the mystery of the grail alive in the 21st century. I think anyone who really loves history, and wants a new generation to love it, should applaud their efforts.”
From an interpretive point of view, there is no better site to explore Cornwall’s post-Roman and early medieval history and archaeology than Tintagel. Who should have the final say in how this site is presented to the public whether they come as families, school visits or otherwise? English Heritage and other custodians have a duty and responsibility to treat the site and its communities with sensitivity and respect, and that means respecting and presenting the Cornish narratives of Tintagel (which also include plenty of Arthurian intrigue).
Archaeologists have already pointed out which elements of the developments at the site may or will be detrimental to the site’s archaeology. If this happens future discoveries may be lost to future generations of Cornish communities and visitors. English Heritage’s official PR and communications refer constantly to their visitors but there is little or no reference to their local communities. Ironic, considering the pledges and posturing currently contained in the UK Government White Paper and those of other stakeholders such as Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund that claim diversity, reflecting the communities they serve and working better for young people should be at the heart of all culture.
Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.
Did you know, the Cornish have been officially recognised as a National Minority in the same way as Welsh, Scots and Irish (and English in Scotland) since 2014, by the UK Government and in Europe? Public bodies have a moral and ethical responsibility not to ignore this. Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.
Consultation is a process of mutual education and ‘deep listening’ not a tick-box exercise singed [burnt] with cynicism. This is more than just showing pictures of different bridges to see what the very local population would like to see. These are hard and difficult conversations but they have to be had and resources to act upon them need to be made available to make these conversations meaningful, constructive and long-lasting.
The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here.
But, and it’s a big but, as a heritage professional that has developed interpretation and exhibitions for various subjects and sites over the last 16 years I know that you cannot please all of your audiences all of the time and that at some point some stories will take prominence over others to achieve coherence. A paucity of resources, manpower, expertise and time mean that you are often on your own trying to make sense of a story based on history or evidence that are hard to navigate and difficult to access to tough deadlines. The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here. In addition, protestations can sometimes be born from false information or base-less assertions that are hard to counter and very soon the situation gets toxic.
Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.
Developing a narrative or set of narratives within the constraints of interpretive toolkits (word counts, artistic impressions where contemporary imagery is not available, signage, lack of provenance…) is quite a stressful process so I have sympathy with those that have ended up bearing the brunt of this conflict as it can make exceptional professionals lose confidence and faith in their abilities.
I hope that lessons have been learned and that in particular those national agencies that have a responsibility to interpret culture and heritage in Cornwall do so in the future with adequate consultation with their Cornish communities and with an acute awareness and respect for those narratives. Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.