mr. zilla goes to town

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

mr zilla goes to tor

Ms Z and I spent the last three days of 2004 traipsing about the southwest of the country, primarily down in Cornwall. We hit a trifecta of cheesy english seaside locales, namely Newquay, Penzance and Land's End. Newquay was first stop because it held the cheapest accommodation to be found on the internet; it also holds some spectacularly naff seaside clubs which I'm sure must be quite barmy come the 'summer' here. We also had something like a supernatural experience at a barrow on the edge of town but I'll get to that later. Land's End I think was one of those obligatory visits, simply because, well, you can go and look at where it isn't. Having said that, peering westward into the gloom just before sunset as the sea heaved onto the rocks below us gave some appreciation of just what nutters the Vikings must have been to go sailing off into it in the 11th century or thereabouts. Penzance, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, was a quick stop between the two for a fantastic dinner at the Turk's Head.

More importantly though, we topped and tailed the alleged life of one of the greatest heroes in the British pantheon besides the man who invented the after hours lock-in, King Arthur.

On the northern coast of Cornwall lie the clifftop ruins of Tintagel Castle. First mentioned by 12th century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, it is reputed to be either the place of conception, or birth, of the actual historical 'Arthur' of the 6th century upon whom the later mythology accreted. With more spanish amphorae of this period discovered at Tintagel than the rest of England combined, there's no doubt that in the 6th century it was a site of a powerful and wealthy court, although until the spam tins are uncovered I'm going to have to hold my expert opinion in check on whether it resembled Camelot. There's been evidence uncovered as recently as 1998 that a bloke named Artognov had something to do with the place but on sighting the evidence I'm not so sure the Art in question wasn't the local plumber.

I often wonder why some people indulge themselves purely in the fantasy of the romantic mythology when delving into the history of how and why these myths come about is so intriguing. For instance, the current ruins on the site of Tintagel date from the 12th century, not the 6th:

Earl Reginald of Cornwall began work on the Norman castle at Tintagel in the middle of the 12th century AD. Reginald was the brother of Robert Earl of Gloucester, whose patronage enabled Geoffrey of Monmouth to write his History of the British Kings. Perhaps it was for propaganda that Earl Reginald chose Tintagel as the site for his castle; by building on the ruins of mythic Camelot, the Norman lord may have hoped to lend his rule Arthur's legendary power.

Tailing off the trip we diverted to Glastonbury to climb the Tor and wander through the ruins of medieval Abbey. Once again it seems quite possible that the 'discovery' of the remains of Arthur and Gwenivere in the Abbey grounds in 1191 was political project boost the locale's prestige. Perhaps as a result, the Glastonbury Abbey certainly didn't lack for wealth in the following centuries, for by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monastaries in the 16th century...

Henry VIII sent auditors to assess the huge wealth of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates in the 16th century were second only to Westminster's. The auditors reported that of an astonishing annual revenue of about £3,000, the Abbey gave only £140 in charity. In the year before the Dissolution, Glastonbury's 54 monks feasted on over 600 lambs and 250 suckling pigs.

But Henry failed to find firm evidence of corruption; Abbot Richard Whiting refused to surrender the abbey's estates. Henry had the abbot arrested and the abbey searched. His soldiers uncovered as much embezzled treasure 'as would have sufficed for a new abbey'. In a short trial, the abbot and two monk treasurers were condemned to death. On the Tor, they were hanged and dismembered. The abbot's head was stuck over the gateway to his monastery, which was quickly wrecked and looted. Within just a few weeks the abbey was used as a local quarry for building stone.


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