Tintagel Castle

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Tintagel Castle (Cornish: Dintagel)
Tintagel, Cornwall
Upper mainland courtyard of Tintagel Castle, 2007.jpg
The outer and upper wards of the ruined Tintagel Castle (part of the village of Tintagel may be seen in the distance)
Tintagel Castle (Cornish: Dintagel) is located in Cornwall
Tintagel Castle (Cornish: Dintagel)
Tintagel Castle (Cornish: Dintagel)
Coordinates 50°40′01″N 4°45′34″W / 50.66706°N 4.75936°W / 50.66706; -4.75936
Site information
Owner Duchy of Cornwall
Controlled by English Heritage
Condition Ruins
Site history
Built 13th century
Materials Stone and rubble

Tintagel Castle (Cornish: Dintagel, meaning "fort of the constriction") is a medieval fortification located on the peninsula of Tintagel Island, adjacent to the village of Tintagel in Cornwall, England, in the United Kingdom. The site was possibly occupied in the Romano-British period, as an array of artefacts dating to this period have been found on the peninsula, but as yet no Roman era structure has been proven to have existed there. It subsequently saw settlement during the Early Medieval period, when it was probably one of the seasonal residences of the regional king of Dumnonia. In the 13th century, during the Later Medieval period, after Cornwall had been subsumed into the kingdom of England, a castle was built on the site by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, which later fell into disrepair and ruin. Archaeological investigation into the site began in the 19th century as it became a tourist attraction, with visitors coming to see the ruins of Richard's castle. In the 1930s, excavations revealed significant traces of a much earlier high status settlement, which had trading links with the Mediterranean during the Late Roman period.[1]

The castle has a long association with Arthurian legends. This began in the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his mythical account of British history, the Historia Regum Britanniae, described Tintagel as the place of Arthur's conception. Geoffrey told the story that Arthur's father, King Uther Pendragon, was disguised by Merlin's sorcery to look like Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, the husband of Igraine, Arthur's mother.[2]

Tintagel Castle has been a tourist destination since the mid-19th century and is now managed by English Heritage.


Romano-British period[edit]

In the first century AD, southern Britain was invaded and occupied by the Roman Empire. The territory of modern Cornwall was assigned to the Roman administrative region of civitas Dumnoniorum, named after the local British tribal group, whom the Romans called the Dumnonii. At the time, this south-westerly point of Britain was "remote, under-populated... and therefore also unimportant [to the Roman authorities] until, during the third century AD, the local tin-streaming industry attracted attention."[3] Archaeologists know of five milestones or route-markers in Cornwall erected in the Romano-British period. Two of these are in the vicinity of Tintagel, indicating that a road passed through the locality.[3]

As Cornish historian and archaeologist Charles Thomas noted in 1993, "So far, no structure excavated on [Tintagel] Island... can be put forward as a Roman-period settlement, native-peasant or otherwise."[4] Despite this, a quantity of apparently Romano-British pottery has been unearthed on the site, as has a Roman-style drawstring leather purse containing ten low denomination Roman coins, dating between the reigns of Tetricus I (270–272 CE) and Constantius II (337–361). This suggests that "at face-value... either the Island or the landward area of the later Castle (or both...) formed the scene of third-fourth century habitation" even if no evidence of any buildings dating from this period have been found.[5]

Early Medieval period[edit]

Further information: Sub-Roman Britain

Following the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the early fifth century AD, Roman control of southern Britain also collapsed, and it split into various different kingdoms, each with its own respective chief or king. The former Roman district of civitas Dumnoniorum apparently became the Kingdom of Dumnonia, which would have been ruled over by its own monarchy during this Early Medieval period between the fifth and eighth centuries. It was in this regional background that settlement continued at Tintagel Castle, with the creation of what is known by archaeologists as Period II of the site.[6] However, there has been some dispute amongst archaeologists as to exactly what the site of Tintagel Island was used for in this period: in the mid twentieth century, it was typically thought that there was an early Christian monastery on the site, but "since about 1980 ... [this] thesis ... has ... had to be abandoned", with archaeologists now believing that it was instead an elite settlement inhabited by a powerful local warlord or even Dumnonian royalty.[7]

The hypothesis that Tintagel Castle had been a monastery during Period II was pioneered by the Devon archaeologist C. A. Ralegh Radford, who excavated at the site from 1933 through to 1938. He came to this conclusion based upon some similarities in the structures of the Early Medieval elements of Tintagel Castle and the seventh century monastery at the site of Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire.[8]

