The History of Tintagel Castle
This week we’re discovering the stories of Tintagel Castle – a clifftop fortress where history and legend intertwine.
A land of Cornish kings
Perched on the north Cornwall coast, Tintagel Castle is one of the most spectacular historic sites in Britain. Its association with King Arthur also makes it one of the most famous.
Yet the history of this enigmatic place stretches back centuries before the fabled king. Journey back 1500 years and Tintagel was a bustling stronghold and trading post, bigger than London at the time. In the 5th to 7th centuries AD, over a hundred buildings sprawled across the island (the ruins of many can be seen today), and its residents enjoyed luxury goods imported from the Mediterranean.
Here on the salt-sprayed clifftops, the people of Tintagel built substantial stone buildings, used fine table wares and feasted on pork, fish, oysters and wine. Experts believe that it was the royal centre of the kingdom of ‘Dumnonia’, a residence of the early Cornish kings.
Where history meets legend
It’s easy to imagine why the clifftop fortress inspired tales of King Arthur. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who first described the connection, writing his History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century.
A mixture of fact and fiction, the book described how Arthur was conceived at Tintagel, with the help of Merlin’s enchantments. Ever since, tales of the legendary king and his wizard have swirled around the atmospheric landscape. And today, when the tides allow, visitors can explore Merlin’s Cave on the beach below the castle.
The medieval castle
Geoffrey’s chronicles united history and magic, kindling the fire for the Arthurian legends we know and love. The stories thrilled people across medieval Britain – one of whom was the brother of King Henry III. Around 1233, Richard, Earl of Cornwall eagerly exchanged three of his manors to buy the ‘the island of Tyntagel’ and set about building his castle here.
Set on a precipice along the rocky coast, it was not an easy place to build a castle. The atmospheric fortress stood partly on the mainland and partly on the island, high above the waves. Its location meant that it battled the Cornish elements, and it is said that the garderobes (or toilets) had to be rebuilt several times as they kept falling into the sea.
The medieval castle consisted of an outer bailey on the mainland, and an inner ward with a Great Hall and chambers on the island, the remains of which can still be explored today.
A bridge to the past
Tintagel’s defining feature was a very thin strip of land (or isthmus) in its centre, connecting the mainland with the ‘island’. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that this original land bridge was so narrow that ‘three armed men would be able to defend [it], even if you had the whole kingdom of Britain at your side’.
The historic crossing gave rise to the place’s name, Din Tagell in Cornish, meaning ‘the Fortress of the Narrow Entrance’. But the isthmus crumbled away in the 15th or 16th century, taking a chunk of the castle with it.
Today, visitors to the castle can cross a new bridge onto the island – following in the footsteps of Tintagel’s medieval inhabitants. With its rugged coastal backdrop, you can still stand in the ruins of the Great Hall and imagine the feasting and merriment of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s court. Wander a little further and discover the footprints of an early medieval settlement, where Cornish rulers lived and traded with far off shores. Many people who visit Tintagel today still mention its otherworldly power and beauty, as they imagine life here centuries ago.