Tintagel Castle

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Tintagel Castle


Upper mainland courtyard of Tintagel Castle, 2007.jpg
The outer and upper wards of Tintagel Castle
Grid reference: SX050890
Location: 50°40’6"N, 4°45’37"W
Built 13th century
Condition: Ruins
Owned by: Duchy of Cornwall
(in the care of English Heritage)
Website: Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle is a mediæval castle on the peninsula of Tintagel Island, adjacent to the village of Tintagel in Cornwall. It was a grand castle once, built by the redoubtable Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The site was occupied earlier though, and was possibly settled in the Roman period, to which an array of artefacts dating to this period and found on the peninsula bears witness, and certainly there is evidence of sub-Roman occupation.

The Island is a natural defensive position; a great circular headland girt with forbidding cliffs pounded by the Atlantic rollers and joined to the mainland only by a narrow neck of rock, into which steps have been cut. Here on the island stand the ruins of the mediæval castle, on the site of much earlier predecessors and of legends told the world over.

The name of the village, Tintagel, comes from the castle and not the other way around. The name is from the Cornish Dintagel meaning "fort of the constriction", and the village was known as Trevenna until the Victorian age.

The castle has a long association with the Arthurian legends, going back to the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth in his mythical (or satirical) account of British history, the Historia Regum Britanniae described Tintagel as the place of Arthur's conception. According to the tale told by Geoffrey, his father, King Uther Pendragon, was disguised by Merlin's sorcery to look like Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall the husband of Ygerna, Arthur's mother.[1]

Today, Tintagel Castle is a tourist destination, as it has been since the mid-19th century. It belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall and is managed by English Heritage.


The castle site was settled during the Early Mediæval period and there is speculation that it might have been a seasonal residence of the local king. In the 13th century 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, excavations in the 1930s however revealed significant traces of a much earlier, high status settlement that had trading links with the Mediterranean during the Late Roman period.[2]

Romano-British period

The Romans were here and although the far south-west 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 that have been found in Cornwall and which would have been erected in the Romano-British period to chart the roads, and two of these have been found in the vicinity of Tintagel, indicating the likelihood 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) 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]

Dark Ages

Following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in the early fifth century, regional kings assumed power, and in the southwest the Dumnonii tribe established their kingdom, known in the native tongue as Dyfnaint. Contact with the Mediterranean world was not wholly severed though and in the fifth and sixth centuries Tintagel Island was inhabited, in 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", and archaeologists now believe 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 Mediæval 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 Dark Ages this was an elite settlement that was inhabited by Dumnonian royalty and their entourage. The site was also made more defensible during this period; a large ditch was dug at the entrance to the peninsula, leaving only a narrow trackway available for those approaching the peninsula.[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 AD 450-600 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 Mediæval period.

High Middle Ages

In 1225, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall acquired the island from Gervase de Tintagel, in exchange for the land of Merthen (originally part of the manor of Winnianton).[12]

Richard built a castle was built on the site in 1233, to establish a connection with the Arthurian legends that were associated by Geoffrey of Monmouth with the area. Tintagel does not appear in the Domesday Book (the manor was then entered as Botcinii (Bossiney) and Ditmas suggested that "Tintagel" was a name of Geoffrey's own invention and applied to the area later from the Arthurian romances;[13] the first official mention of Tintagel dates to the thirteenth century, he notes, after the Arthurian romances had been in circulation. 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 trust of the Cornish, since they were suspicious of outsiders.

Early Modern period

After Richard, the later 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 and returned to the Duchy in 1660. The letting for sheep pasture continued until the 19th century.[14]

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Footbridge giving access to the Island

The Victorian fascination with the Arthurian legends made the ruins of the castle a tourist destination. The modern day village of Tintagel was 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: originally Tintagel was only the name of the headland.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17][18] "King Arthur's Footprint" is a hollow in the rock at the highest point of Tintagel Island's southern side and which is not entirely natural, having been shaped by human hands at some stage.[19]

Ruins of the Norman castle

Arthurian legend

The castle has a long association with the Arthurian legends, being first associated with King Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his mythical account of British history, the Historia Regum Britanniae. The Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), was written around 1135-38 by the Geoffrey of Monmouth. In this book, which is a fictionalised account of British history, Arthur's father, the king of all Britain, Uther Pendragon, is said to go to war against Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, in order 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 safe within Tintagel Castle, which is supposedly 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's story goes on to explain how the wizard Merlin was summoned, and in order 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."[20]

Despite their association in Geoffrey's work, "The History 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."[21] However, the book became hugely popular, spreading across Britain in the Late Middel Ages, when more Arthurian texts were produced, and many of them began propagating the idea that Arthur himself was actually born at Tintagel.[21] Later poets, such as Tennyson, made the castle his birthplace. A modern myth has St Nectan's Kieve, a pool beneath a waterfall nearby, as the place where King Arthur's Knights were anointed before going off to find the Holy Grail.