Archaeologists however no longer accept this viewpoint. Instead, they now believe that in the Early Medieval period, this was an elite settlement that was inhabited by Dumnonian royalty and their entourage. Archaeologist and historian Charles Thomas believed that they did not stay at Tintagel all the year round but that they moved around: "A typical king with his family, relatives, dependants, resident hostages, officials and court-followers, and a private militia or war-band—in all, probably between a hundred and three hundred souls at least—moved around with his cumbersome entourage; at least, when not busy with inter-tribal campaigning or in repelling invaders and raiders."[6] The site was also made more defensible during this period, with a large ditch being created at the entrance to the peninsula, leaving only a narrow trackway that those approaching the peninsula had to travel along.[9]

Various luxury items dating from this period have been found at the site, namely African Red Slip Ware and Phocaean Red Slip Ware, which had been traded all the way from the Mediterranean.[10] Examining this pottery, Charles Thomas remarked that "the quantity of imported pottery from Tintagel [was]... dramatically greater than that from any other single site dated to about 450–600 AD in either Britain or Ireland". Carrying on from this, he noted that the quantity of imported pottery from Tintagel was "larger than the combined total of all such pottery from all known sites [of this period in Britain and Ireland]; and, given that only about 5 per cent of the Island's accessible surface has been excavated or examined, the original total of imports may well have been on a scale of one or more complete shiploads, with individual ships perhaps carrying a cargo of six or seven hundred amphorae."[11] This evidence led him to believe that Tintagel was a site where ships carrying their wares from southern Europe docked to deposit their cargo in the Early Medieval period.

Late Medieval period[edit]

In 1225 Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, swapped the land of Merthen (originally part of the manor of Winnianton) with Gervase de Tintagel for Tintagel Castle.[12]

A castle was built on the site by Earl Richard in 1233, to establish a connection with the Arthurian legends that were associated by Geoffrey of Monmouth with the area[13] and because it was seen as the traditional place for Cornish kings. The castle was built in a more old-fashioned style for the time to make it appear more ancient. Richard hoped that in this way he could gain the Cornish people's trust, since they were suspicious of outsiders. The castle itself held no real strategic value.[citation needed]

However the dating to the period of Earl Richard has superseded Ralegh Radford's interpretation which attributed the earliest elements of the castle to Earl Reginald de Dunstanville and later elements to Earl Richard.[14] In Sidney Toy's Castles: a short history of fortifications from 1600 B.C. to A. D. 1600 (London: Heinemann, 1939) an earlier period of construction is suggested.

John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, was in 1389 appointed constable of Tintagel Castle.

Early Modern period[edit]

After Richard, the following Earls of Cornwall were not interested in the castle, and it was left to the county sheriff. Parts of the accommodation were used as a prison and the land was let as pasture. The castle became more dilapidated, and in the 1330s the roof of the Great Hall was removed. Thereafter the castle became more and more ruinous and there was progressive damage from the erosion of the isthmus. When John Leland visited in the early 1540s a makeshift bridge of tree trunks gave access to the Island. When England was threatened with invasion from Spain in the 1580s the defences were strengthened at the Iron Gate. As Duchy of Cornwall property the manor of Tintagel was among those seized by the Commonwealth government of the 1650s (returning to the Duchy in 1660). The letting for sheep pasture continued until the 19th century.[15]

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries[edit]

Footbridge giving access to the Island

During the Victorian era, there was a fascination with the Arthurian legends, and the ruins of the castle became a tourist destination. The modern day village of Tintagel was always known as Trevena until the 1850s, when it was found convenient by the Post Office to use the name of the parish rather than the name of the village. Strictly speaking, Tintagel is only the name of the headland (Tintagel Head itself is the extreme south-west point of Castle Island and the castle ruins are partly on the 'island' and partly on the adjoining mainland, the head of the island pointing out to sea is Pen Diu (Cornish: Penn Du, meaning black head)).[16] The Rev. R. B. Kinsman (d. 1894) was honorary constable and built the courtyard wall: a guide was employed to conduct the visitors into the castle. Until his time the steps either side of the isthmus were unsafe, though the plateau could be reached by those who grazed sheep there. From 1870 a lead mine was worked for a short time near Merlin's Cave. In the 20th century the site was maintained by the Office of Works and its successors (from 1929 onwards). In 1975 the access across the isthmus was improved by the installation of a wooden bridge.[17]

In the late 19th and early 20th century, nothing had been excavated except the chapel and so ideas such as the garden being a cemetery and King Arthur's Footprint being a place for King Arthur to leap to the mainland were given currency.[18][19] "King Arthur's Footprint" is a hollow in the rock at the highest point of Tintagel Island's southern side. It is not entirely natural, having been shaped by human hands at some stage.[20] It may have been used for the inauguration of kings or chieftains as the site is known to have a long history stretching back to the Dark Ages.[citation needed]

