Tintagel Castle: Arthurian Legend Mixes with True History
Tintagel Castle is a site of castle ruins located on Tintagel Island; a peninsula connected to the North Cornwall coast in England by a narrow strip of land. This castle was an important stronghold from around the end of Roman rule in Britain, i.e. the 4th century AD or the 5th century AD until the end of the 7th century AD. Tintagel Castle is best known for the claim that it was the place where the legendary King Arthur was conceived, but the real history of the site is also exciting.
Signs of the Romans at Tintagel Castle
The site where Tintagel Castle stands today is likely to have been occupied during the Roman era, as artifacts dating to this period have been found on the peninsula. Having said that, as structures dating to the Roman period have yet to be discovered, it is not entirely clear if Tintagel Island was inhabited during the Roman period.
Tintagel, United Kingdom - August 12, 2016: View of Tintagel Island and legendary Tintagel castle ruins at sunset. ( valeryegorov /Adobe Stock)
It may be said with more certainty that the site was occupied between the end of the Roman period and the 7th century AD. In 2016, geophysical surveys revealed the existence of walls and layers of buildings at the site. Excavations yielded walls, said to belong to a palace, a meter in thickness.
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Numerous artifacts were also unearthed, including luxury objects imported from distant lands. Such objects include fragments of fine glass, a rim of Phoenician red-slip wear, and late Roman amphorae, which are reported to have been used for the transportation of wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean to Tintagel.
Legend of King Arthur
It has also been reported that this palace belonged to the rulers of an ancient south-west British kingdom known as Dumnonia. This kingdom is said to have had its center in modern day Devon, and included parts of present day Cornwall and Somerset. It has been suggested that the story of King Arthur’s conception at Tintagel has something to do with the Kingdom of Dumnonia, or at least with its memory.
During the 12th century, the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia Regum Britanniae (translated into English as ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), a pseudohistorical account of British history . One of the figures in this account was King Arthur , whom, according to Geoffrey, was conceived at Tintagel. It has been suggested that Geoffrey was inspired by the memory of Tintagel as a royal site in earlier centuries to link it with the place of the legendary king’s conception.
According to legend, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon , fell in love with / lusted after Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall, whose fortress was at Tintagel. Uther managed to persuade Merlin to use his magic to fulfil his desire for the queen. Merlin transformed Uther into the image of Gorlois and he was able to enter Tintagel Castle to seduce the queen. This is how Arthur is said to have been conceived.
An illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Boy's King Arthur (1922). ( Public Domain )
Building Tintagel Castle
During the 1230s, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, second son of King John of England, and brother of King Henry III of England, decided to build a castle on Tintagel Island.
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It’s generally accepted that the castle was built based on the Arthurian legend connected to the site and that it was of no military value whatsoever. The castle was inherited by the earl’s descendants, though they are said to have made little use of it. By the middle of the 14th century, about a century after the castle was built, the Great Hall is said to have been roofless, and another century later, the castle had fallen into ruins .
Tintagel Castle ruins, Cornwall . ( CJohns /Adobe Stock)
Questions of Conservation and ‘Disneyfication’
It is the ruins of Richard’s castle that can still be seen today. The castle remains the property of the Duchy of Cornwall and may be visited by the public. While legends of Arthur tend to be what draws in tourists, archaeologists and historians continue to visit the site for other reasons.
They keep making discoveries too. In 2016, it was reported that artwork depicting Merlin was carved into the rock face close to the spot where Arthur was said, according to legend, to have been conceived. And in 2018 , Latin, Greek, and Celtic words, names and symbols were found carved into a slate window ledge.
In addition, a footbridge (the design of which was selected from a competition) to connect the mainland and the castle has recently been built to make access to the site easier. While some have viewed the change positively, since it has increased tourism, others have called it a ‘Disneyfication’ of the site.
Statue of King Arthur . ( Marco Nijland /Adobe Stock)
Top Image: Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, England. Source: Christoph /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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