Each year, thousands of visitors make their way to a small town on the remote coast of northern Cornwall. They climb hundreds of steep stairs in order to stand in the same spot as King Arthur. Yet the castle ruins that surround these visitors were built in the 13th century, nearly 800 years after the alleged time of King Arthur. Still, the town of Tintagel continues to market itself as the site of Arthur’s birth and royal court, often ignoring the real archaeological history associated with the castle.
Tintagel Castle is home to two main myths that have been conflated into one by writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, who visited Tintagel in the 12th century. The original legend surrounding the castle didn’t deal with Arthur at all. Instead, it told the story of Tristan and Yseult. According to this ninth century folktale, Tintagel was a castle for King Mark and his nephew Tristan and his destined wife Yseult. While similar stories circulated around the western British coast, Tintagel claimed the story by pointing to a sixth-century memorial stone in Cornwall, honoring “Drustan,” son of Cunomorus. Local people claimed that Drustan was Tristan from the story. By the twelfth century, when the story was written down, Cunomorus was associated with King Mark, and Tintagel was considered his court (Tintagel Castle 18, 29). Although Tristan was incorporated into the Arthurian mythology, as a knight of the Round Table, his story was originally a separate legend.
When Geoffrey named Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception, the stories of the tragic lovers and of the Once-and-Future King may have become intertwined. According to one of the stories of Arthur’s birth, Duke Gorlois of Cornwall hid his wife Igraine at Tintagel Castle when her beauty aroused the attention of King Uther Pendragon. With the help of Merlin’s spell, Uther entered Tintagel disguised as Gorlois and spent the night with Igraine. That night, she conceived Arthur (Tintagel Castle24).
By the time Richard, Earl of Cornwall decided to build a castle at Tintagel in 1233, Geoffrey’s story had been elaborated, and now Tintagel was where Arthur had been born and where he may have lived (Tintagel Castle 18). Eager to associate himself with the legendary monarch, Earl Richard built his mostly-decorative fortification there. However, Richard was alone is his affinity for the location, and by the 16th century, the castle had fallen into complete disrepair. The modern visitor sees the ruins from Richard’s castle.
However, the truth about Tintagel was not separated from its fiction until the advent of archaeological excavation in the area in the 20th century. Until then, the castle ruins were widely regarded as those of King Arthur, and in the 19th century, they drew many writers who were eager to get in touch with their Gothic past. In addition to Tennyson and Hawker, Dickens and Hardy were attracted to Tintagel by its romantic location and folklore (Tintagel Castle20-1). It was not until C.A. Ralegh Radford began excavations in 1933 that the actual past started to be revealed, and a much more complete picture of the area was not formed until after a 1983 fire destroyed most the vegetation covering the ruins.
Archaeology still leaves many questions unanswered, but some things can be known about this fog- and myth-covered site. Until the last century, Tintagel, the ancient parish of Bossiney, was known as Trevena. The town actually changed its name to Tintagel in 1900 in a bold marketing attempt to draw more tourists to the area (Tintagel Castle21.) According to archaeologist Charles Thomas, the area was probably settled sometime during the third- or fourth-century (this date is drawn from the Romano-British pottery shards and milestones found at and near the site). By the fifth- and six-centuries, Tintagel was a site of some importance, according to the large number of artifacts found in the area (Thomas 424, 427).
Thomas hypothesizes that the island served as a royal citadel, which was inhabited irregularly. Due to the luxury nature of the goods found, Tintagel was probably used for ceremonial purposes, such as feasting important guests (Thomas 429). As far as the more modern ruins are concerned, Thomas states that Earl Richard may have built his castle along the lines of then visible Dark Age remains (Thomas 432).
Although Thomas concludes that Arthur’s association with Tintagel is a complete fabrication, 1998 excavations have left Arthur enthusiasts hopeful. An archaeological team led by Christopher D. Morris discovered a slate slab covering a sixth-century drain. The slab bore the inscription, “PATERN… COLIAVI… FICIT… ARTOGNOV,” which tells that reader that Artognou made or built something there. The similarities between “Artognou” and “Arthur” created a buzz, but the Tintagel Castle pamphlet cautiously states, “Who he [Artognou] was, or what he had done, is not known” (Tintagel Castle 23).
While the recent discoveries leave enthusiasts trying to fit Arthur into the puzzle of Tintagel, historians, such as Michael Wood, question why a fictional Arthur must be placed into a historical past. There is no historical evidence for a King Arthur, Wood argues, but dismantling the historical sources around Arthur cannot destroy the myth (Wood 42). Whether or not Arthur or his knights ever set foot at Tintagel (and they probably did not), the story has the power to lure visitors back to this wild, rugged landscape. And in the clear blue sea and sheer, dark cliffs, perhaps they do manage to capture some of Cornwall’s magic.
© Copyright Shea Davis 2007