Dispelling Some Myths: Tintagel and King Arthur
A recent tweet described Tintagel Castle on the North coast of Cornwall as a ‘medieval fortification’, built in the 13th century, and associated with the legend of ‘King Arthur’. But to call it a ‘fortress’ is probably stretching the definition a tad too far. Looking at the construction and the materials used is more suggestive of a folly than a defensible castle. The walls are clearly built from a local stone, but the mortared slabs used are more akin to bricks than the large, robust granite blocks favoured in contemporary castles of the period elsewhere. Moreover, the thickness of the walls is significantly and noticeably less than, say, the great castles of Wales. It is highly unlikely that Tintagel’s walls could have withstood a determined siege yet its history is lengthy, intriguing, and steeped in legend.
Location, Location, Location
The most striking thing about Tintagel - in Cornish ‘Din Tagell’, meaning ‘the fortress of the narrow entrance’ - is its stunningly impressive natural topography. In particular, a spectacular rocky chasm, where once was a narrow neck of land, now divides the mainland from the ‘Island’. In the Mediæval period, the residents of Tintagel crossed between the two halves via a narrow land bridge at the same height as the cliffs.
Captivated by the story of ‘King Arthur’s’ conception, in the 1230s a French-speaking 13th century Duke of Cornwall named Richard began building a castle at Tintagel with the land-bridge integral to its design. A century later, by the 1330s, the castle had fallen into disrepair and over the succeeding centuries many parts of the castle, earlier buildings, and the land-bridge gradually eroded. This meant that, not so long ago, the only way to reach both sides of the site involved climbing 148 narrow, steep steps. These are still visible bottom centre in the image right, but in 2015 Ney & Partners Civil Engineers and William Matthews Associates won a competition to construct a 68-metre bridge over the rocky chasm. The new crossing, a homage to its Mediæval predecessor, was completed in 2019 at a cost on £5 million.
The Mainland The castle on the mainland is divided into the Upper and Lower Wards, as shown right. The first obstacle was once the great ditch dating from the 5th – 7th centuries that made the headland into a promontory fort. Beyond the ditch the main entrance leads into the Lower Ward at its south-west corner; from here access to the whole castle becomes possible. Curtain walls, drawn in blue, enclose the Lower Ward on its south-east and north-east sides.
The Upper Ward sits atop a crag protected by a further curtain wall. Within are various small buildings belonging to the Mediæval castle. Of interest, Mediterranean pottery, including high-quality tableware, dating from the 5th or 6th century AD has been found here. Fragments of Mediterranean glass of the same period have also been found which, together with the pottery, indicates the early occupation of the site. These imported goods arrived in the south-western peninsula by ship as part of a systematic trade bringing luxury goods in exchange presumably for highly desirable Cornish tin.
The Island The pottery finds, together with the buildings on the Island, some of which have hearths, suggest intensive occupation in the post-Roman Early Mediæval period. The inner ward, on the Island, contained the castle’s Great Hall, built on a sheltered, man-made terrace. By 1337, only a century after its construction, the hall was in decay, and only a few years later Edward the Black Prince had the hall reworked into smaller buildings. This area was also the main focus of the 5th – 7th century occupation, as evidenced by recovery of large quantities of Mediterranean pottery. Sadly, any remains from that period are now buried beneath the Mediæval castle.
The early settlement remains on the eastern slopes of the Island look across to the rocky headlands of the Cornish coast. This is the dramatic landscape vividly described in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. Much of the level surface of the Island is covered by lines of small rectangular huts. Some are visible today, having been reconstructed after excavation in the 1930s. Many more became known only when a fire swept the headland during the dry summer of 1983. For the most part the huts were flimsily built, as if for temporary occupation. Their rectangular shape is unusual for Cornwall in the Early Mediæval period, but excavation has confirmed that these buildings are contemporary with the 5th or 6th century pottery found among them. Below the northern end of the inner ward is the Iron Gate (above right), a protective wall guarding a slate platform which forms the only landing-spot on the island.
More substantial structures, including one that contains a circular corn-drying kiln, are among the group of buildings at the northern end of the Island. This building with the kiln is similar to those found at the 13th or 14th century village of Houndtor on Dartmoor and thus may date to the same period. If so, then a small-scale farm was growing grain crops at about the time when the castle was built.