Tintagel has featured then as a principal Arthurian location in several later Arthurian tales, including:

  • Tennyson: The Idylls of the King
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne: Tristram of Lyonesse (a version of the Tristan and Iseult legend)
  • Thomas Hardy: The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse, a one act play published in 1923[22]

There is now a footpath from the site to Cadbury Castle in Somerset called Arthur's Way,[23] A book has been produced in which the pupils of Tintagel C. P. School have collaborated with artist Michael Fairfax and writer Amanda White.[24]

The archaeologist C. A. Ralegh Radford declared in 1935 that "No evidence whatsoever has been found to support the legendary connection of the Castle with King Arthur".[25] Such an idea has continued to be maintained by archaeologists and historians, and Charles Thomas, a specialist in Cornish history, noted in 1993 that "There simply is no independently attested connection in early Cornish folklore locating Arthur, at any age or in any capacity, at Tintagel."[26] Indeed, many historians believe King Arthur to be an entirely mythical character with no basis in historical fact.


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.[27]

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.[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.[28] In 1998, the miscalled "Arthur stone" (discovered on the Island) raised hopes for some basis for the legend.[29]

The present-day ruins of the castle are situated on a rocky peninsula that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. According to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, over 190,000 people visited Tintagel Castle in 2010.[30]

Wide view from Tintagel Castle to Barras Nose (on which stands the Camelot Castle Hotel)

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Tintagel Castle)


  1. Historia Regum Britanniae; viii 19
  2. Tintagel Castle, English Heritage, 1999
  3. 3.0 3.1 Thomas 1993. p. 82.
  4. Thomas 1993. p. 84.
  5. Thomas 1993. p. 84-85.
  6. Thomas 1993. p. 88.
  7. 7.0 7.1 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. National Heritage List 1142128: Merthen
  13. Ditmas, E M R: "A Reappraisal of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Allusions to Cornwall" Speculum 48, 3 [July 1973:510-524], p. 515)
  14. Canner, A. C. (1982) The Parish of Tintagel. Camelford; chap. 3-6
  15. John MacLean: Parochial History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor (1879) vol 3
  16. Post & Weekly News; 1975-12-13
  17. Dyer, Peter; p. 288
  18. Cotton, Ellen (1961) "King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel", in: Cornish Magazine; Vol. 3, pp. 367-68, April 1961
  19. Ralls-MacLeod, Karen & Robertson, Ian (2003) The Quest for the Celtic Key. Luath Press. ISBN 1-84282-031-1; p. 116
  20. Geoffrey of Monmouth, quoted in Thomas 1993, p. 23.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Thomas 1993, p. 24.
  22. Hardy, Thomas (1923) The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse. London: Macmillan; two drawings by Hardy reproduced as plates
  23. BBC. "Arthur's Way". http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/outdoors/walks/arthurs_way.shtml. Retrieved 2009-03-28. 
  24. BBC. "Tintagel Giant". http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/pip/cv8ev/. Retrieved 2009-03-28. 
  25. Radford, quoted in Thomas 1993. p. 49.
  26. Thomas 1993. p. 28.
  27. Thomas 1993, pp. 53, 57.
  28. "Early Medieval Tintagel: an interview with archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady". http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/1/hati.htm. 
  29. But see "Early Mediæval Tintagel: an interview with archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady". http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/1/hati.htm. 
  30. Visits Made in 2010 to Visitor Attractions in Membership with ALVA, ALVA – Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, http://www.alva.org.uk/details.cfm?p=423, retrieved 2012-02-29 


  • 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". http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/Ant/062/Ant0620421.htm. Retrieved 2009-04-12.  A reassessment of the evidence proposing a Celtic royal history for the site.
  • Charles Thomas (historian) (1993), Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology, London: Batsford/English Heritage, ISBN 978-0-7134-6690-4