Tintagel is one of Cornwall’s most popular tourist destinations. Located on the northern coast, it is a haven for sun-seekers, as well as for visitors hoping to immerse themselves in local culture and heritage.
One of the highlights of any visit should be a trip to historic Tintagel Castle. A site shrouded in mystery and intrigue, with strong links to the legendary King Arthur, the iconic castle is built partly on the mainland, with the remainder built on the headland, projecting out into the sea.
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The famous coastal landmark is one of Britain’s most spectacular historic sites. Tintagel’s association with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, dating back to the 5th century AD, has made the castle famous across the world, but the history of this beautiful and atmospheric part of the country dates back long before the days of the mysterious king.
Historians have long debated whether there was some kind of Roman settlement at Tintagel in the 1st century AD, when the Roman Empire occupied Britain. The region that is Cornwall today was governed by the Roman administrative region known as Civitas Dumnoniorum. It was named after the local people, whom the Romans called the “Dumnonii”.
On the whole, the region was unimportant to the Romans, as it was sparsely populated and remote. Two Roman road markers were erected in Tintagel, suggesting a new road had passed through the village at this time.
In the third century AD, the Romans became interested in the local tin streaming industry. Tin-rich rocks had eroded and accumulated at the bottom of river valleys. This was how they got their name, tin streams. By hand the tin streamers removed the peat that had covered the tin over time.
However, historians have never found any signs of Roman dwellings in Tintagel, although pottery and coins have been discovered in the region. By the start of the 5th century AD, the Western Roman Empire fell, splitting into different kingdoms.
Legend of King Arthur
At this point, there was a settlement at Civitas Dumnoniorum, at the site of Tintagel Castle. It was said to be inhabited by the rulers of Cornwall, as each region had its own monarchy. It was an important stronghold throughout the 5th century and was the home of King Arthur.
According to popular legend, he defended Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The historical background to the famous ruler has been pieced together through folklore, the Y Gododdin poems and ancient chronicles, such as Annales Cambriae and Historia Brittonum, which was written in 828.
The tales of King Arthur and his knights give Tintagel much of its charm today. He was said to have led his men into 12 battles against the Saxons. The final one was the Battle of Badon, where 960 Saxons lost their lives. It was believed to have taken place between 516 and 518.
Arthur lost his life between 537 and 539 at the Battle of Camlann, when he was fighting his arch-enemy, Mordred, his nephew, a traitor who fought against the crown.
Famous “Arthur stone”
In 1998, the “Arthur stone” was discovered among the ruins at Tintagel Castle. It was dated to the 6th century AD. Although archaeologists have failed to reach a conclusive agreement on its purpose, it contains the letter “A” cut into the stone, next to the image of a large cross and a Latin inscription.
It has been officially called the “Artognou stone”, with the suggestion this is another translation of the name Arthur. The inscription has been roughly translated as meaning: “Artognou, descendant of Paternus Colus, made this.”
The popular news media reported that it had belonged to King Arthur and it caused a great stir in the 1990s, reawakening public interest in Tintagel Castle and the legend of King Arthur.
The Kingdom of Dumnoniorum existed for around 200 years, until the 7th century. Archaeological digs in the 1980s discovered glass and pottery from the Mediterranean at the site, suggesting Tintagel may have been a port and trading centre at this time.
Detailed surveys of earthworks on the headland led archaeologists to estimate that there were up to 100 buildings with garden plots at the site, with early roads that were tracks. It was also believed there was a larger building that was probably a communal feasting hall.
What happened in Tintagel between the 8th and 11th centuries has always remained a mystery, adding to its intrigue. Historians don’t know if the headland was inhabited or not. The first concrete information on its history dates from 1233, when Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the 34-year-old younger brother of King Henry III, ruled the region.
He built Tintagel Castle, which took three years until 1236. The largest room in the castle was the great hall. However, Richard spent little time there. The popular belief was that he simply liked the prestige of owning the site linked to King Arthur.
Richard died in 1272 and his castle remained the traditional seat of Cornish kings. It was expanded with a kitchen at the end of the hall, while a new curtain wall closed off the inner court. However, by the 14th century, the castle had fallen into disrepair.
A survey by the Duchy of Cornwall, dated 1337, described it as a walled castle with “two decayed chambers” and a “decayed stable” to house eight horses. The bake-house was said to be “ruined”. The only part of the castle still in use was the chapel, where a chaplain held a daily service.
Timber in the great hall was removed as a result of the dilapidated state of the structure. Its deterioration was said to be the result of erosion, as it was overlooking the sea in an exposed position.
In 1386, King Richard II ordered repairs at Tintagel Castle, amid fears of attacks by the French. Records show the castle’s outer walls were repaired, the towers on the outer area were added and the west wall was rebuilt, at a total cost of £34 – equating to £37,500 in today’s money, taking inflation into account.
A two-storey house was built where the great hall once stood, and the kitchen was extended and sub-divided in the 14th century.
In 1583, Sir Richard Grenville, the English sea captain and MP for Cornwall, carried out a survey of local defences. He noted the absence of the drawbridge at Tintagel Castle, where it used to link the mainland and headland. It was said that the bridge had been eroded away by the sea over the years. Now, a makeshift bridge of tall elm trees laid on their sides had been fashioned.
By the 17th century, despite the repairs and renovations over the centuries, Tintagel Castle was finally abandoned as a residence and defence structure. The area around it continued to be mined for tin, slate and copper, as it had since the Roman era.
In the 19th century, the legend of King Arthur was revived after the famous poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, wrote Idylls of the King – a series of 12 poems published between 1859 and 1885. Richard Byrn Kinsman, who was vicar of Tintagel between 1851 and 1894, restored some of the old castle walls and began showing tourists around the site.
Overlooking the headland, King Arthur’s Castle Hotel was built in 1899 to cope with the growing influx of tourists. It is now called the Camelot Castle Hotel.
Visitors began flocking to Tintagel Castle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1933, Frederick Thomas Glasscock (a businessman and entrepreneur, who was a partner in the Monk and Glass custard firm) opened King Arthur’s Hall of Chivalry. The themed tourist attraction was built to satisfy tourists’ demands for anything relating to the legendary king.
Tintagel Castle has grown in popularity as a visitor destination during the 20th and 21st centuries. Between 2015 and 2016, artist Peter Graham carved a bearded face into a rock near the famous Merlin’s Cave (a location mentioned in Idylls of the King) in support of English Heritage’s project to remind people of Tintagel’s important history and legends. The project also includes Rubin Eynon’s large statue of King Arthur and a compass sculpture depicting the Round Table.
Over the years, the gap between the headland and the mainland grew, due to the erosion of the sea. In 2017, plans to build a spectacular new steel footbridge, linking Tintagel Island to the mainland again, were approved. The design uses technology more commonly found in the Alps.
Giant sections of steel, each weighing some 4.5 tonnes, were manoeuvred into place in June this year in readiness for the construction of the 70-metre long bridge. English Heritage believes the bridge, which recreates the historical link between the mainland and the island, will improve access and help to conserve the landscape.
Top 5 attraction
Today, Tintagel Castle is one of English Heritage’s top five UK attractions. More than 200,000 visitors flock there annually, according to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.
During the peak summer season, up to 3,000 people a day visit the mighty monument. The castle is due to re-open to the public on Friday 9th August for the summer season 2019.
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