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Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 11: Fowey, Cornwall
Fowey, Cornwall: Castle Dore
A few miles down the River Fowey (the locals pronounce it, "foy") from Lostwithiel, toward the channel coast of Cornwall, is a small but interesting area with three important Arthurian connections. They are all quite close together, but you may have to do some hunting for them, since their locations are not all clearly marked on tourist maps. Not to worry, though, that's what exploration is all about, isn't it?

The best known of these Arthurian sites is The Tristan Stone, just northwest of the town of Fowey. It is an obelisk-shaped stone monument, slightly split on the side, and resting on a circular base. On the wide, flat side of the stone is an inscription which purportedly dates from the sixth century. It is difficult to make out, now, but it is said to read something like, "Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus." Etymologists claim that Drustanus is a latinization of the Pictish name, Tristan, and that Cunomorus is a latinization of the name Kynvawr.

So what? Well, Arthurians will, at once, recognize the name Tristan (also Tristram), noble Knight of the Round Table and lover of Isolde (also Yseult, Iseult) who was wife of King Mark of Cornwall. Their tragic love story has been told by poets and writers for the better part of a thousand years. Could this be an inscription about that Tristan, a mere literary character? Could he be a real person? The answer depends on who this Cunomorus is.

Cunomorus (Kynvawr) was a Cornish king in the early sixth century and a contemporary of King Arthur. In a ninth century life of St. Paul Aurelian, the author links someone named Marcus Cunomorus with King Mark of Cornwall (also, a figure in Arthurian legend), saying that they are the same person. Still in the dark? Well, hold that thought. . .we'll come back to it, later.

Next on the list of local attractions is Castle Dore (see photo at top of page), a prehistoric earthwork enclosure, near Golant, a mile or two outside of Fowey. Castle Dore lies on the B3269, the old cross-Cornish track. No matter what you do or how lucky you are, you will never just stumble on Castle Dore. We had to ask directions several times and the best ones we got were, "just at the four turnins, up St. Blazey way" (translated from the Cornish, that means "near the intersection on the road to St. Blazey"). We knew we were in the vicinity, because a sign on the side of a run-down building at the intersection read, "Castle Dore," but nothing we could see looked like what we were expecting.

FIrst of all, if you're expecting a prehistoric earthwork, images of Maiden Castle or Old Sarum or Cadbury Castle come immediately to mind. Well, Castle Dore is none of those. One usually thinks of a hillfort as being a fort on a hill, hence the name. Well, there are no hills, here, just a farmer's field, and there is certainly no fort, just a couple of brush-covered ridges at the edge of the field. Welcome to Castle Dore. Disappointing, really. The castle was excavated in this century and found to have accommodated numerous timber structures during the fifth or sixth centuries, suggesting that a leader of some significance made his headquarters, there.

Perhaps the following syllogism can help us to find out who that leader might have been. The twelfth century French poet named Beroul, says that King Mark made his residence in Lantyan. Castle Dore is located on the medieval manor of Lantyan. Therefore, King Mark made his residence in Castle Dore. Airtight reasoning? No. Possibly true? Perhaps.

The Church of St. Samson, in Golant, is less than a mile from Castle Dore. It's an attractive fifteenth century building set behind a moss-covered stone wall, underneath some ancient trees at the end of a narrow lane. While a bit off the beaten track, there is a small, but helpful sign that will direct you to it. There is nothing special, here, apart from the natural beauty and numinous quality of the churchyard. But there is a small, suggestive hint that we should take note of. The aforementioned Beroul, writing "The Romance of Tristan," mentioned that the reconciliation of King Mark to his wife, Yseult (Isolde), took place at the church of St. Samson, within walking distance of King Mark's residence.

Hmmm. Now let's think about all this for a minute. Here we have:

  • a sixth century monument marking the grave of someone named Drustanus (Tristan) who is said to be the son of someone named Cunomorus (Kynvawr)
  • a known, sixth century Cornish king named Kynvawr
  • a ninth century writer saying that Kynvawr was the same person as Mark, King of Cornwall
  • a tradition dating, at least from the twelfth century, saying that King Mark lived in a place known as Lantyan
  • a "castle" located on a property known as Lantyan, shown to be occupied by a leader of some significance during the fifth and sixth centuries
  • a church named St. Samson within walking distance of Lantyan where King Mark is said to have been reconciled to a Yseult (obviously the church we see there, today, is much too young to be the one where the reconciliation ceremony was held. But, Beroul does mention it in the late twelfth century, so there must have been a church by that name, then. Could there have been a church or monastery named after St. Samson as early as the sixth century? Why not?)
So what can we conclude, now? Since all of these people and places are part of the legend of King Arthur, and since these places do exist and have valid connections with the people of the legends, does this constitute proof that, at least, this part of the legend is actual history?

Not really. The evidence is suggestive, but sketchy and inconclusive. The scholars can't agree, but, of course, they never do. We shouldn't worry about whether the legends are true or not, though. We should just be glad that we still have things like the Tristan Stone, St. Samson's and Castle Dore to visit and to spark our imaginings about the past.

Next stop: Dozmary Pool, Cornwall

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