In 1999, there was some controversy regarding this site and others under the care of the English Heritage organisation in Cornwall. Members of a pressure group, the Revived Cornish Stannary Parliament, removed several signs bearing the English Heritage name because they objected to the name "English", claiming that Cornwall is rightfully a nation on its own.[21][22] Three men later paid criminal fines in connection with these actions.[23]

The Union-Castle shipping line had the Tintagel Castle in their fleet from 1954 to 1971. An earlier ship of the same name was in service in 1900 between Britain and South Africa.[24][25] The locomotive 'Tintagel Castle' was built for the Great Western Railway in the 4073 series and was in service 1927–1962. One of First Great Western's class 57 locomotives, 57603, carries this name.

Ruins of the Norman castle at Tintagel

Arthurian legends[edit]

The castle has a long association with the Arthurian legends, being first associated with King Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his account of British history, the Historia Regum Britanniae, which includes a detailed account of the legend. The Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain'"), was written circa 1135–38 by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth. In this book, and according to the legend, Arthur's father, the king of all Britain, Uther Pendragon, goes to war against Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, to capture the wife of Gorlois, Igraine, with whom Uther has fallen in love. While Gorlois defends himself against Uther's armies at his fort of Dimilioc, he sends Igraine to stay safely within Tintagel Castle, which according to the legend, and the Historia Regum Britanniae, is said to be his most secure refuge. Besieging Dimilioc, Uther tells his friend Ulfin how he loves Igraine, but Ulfin replies that it would be impossible to take Tintagel, for "it is right by the sea, and surrounded by the sea on all sides; and there is no other way into it, except that provided by a narrow rocky passage—and there, three armed warriors could forbid all entry, even if you took up your stand with the whole of Britain behind you." Geoffrey of Monmouth's story goes on to explain how the wizard Merlin was summoned, and to help get them into Tintagel Castle, he magically changed Uther's appearance to that of Gorlois, whilst also changing his own and Ulfin's appearances to those of two of Gorlois's companions. Disguised thus, they are able to enter Tintagel, where Uther goes to Igraine, and "in that night was the most famous of men, Arthur, conceived."[26]

Even though Geoffrey's "The History mentions Tintagel Castle being the site of Arthur's conception, it nowhere claims that Arthur was born at Tintagel, or that he ever visited the place in later life, or that in any sense the stronghold became his property when he was king."[27] However, the legend and the book continued to become hugely popular, spreading across Britain in the Late Medieval period, when more Arthurian texts were produced, many of them continuing to propagate the idea that Arthur himself was actually born at Tintagel.[27] There is now a footpath from the site to Cadbury Castle in Somerset called Arthur's Way.[28]

However, many continue to argue against these legends. For example, the archaeologist C. A. Ralegh Radford, who refused to believe in the legend and all of the associations, declared in 1935 that "No concrete evidence whatsoever has yet been found to support the legendary connection of the Castle with King Arthur".[29] Charles Thomas, a specialist in Cornish history, was unable to find solid links, mainly due to the fact that legends and stories would have been handed down only verbally during this period, and stated in 1993 that, sadly, that so far, "there simply is no independently attested connection in early Cornish folklore locating Arthur, at any age or in any capacity, at Tintagel."[30] Many others disagree,[who?] maintaining that the legendary figure would essentially have been an Early Medieval British leader, involved in fighting the migrating Anglo-Saxons who were settling in Britain at that time. A stone found at Tintagel bearing the inscription PATERN[--] COLI AVI FICIT ARTOGNOU has been claimed by some to provide evidence for a historical Arthur,[31][not in citation given] but most historians reject this view.[32]


In the 1930s, it was decided to begin a major archaeological excavation at the site, and so HM Office of Works employed the Devon archaeologist Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford (1900–1999) to work as site director. He had formerly been employed as the Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire from 1929 and 1934, and from 1936 would go on to become Director of the British School at Rome. Excavation began in 1933, and in 1935 both an interim report and a guidebook entitled Tintagel Castle were written by Ralegh Radford and published by H. M. Stationery Office. The excavators employed former quarry workers (the last Tintagel cliff quarry was closed in 1937), who worked under a trained foreman and who were instructed to clear the land on the Island, following and exposing any walling that they came across and keeping any finds.[33] Excavation was forced to cease in 1939 due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Radford was required to take part in the war effort abroad, whilst many of the original site reports were destroyed when his house in Exeter was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the conflict.[7]

