Arthurian Landmarks: Tintagel Castle

The winter session of The Wordstapas is open for registration. Our first meeting is January 31st. We will be reading The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff, as well as some ancient Irish poetry. An auditing option is available for those who cannot join the live meetings due to commitments or time zone differences. Register here, or contact Nicole with any questions.

The North View of Tintagel Castle, In the County of Cornwall, by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1734

Tintagel Castle, described by Tennyson to be “half in sea, and high on land, / A crown of towers,”1 is situated on a peninsula jutting out from the mainland of Cornwall in south-west England.  This peninsula used to be connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of rock, but this has since eroded away.  This narrow strip made Tintagel extremely easy to defend from invasion and was thus a desirable fortress in the Middle Ages.  The castle spans both sides of the peninsula, though it is now almost entirely ruined.  Some of the walls are believed to date from the 5th century.

Tintagel Castle is understood to be the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur.  In his (largely fictitious) Historia Regum Brittonae “History of the Kings of Britain,” Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how King Uther, disguised, enters Tintagel Castle to meet with Igerna, wife of the Duke of Cornwall.  Arthur is born soon after.  In 1859, Alfred, Lord Tennyson connected the cave beneath Tintagel with Merlin in his poetic work Idylls of the King, saying that Arthur, “all as soon as born,” was “Deliver’d at a secret postern-gate / To Merlin, to be holden far apart / Until his hour should come.”2  And in the early 1900s, Howard Pyle confirmed Igraine as “the widow of Gerlois, Duke of Tintegal,”2 and later made Tintagel the home of King Mark of Cornwall, the jealous opponent of Sir Tristram.

Excavations around Tintagel Castle have revealed Mediterranean pottery, coins, and glassware from as far east as Turkey.  This suggests that Tintagel was well-connected with Roman trade routes.  After 700 AD, however, it may have fallen into decay, as nothing is heard of the place until around 1200 AD.  The ruins visible today are part of a castle built in the early 1200s by Richard 1st Earl of Cornwall.  The castle was occupied at random until around 1600, when it was finally deserted.

Tintagel Castle as it is known today was built almost six centuries after King Arthur’s supposed existence in c. 500 AD and Monmouth’s claim in c. 1138 was also likely fictitious.  However, the excavation of Roman and Mediterranean goods dating to the 5th century does mean that the site of Tintagel was in use during the time Arthur may have lived.  It is possible King Arthur had no connection with 5th century Tintagel at all, but it is worth noting that the two may have existed at the same time.


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More information about Tintagel Castle, its history, and its legends can be found on the English Heritage website here.

1Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, “The Last Tournament” (available to read online here)

2Ibid., “The Coming of Arthur”

3Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, “The Book of King Arthur,” Prologue (available to read online here)

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