A Castle A Week: Tintagel Castle

Everyone knows the legend of King Arthur, the British king born in the middle of a storm, with cracking lightning streaking across the angry skies and rumbling thunder booming ominously in the distance. He was born with a crown in one hand and a sceptre in the other, the true medieval king.

Actually, that is a little bit of an exaggeration…I took a bit of dramatic license to paint that picture. I crave your pardon, my faithful reader. Sometimes I get carried away in my narratives…on to Tintagel Castle!

This week’s castle does actually have strong connections to Arthurian legend. Tintagel Castle, located in Cornwall on the southwestern coast of England. Tintagel was the home of Igraine, Arthur’s mother. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account from his Historia Regum Britanniae, the man Uther Pendragon, was by then the king of early medieval Britain, fell in love with the woman Igraine (called Igerna in the narrative). She was the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. In order to protect her, Gorlois kept her in the town of Tintagel northern coast of Cornwall. As Geoffrey writes:

“[I]t is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there [was] but one entrance to it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to fend against the whole power of the kingdom…” [1]

Uther then visits Igraine in the guise of Gorlois, a scheme concocted by that wily wizard Merlin. After that, Gorlois is killed in battle, and Uther leaves Igraine to go “fight” his  enemy once he receives word of het Duke’s death. The king eventually returns as his normal self and takes Igraine to wife, siring Arthur in the process.

With all of the legends surrounding the site, it is easy to get lost in the romanticism of Arthurian tales. But what does history really tell us about the castle?

Panoramic view of Tintagel Castle
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

According to English Heritage,  the headland of Tintagel was occupied in various capacities until around 1600. Originally, the site may have had seen the residence of post-Roman Celts or Saxons though no remains of any sort of fortifications or forts have been found. Next came the establishment of a monastery under the supervision of St. Juliot, a Celtic Christian entity in the sixth century AD.

The current castles dates to around 1145. The first castle was constructed under an illegitimate son of King Henry I. Of this, the chapel and Great Hall remain to this day. Extensions were made between 1225 (when King Henry III’s brother Richard became Earl of Cornwall) and 1233 (when Richard purchased the island of Tintagel from Gervase de Tyntagel).  Richard occupied the castle rather infrequently, and it eventually came to fall into ruin by 1600.

Despite the fact the physical castle was not very central to British history, the inspiration of King Arthur aroused strong sentiments, especially in the nineteenth century. Britain, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, came to view old castle ruins and country houses with nostalgia. Author Letitia Elizabeth Landon wrote a poem that appeared in the Literary Gazette in 1832. It began:

“Alone in the forest, Sir Lancelot rode,
O’er the neck of his courser the reins lightly flowed,
And beside hung his helmet, for bare was his brow
To meet the soft breeze that was fanning him now.” [2]

But Arthur did not just inspire literary achievements. A myriad of written and oral traditions cobbled together have resulted in a multi-faceted and often contradictory legend of Arthur. Despite this, some people have sought to find physical evidence of his existence. A recently discovered stone called the Artognou stone led some to believe that Arthur truly existed (for a more detailed description of this stone, please refer to the Faces of Arthur website). I am not here to dive into the various historical debates surrounding Arthur, but suffice to say that the romanticization of Tintagel beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth solidified the locale’s place in popular imagination.

For more information on Tintagel Castle, including visitor information, please refer to the castle’s site.

Also check out English Heritage’s entry on Tintagel and and the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

Sources Referenced:

[1] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. and ed. by J.A. Giles, from Six Old English Chroniclesof Which Two Are Now First Translated from the Monkish Latin Originals (1848): pp. 173-276. Part of the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester (http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/geoffrey-of-monmouth-arthurian-passages-from-the-history-of-the-kings-of-britain, accessed 2 January 2014).

[2] Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “A Legend of Tintagel Castle,” Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap-book (London: Fisher, Son, and Jackson, 1833): pp. 8-9. Part of the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester (http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/landon-legend-of-tintagel-castle, accessed 2 January 2014).

See also: Phillips, Charles. The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Castles, Palaces, and Stately Houses of Britain and Ireland. Wigston, Leicestershire: Hermes House, 2012.

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