This week’s journey takes us back to one of Britain’s most spectacular historic sites: the 13th century ruins of Tintagel Castle. Dramatically situated on windswept Cornish cliffs among the remains of a mysterious Dark Ages settlement, this beautiful castle has long been associated with the legendary exploits of King Arthur.
Interestingly, this association predates construction of the castle by several centuries. While there is little historic evidence of Arthur’s existence, the earliest surviving mention of his name is in the 12th century publication Historia Brittanum (History of the Britons), a manuscript assembled from a mixture of historical sources and folk tales originating in north Wales from 829-30. Arthur’s enormous international popularity – and purported connection with Tintagel – is attributed to a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/5). In his Historia regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Geoffrey described Arthur as ‘a youth of unparalleled courage and generosity, joined with that sweetness of temper and innate goodness, as gained him universal love’. He turned Arthur, as an adult, from a victorious battle leader into the greatest of a line of British kings, conqueror of most of western and northern Europe, whose renown attracted the bravest knights of the Continent to his court. Geoffrey placed Arthur in an apparently historical sixth-century Britain, expressed in detail relevant to the author’s 12th century audience.
Tintagel enters the story of Arthur as Geoffrey recounts the legendary king’s conception and birth. Geoffrey’s account details how Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, fell in love with Igerna (Ygraine), wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Tintagel was described as Gorlois’ strongest fortress, where he placed Igerna to protect her from Pendragon’s advances. While the king’s forces besieged Gorlois elsewhere in Cornwall, his advisor – the wizard Merlin – transformed Uther into the likeness of the Duke, sneaking into his Tintagel fortress and Igerna’s bedchamber on the strength of their disguises. According to Geoffrey, ‘the same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous’. Gorlois was then killed in battle and Uther married Igerna.
Nearly a century after Geoffrey’s publication, Tintagel Castle was constructed by Richard, second son of King John (r. 1199-1216) and younger brother of Henry III (r. 1216-72). Richard was made the Earl of Cornwall by Henry in 1227, making him the most powerful man in the county. Seeking to assert his royal status and position within Cornwall, Richard acquired the Tintagel headland six years later and began development of a fortress shortly thereafter. Little is known about the castle’s construction, in part because debris from its collapse was removed from the site in the 1930s. There is no record that Richard ever stayed at Tintagel, preferring his residence in Oxfordshire and making frequent trips abroad. Following his death in 1272, the castle was briefly kept up by his son Edmund until his death (without an heir) in 1300.
After Edmund’s death, the castle was little used and fell into disrepair. A survey of the property in 1337 described “two decayed chambers over the two gateways, one sufficient chamber with a kitchen for the constable, a decayed stable for eight horses, a cellar, and a ruined bakehouse”. In the 14th century, the castle was briefly used as a prison, housing such notable inmates as John Northampton, Lord Mayor of London and Thomas, Earl of Warwick. By the later 15th century, Tintagel was once again in poor condition, described as “sore wetherbeten and in ruine”. By the 17th century, life at Tintagel Castle was overshadowed by the local industries of agriculture and slate quarrying. The latter dominated the lives of local inhabitants; in 1650, no fewer than 21 quarries were active in the sea cliffs on either side of Tintagel. The stone was hewn by hand, lowered by ropes, split into slates and transported by ships moored in the Haven, a small, sheltered beach beside the castle ruins. Mining was also carried out on site, including the extraction of copper from inside a massive cavern beneath the headland known as Merlin’s Cave.
Despite the lack of any text – historical, romantic, or otherwise – linking Tintagel to Arthur during his fabled career, its purported association with the legendary king revived interest in the castle in the 18th and 19th centuries. A literary fascination with medievalism during this period inspired many writers to pen tales with Arthurian themes, including several in which Tintagel featured prominently. The nearest village to the castle, Trevena, took advantage of its renewed popularity in the mid-19th century, adopting the name Tintagel for itself. The renaming of this ‘picturesque but straggling hamlet’ helped the village profit from a steadily increasing number of annual visitors to the castle ruins.
Archaeological investigations of the headland have unearthed extensive building remains and fragments of imported pottery, indicating that between the fifth and seventh centuries, Tintagel was the location of a large settlement with commercial links to the Mediterranean. Its strategic importance within a trading network extending to Greece and Turkey suggests the settlement may have been a fortress of the kings of Dumnonia, a post-Roman Celtic kingdom encompassing present-day Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset. Its prosperity was short-lived, however, as the archaeological record at Tintagel falls virtually silent at the end of the seventh century. It is unclear why, but the settlement appears to have been abandoned at that time. No substantive archaeological evidence has been discovered that confirms Geoffrey’s account – or any others – linking Arthur to Tintagel.
Today, the castle is separated into two distinct portions – mainland and island – both of which stand in ruin. Owned by Charles, Prince of Wales as part of the landholdings of the Duchy of Cornwall, the site is currently managed by English Heritage.