The main focus of activity on the summit of the Island is the area around the chapel dedicated to St Juliot, presumably a local saint. The building is of uncertain date but what now exists is contemporary with the castle. The location here, rather than with the main castle buildings, and the presence of several rock-cut graves in the vicinity, suggest an older site was being re-used. The structures around the chapel are of various dates, some overlying others and interconnecting, implying a complex sequence of uses.
Roman occupation The site of Tintagel Castle has been inhabited at least since the late Roman Iron Age, although it is uncertain how much activity there was at Tintagel in the period. Two Roman honorific markers from the area, one now in Tintagel church and one at Trethevy 1½ miles East, suggest some presence in the area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Likewise, various small finds, including pottery and some late 3rd and early 4th century Roman coins, also suggest activity on the headland at this period. Significantly for the history of the castle, there is no conclusive evidence for Tintagel being a defended settlement similar to those Iron Age promontory forts found on other south-western headlands.
Prosperous community From about AD 450 until about AD 650 (the 5th to 8th centuries) Tintagel was a important and prosperous site being closely involved in trade with the Mediterranean world. The island was covered with many small rectangular buildings, some visible today, that most unusually also had access to supplies of fresh water. At this time the site’s precipitous headland (now ‘The Island’) was connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. The addition of a large bank and ditch, which is still visible, protected the landward side of the narrow neck making the headland a strongly defensible position. Such defences may have been a response to settlement in the hinterland by Irish-speaking colonists at the same period , and extensive views over the whole southern part of the Bristol Channel would have facilitated early warning of raids or incursions. Tintagel’s location and its defensive measures compellingly suggest it was a royal site and stronghold of the then rulers of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall).
Earl Richard’s castle In the 12th century Tintagel gained literary fame when Geoffrey of Monmouth named it as the place where King Arthur was conceived. These Arthurian associations may have inspired the building of a castle at Tintagel. In 1225 King Henry III gave Cornwall to his brother Richard as a birthday present, making him High Sheriff of Cornwall. Richard's revenues from Cornwall helped make him one of the wealthiest men in Europe. In May 1233 Richard exchanged three of his manors with one Gervase de Tyntagel for a small parcel of land on the north Cornish coast which, according to the deeds, included ‘the island of Tyntagel’. Built on what was little more than an isolated and inhospitable rocky headland, it has been suggested that Richard’s castle was envisioned as a connection to King Arthur and the legends that fired the imaginations of Mediæval lords and kings alike. It is likely that Earl Richard was keen to exploit Tintagel’s international literary fame after the cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth named it as the place where Arthur was conceived in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ (ca. 1138). Through the popularity of the legend Richard probably hoped he could also gain the Cornish people's trust, although until his death in 1272 he is unlikely to have spent much time visiting Cornwall.
A legend is born Tintagel Castle’s association with King Arthur has made it famous, but it did not start out that way. From the mid-7th century onward there is little evidence of activity on the headland for over 500 years. Yet, in about 1138, possibly inspired by memories of the Cornish kings, Geoffrey of Monmouth chose to include King Arthur, the legendary ruler of Britain, Ireland and large parts of continental Europe, in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. It is this history that contains the earliest written mention linking Tintagel to the tale of Arthur’s conception - the result of the magically assisted seduction of Queen Igerna (Igraine), wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, by Uther Pendragon, King of Britain. At the same time, Cornish and Breton writers associated the love story of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde if you prefer) with Tintagel, home to the court of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall.
Throughout the intervening years the castle was little used but that did not stop the legends attached to it flourishing. In about 1480 the antiquary William Worcestre made Tintagel not only the place of Arthur’s conception but also of his birth. Nearly two centuries later, in 1650, the name King Arthur’s Castle is first recorded. By then King Arthur and Tintagel Castle had become an inextricable mix of local folklore and literary legends.
English Heritage, ‘Description of Tintagel Castle’, Available online: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tintagel-castle/history-and-legend/description/ (accessed March 19th, 2023).
Padel, O., ‘History of Tintagel Castle’, English Heritage, Available online: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tintagel-castle/history-and-legend/history/ (accessed March 19th, 2023).
1. The Irish presence is attested by monumental stones with Irish inscriptions found in north-east Cornwall and down to the Tamar valley.