Dramatically situated on a rocky promontory of land, the site of Tintagel Castle was probably the location of an Iron Age settlement. During the thirteenth century a medieval castle was built on the site but it had no real military purpose and was instead constructed due to the location's association with the legend of King Arthur.
The early history of Tintagel is shrouded in mystery. It is possible that it was an Iron Age promontory fort like Barras Nose, the headland immediately to the north. It would certainly have been well suited to such a role with the rocky peninsula only connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land that could easily have been protected by a ditch. However, archaeological evidence is inconclusive with any remains having been obliterated by later work. Knowledge of Roman era occupation is also sketchy. There was definitely a Roman presence for two third century AD milestones (signposts positioned along major Roman roads) were found near Tintagel as were fourth century coins. However, the nature of the Roman presence is uncertain - it is unlikely to have been a fort as the geography did not lend itself to the traditional 'playing card' shape generally used by the army. Furthermore the military was probably served by nearby Nanstallon and Restormel which both hosted traditional Roman forts probably overseeing mining operations. Tintagel most likely had a civilian function, perhaps as the residence of a prominent local magnate or community.
Whatever role the area played before the collapse of the Roman rule in Britain in the fifth century AD, it continued its association with the empire well into the Dark Ages. Pottery remains suggest Tintagel had trading links with elements of the Eastern Roman empire with goods coming from as far afield as Greece, Turkey and Northern Africa - probably in exchange for much sought after Cornish tin. The most likely explanation is that Tintagel was a settlement or fort of the Dumnonian Kingdom which encompassed Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset and was possibly the court of King Mark of Cornwall during the Sixth Century. However, with the collapse of the kingdom of Dumnonia around AD 709, Tintagel seems to have fallen out of use.
The site was re-occupied and Tintagel Castle built in 1233 when the land was purchased by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. He was the second son of King John and when his elder brother, Henry III, ascended to the throne Richard became his closest ally. Henry made him Earl of Cornwall in 1227 which included huge swathes of land that gave him a substantial income from Cornish tin and lead. Like contemporary nobles, he was brought up on the legends of King Arthur (see below) which predominantly came from the 'History of the Kings of Britain' written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This imaginative book was partly based on historical fact but, where evidence was missing, Geoffrey filled in the blanks with his own interpretation. He had clearly heard of, or perhaps visited, Tintagel and much of his narrative on King Arthur was set there. Accordingly the building of the castle was nothing to do with military or economic benefit, it was a status symbol enabling Richard to own a Palace at the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Richard owned extensive swathes of land stretching as far north as Knaresborough in Yorkshire and included major estates such Berkhamsted, Eye, Mere, Oakham and Wallingford. In Cornwall he owned key fortresses at Launceston, Restormel and Trematon and accordingly he spent little time at the remote Tintagel Castle. He died in 1272 leaving his extensive estates to his son and heir, Edmund.
Edmund died in 1300 without an heir and the vast estates of the Earldom of Cornwall were taken into Crown ownership. In 1337 Edward III bestowed upon his son, Prince Edward, the title of Duke of Cornwall and granted him the associated estates including Tintagel. The castle was in a poor condition by this time and the Prince initiated extensive repairs. Interest in the Arthurian legend peaked during this period and inspired Edward III to create the Order of the Garter. His son doubtless took a close interest in the castle but, without any real economic or military purpose, it struggled to find a role that justified its expense. Periodically used as a prison - with its most notable inmate being Thomas, Earl of Warwick in 1397 - the fifteenth century saw it drift into ruin although an artillery battery was built and briefly manned around 1580, probably at the instruction of Sir Richard Grenville, to guard against the Spanish threat from the sea.
Legend of King Arthur
Little is known of the real King Arthur. The first mention of him comes from a ninth century manuscript (Historia Brittonium, a document attributed to a scholar named Nennius) and even then presents a contradictory character. On the one hand Arthur is a Christian War leader who led the Britons against Saxon invaders, whilst on the other he is a magical figure. However such minor discrepancies did not stop Geoffrey of Monmouth incorporating Arthur into Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) written in the first half of the twelfth century.
Geoffrey based his book on historical fact, where known, and simply embellished the rest. He placed Arthur in the sixth century AD and turned him into a victorious leader who was King of all Britain and conqueror of much of Northern Europe. The very essence of chivalry, his court attracted the bravest Knights from all over the Christian world. Geoffrey had either visited Tintagel himself, or knew someone who had, because he set many of his Arthurian legends there. He describes it as the strongest fortress of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall who confined his own wife (Igerna) there to protect her from the advances of Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. Through magic Uther enters the castle, defeats Gorlois and marries Igerna. Arthur was then conceived and born at Tintagel.
Geoffrey's imaginative interpretation was translated into Norman-French in 1155 by a scholar named Wace. He added further inventions of his own, Arthur's Round Table being the most well known, and his book found fertile ground in the court of Henry II and subsequent English Kings. Henry's own grandson and the builder of Tintagel Castle - Richard, Earl of Cornwall - would have been brought up on the stories of Arthur. The legend continued to provided successive English Kings with a role model that ultimately led to the creation of the Order of the Garter by Edward III.
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Tintagel Castle consists of the fragmented ruins of a medieval castle set in a stunning coastal environment. Aside from the remains of the fortification, the National Trust owns much of the adjacent land, including the promontory fort at Barras Nose, which is accessed via a footpath next to the castle.
Tintagel Castle. The castle as viewed from Barras Nose. The bulk of the fortification was located on the headland although two courtyards were built on the mainland.
Tintagel Castle. The castle 'island'.
Barras Nose. An Iron Age promontory fort adjacent to Tintagel.
Courtyards. The Island courtyard is seen in the foreground whilst the Upper and Lower Mainland Courtyards are beyond.
Tintagel Castle. Viewed from the mainland courtyard.
Tintagel Castle is a major tourist attraction and is well sign-posted. There is no dedicated car park but ample (pay and display) facilities in Tintagel itself which is just a short walk from the castle.
Car Parking Option
Fore Street, PL34 0DA