T. has been a huge fan of Arthurian legends since childhood, so Tintagel Castle was at the top of his wish-list for our recent trip to Cornwall in April 2017. We arrived in the village mid-morning on a beautiful sunny day and began our journey to the castle on a wide, partially paved footpath just beside The Cornish Bakery (at 1 Castle Road, Tintagel PL34 0HE). Within a short 10-minute walk, views of both the castle ruins and the sea appeared before us. Here, a smaller trail diverged from the main footpath, cutting across the grassy hillside in the direction of the castle’s curtain walls, gatehouse and mainland courtyard. As we were intent on exploring Merlin’s Cave before the rising tide made its entrance inaccessible, we forged ahead on the main path leading toward the Haven.
In descending to the Haven at the foot of the valley, the remains of the platforms and derricks through which slate was loaded onto vessels in the harbor can still be seen on the right. A 1583 survey of the castle described the Haven as ‘all fayre sandy grounde good to ancor in’, ideal for ‘the greatest sortes of shippes’. A lovely waterfall spills over the mossy cliffs here, and a number of coastal walking trails launch across the headlands to the west.
On the west side of the Haven beach is the entrance to a cavern passing clear through the neck of the island. While the cave shows signs of having been widened as a consequence of mining work, it has also been eroded by the water that runs through it at high tide. Since the 19th century, it has been known as Merlin’s Cave.
We arrived at the cave with only minutes to spare, as the tide was rapidly encroaching on the entrance. Luckily, we had just enough time to poke around inside before leaving the Haven behind for our trek up to the castle.
During the fifth and sixth centuries, an isthmus would have enabled passage between the mainland and island portions of the castle. This narrow approach may have given the stronghold its name; a combination of the Cornish word din or tin, meaning fortress, and tagell, meaning a constriction, possibly led to the designation Tin Tagell: Fortress of the Narrow Entrance.
By the 1230s, when Richard built his castle here, the isthmus had already partially eroded and collapsed into the sea. Various attempts were made throughout history to compensate for its loss, including the placement of fallen trees across the void, as well as steps cut into the rocky cliffside. Luckily for us, a very sturdy wooden bridge today transports visitors to the island.
The majority of the castle’s ruins are concentrated in the island courtyard. Access to the courtyard is through a small gate in the wall at the top of the steps, directly adjacent to the crumbling remains of the Great Hall. When originally built in the 13th century, the Great Hall was the largest and most important building of the castle – the place where the Earl or his ministers would dine, entertain visitors and hold court. Large sections of Richard’s original Great Hall, where a pantry and buttery likely stood, have long since fallen into the sea. By 1337, the hall was described as ‘ruinous and its walls of no strength’. Its roof was thus dismantled and its timbers put into store.
In 1345, the Duke of Cornwall ordered repairs to the castle. A smaller building with a hall, buttery, pantry and kitchen was built within the remaining walls of Richard’s Great Hall. The ruins of this two-story structure are today the most prominent in the courtyard.
It was at this point in our exploration of the castle that we first stumbled across the reconstructed remains of the Dark Ages settlement. Scattered across both the top and sloping edges of the island, these grass-covered foundations were uncovered in the 1930s by British archaeologist Raleigh Radford. Subsequent excavations have unearthed multiple dwellings and several thousand pieces of pottery, much of it imported from the Mediterranean, including luxury glassware, wine jars and intricately decorated vessels.
The origins and purpose of this tunnel, located on the western side of the island, are unknown.
The bronze statue below – known as Gallos, the Cornish word for power – was inspired both by King Arthur and by other stories from the castle’s history. The statue is so large that it required the assistance of a helicopter for installation in 2016.
The small walled area below – developed between the fifth and seventh centuries – was first recorded in the 1540s as “a grownd quadrant walled as yt were a garden plot”. Radford’s excavation in the 1930s found evidence of deep soil sectioned by upright slabs, which may indeed have marked beds for herbs and flowers.
From here, we slowly made our way back toward the island courtyard, down the stone stairs and across the bridge to the mainland portion of the castle. We were too tired – and definitely too thirsty – to undertake extensive exploration of the mainland courtyard and gatehouse, so B. scrambled up the stairs alone, snapped a few photographs and then headed to the castle’s cafe for a few minutes relaxation and a nice cold beverage.
We decided to forgo the footpath on our return to the village, instead forking over 2 quid per person to utilize the shuttle service offered. Completely famished after three hours of wandering on the headland, we made a rapid beeline for The Cornish Bakery (and its award-winning pasties!) as soon as the Land Rover deposited us at the top of the footpath. These traditional baked pastries – typically stuffed with meat and vegetables – were the perfect meal to wrap up our visit to beautiful Tintagel Castle.
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in Cornwall! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Santa Catalina Island – California, USA