‘Memories are made of this’: Castle-an-Dinas

[In March 2015, the PASTPLACE team paid a visit to Castle-an-Dinas, Cornwall. Paul Bryant-Quinn reflects on a chilly but illuminating excursion.]

“Another PastPlace field trip, another cold” I grumbled to myself as, channelling my inner Victor Meldrew, I plodded on reluctantly after the now-distant (and much fitter) members of the project. To say that the wind was fresh would be something of an understatement, and rueful lines from an equally disgruntled early medieval Welsh poet came to mind:

Llym awel llum brin

Anhaut caffael clid


[Piercing wind, bare hill

It is hard to find shelter …]

It was worth it, though. Castle-an-Dinas, ancient hill fort and now scheduled monument of national significance, is one of the most impressive oppida in Cornwall. Its strategic importance is immediately evident, occupying as it does a position of exceptional strength on the high ground of Castle Downs between Goss Moor and St Columb Major. Standing some 700ft above sea level, to the north you look towards St Breock Downs; the south and east offer views across the Hensbarrow Downs, and away to the west are Newquay and the Gannel estuary.

Three (perhaps four) stone and earth banks would originally have enclosed a central area of about 20 acres, and finds at Castle-an-Dinas have dated its occupation from the 4th to the 1st centuries BCE. The archaeology does not offer any evidence of long-term settlement, however, and the fort may have served various functions: military and defensive, almost certainly, but trade and shelter also, as the need arose. But they who came here in the 4th century were not the first. The hill is also the location of two burial mounds which predate the iron-age fortifications and may date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Interestingly, the later occupants seem to have left these barrows undisturbed. Whether that instinct was born out of respect or fear, Castle-an-Dinas reminds us that the past had a past of its own which it sought to understand and come to terms with. Did the newcomers weave tales about the people who built those mounds and were buried there, just as later ages would in turn mythologise them?

And Castle-an-Dinas certainly was ― or became ― the stuff of legend: William of Worcester (c.1415– c.1482) came here in 1478 and recorded the story that this was where Cador ‘duke of Cornwall’ met his untimely end. A similar connection emerges in the early 16th–century Beunans Meriasek, where the ‘duke of Cornwall’ (who is strongly reminiscent of Arthur) challenges the tyrant ‘Teudar’: echoes of the An Gof rebellion of 1497 come to mind. In Meriasek, the duke states that Castle-an-Dinas is his dwelling, but that Tintagel is also his residence; the Galfridian background to this strand of the story is not hard to detect. Strategically, Castle-an-Dinas looks towards Tintagel; and Alan Kent has suggested that it may have been a seasonal or battle dwelling, with Tintagel itself providing longer-term residence. Interestingly, as Oliver Padel has noted, the Tristan legends position Tintagel itself as a defensive response to pressure from Irish raiders; and although there is no corroborating Cornish documentation for this, the presence of Dark-Age ogham inscriptions in the area do attest to an Irish presence. Does the Tristan story preserve folk memories of actual events?

It is not, however, the duke whose stories are interwoven with this landscape and whose name echoes out of legend, but Arthur. Medieval Welsh tales and poetry locate several of Arthur’s courts in Cornwall, and his association with this part of the world is central to the pre-Galfridian literature, such as Culhwch ac Olwen, the Triads, and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy. In the 11th/12th–century ‘Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle’ (Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr), a text which is independent of the tales invented or reworked in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur is the pagan “chief of the battalions of Cornwall”, and the eagle is the reincarnation of his dead nephew Eliwlad, who offers him Christian enlightenment:

Arthur of surpassing far-flung fame,

bear of the host, joy of shelter

the eagle has seen you before.

Here too we find ‘Arthur’s Hall’, on Bodmin moor; Treryn Dinas, one of his ‘castles’; and ‘Arthur’s Hunting Lodge’ (or ‘Seat’): this, by tradition, was Castle-an-Dinas itself. Oliver Padel has suggested that if the Thomas de Kellewik who was murdered at Gulval in 1302 came from these parts, then it is feasible that the toponym Celli-wig, noted in medieval Welsh tales of Arthur as his principle Cornish residence, may be associated with Castle-an-Dinas, although this identification is tentative.

We have to bear in mind, however, that for all the attacks on the Arthurian legends, until well into the 18th century their various strands were accepted not only as factual, but as defining elements both in regard to the history of these islands and the right of the English crown to still wider dominions. The Welsh themselves long considered these legendary accounts as validating their supposed descent from the nobility of Troy; Owain Glyndŵr and Henry Tudor alike propagandised their bids for power by appeal to Welsh vaticinal poetry (it was not by chance that Henry named his son and presumed heir ‘Arthur’); Henry VIII appealed to historical authority of these same legends, as did John Dee in his Brytanici Imperii Limites of 1578, his most important construction of the basis for territorial claims on behalf of the English monarchy in furtherance of its imperial ambitions.

Polydore Vergil’s scepticism in regard to the Galfridian tales was met with stubborn resistance, and for a surprisingly long time: Leland excoriated Vergil and, in doing so, preserved stories and traditions about Arthur which would otherwise have been lost. Sir John Prise wrote his Historiae Britannicae Defensio (1553) in similar vein, and the chorographer and historian Humphry Llwyd too was a staunch defender of the essential historical basis of the accounts, as were recusant authors in the 16th–and 17th centuries. As late as 1716, Theophilus Evans of Carmarthenshire could appeal to this ‘history’ as the cornerstone of his people’s dignity. Here we see the sustaining myth at work: as the 15th–century Welsh poet Siôn Cent reminded his listeners, ‘For all our travails and humiliations, we are not as they [the English are] are: we are the descendants of a noble race, and we hope for that which is to come’. In 1575, Morys Clynnog, custos of the English and Welsh Pilgrim Hospice in Rome, made a paraphrase of this same poem for Pope Gregory XIII as he highlighted the plight of his people under Elizabethan rule. With all of them, their point was that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fables were not the only source of the surviving Arthurian references. From what came to be called the ‘Old North’ through Wales to Cornwall, some of the Arthurian associations have affinities with much older material: for example, the stone now associated with St Columb, said to bear the imprints of Arthur’s horse, is curiously reminiscent of a similar legend recorded in the 9th–century Historia Brittonum. Who would not look at a site like Castle-an-Dinas and see in it the fortress of some mighty king of the past, as its very name suggests; and of them all, who greater than Arthur?

In any event, place-lore is both consistent and central to the early Arthurian legends; and as Padel says,

What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.

Castle-an-Dinas drew the attention of later writers too: Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony in Cornwall comments on it in 1602, as does John Norden (c.1547-1625), the cartographer and antiquary, in his Survey of Cornwall of 1610. Even in the 19th century, there was a curious legend that the John Trevisa, who translated Higden’s Polychronicon, also wrote an account of King Arthur and a book of his acts. Perhaps he did.

The ‘bare hill’ of Castle-an-Dinas reminds us that the past in its place is never just “the past”, and it is not only our place. From the people who built the ancient barrows to those who constructed the iron-age ramparts, and from the weavers of myths to the partial interpretations we create and believe to be true, here we find an interplay of many pasts and many understandings. Quondam et futurus: we are only the latest to pass this way.

In 1987, Castle-an-Dinas was acquired by the Cornwall heritage Trust from the Duchy of Cornwall for £4,000. Even on a day of biting cold and winds, it seems like money well spent.

Paul Bryant-Quinn