In the mid-1980s, a fire on Tintagel Island led to considerable erosion of the topsoil, and many more building foundations than were recorded by Ralegh Radford could be seen.[34] In 1998, the known as "Arthur stone" (discovered on the Island) raised hopes for some basis for the legend.[35] The present-day ruins of the castle are situated on a rocky peninsula that overlooks a part of the Atlantic Ocean, now known as the Celtic Sea. According to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, over 190,000 people visited Tintagel Castle in 2010.[36]

Panoramic view from Tintagel Castle, looking north-east; the most prominent building is a hotel, built in 1899, now called the Camelot Castle Hotel; the headland below is Barras Head

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tintagel Castle, English Heritage, 1999
  2. ^ Historia Regum Britanniae; viii 19
  3. ^ a b Thomas 1993. p. 82.
  4. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 84.
  5. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 84-85.
  6. ^ a b Thomas 1993. p. 88.
  7. ^ a b Thomas 1993. p. 53.
  8. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 53-55.
  9. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 58-59.
  10. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 62.
  11. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 71.
  12. ^ Historic England. "Merthen (1142128)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 16 January 2012. 
  13. ^ Tintagel does not appear in the Domesday survey (the manor was then entered as Botcinii (Bossiney)); E. M. R. Ditmas ("A Reappraisal of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Allusions to Cornwall" Speculum 48, 3 [July 1973:510–524], p. 515) suggested that "Tintagel" was a name of Geoffrey's own invention; the first official mention of Tintagel dates to the thirteenth century, Ditmas notes, after the Arthurian romances had been in circulation
  14. ^ Radford, C. A. Ralegh (1939) Tintagel Castle, Cornwall; 2nd ed. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office; p. 12
  15. ^ Canner, A. C. (1982) The Parish of Tintagel. Camelford; chap. 3–6
  16. ^ John MacLean, Parochial History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor (1879) vol 3
  17. ^ Post & Weekly News; 13 December 1975
  18. ^ Dyer, Peter; p. 288
  19. ^ Cotton, Ellen (1961) "King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel", in: Cornish Magazine; Vol. 3, pp. 367–68, April 1961
  20. ^ Ralls-MacLeod, Karen & Robertson, Ian (2003) The Quest for the Celtic Key. Luath Press. ISBN 1-84282-031-1; p. 116
  21. ^ Cornish Stannary Parliament tackles English cultural aggression in Cornwall.
  22. ^ BBC News: Historic signs case trio bound over
  23. ^ *BBC news – Historic signs case trio bound over
  24. ^ McLean, William & Shackleton, Ernest “O.H.M.S." An Illustrated Record of the voyage of S.S. "Tintagel Castle" ... from Southampton to Cape Town, March 1900. London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1900
  25. ^ Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company Particulars and Views of the Intermediate Steamships "Braemar Castle", "Avondale Castle", "Tintagel Castle" and "Arundel Castle". [ca. 1901]
  26. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, quoted in Thomas 1993, p. 23.
  27. ^ a b Thomas 1993, p. 24.
  28. ^ BBC. "Arthur's Way". Retrieved 28 March 2009. 
  29. ^ Radford, quoted in Thomas 1993. p. 49.
  30. ^ Thomas 1993. p. 28.
  31. ^ [1]
  32. ^ Michael Wood, In Search of England: Journeys Into the English Past, University of California Press, 2001, p. 23
  33. ^ Thomas 1993, pp. 53, 57.
  34. ^ "Early Medieval Tintagel: an interview with archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady". 
  35. ^ But see "Early Medieval Tintagel: an interview with archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady". 
  36. ^ Visits Made in 2010 to Visitor Attractions in Membership with ALVA, ALVA – Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, retrieved 29 February 2012 
  • Burrow, Ian C. G. (1974), "Tintagel – some problems", Scottish Archaeological Forum (5) 
  • Davison, Brian (2009) [1999], Tintagel Castle, English Heritage, ISBN 978-1-85074-701-7 
  • Henderson, Charles, In: Cornish Church Guide (1925) Truro: Blackford; p. 203–205
  • Pearce, Susan M. (1978) The Kingdom of Dumnonia. Padstow: Lodenek Press; pp. 76–80, 151–155 (monastic site; Tristan, Mark and Isolt)
  • Thomas, Charles (1988) Tintagel Castle; in "'Antiquity article". Retrieved 12 April 2009.  A reassessment of the evidence proposing a Celtic royal history for the site.
  • Thomas, Charles (1993), Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology, London: Batsford/English Heritage, ISBN 978-0-7134-6690-4 

External links[edit]