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Spectacular and atmospheric, thirteenth century Tintagel Castle stands on the site of an earlier Dark Age fort, reputed to have been the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur. The castle stands on a rocky windswept headland rising around 100 metres from the sea, which is linked to the mainland by an ithmus of rock and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic.
Aerial view of the castle and Tintagel Island looking west © Skyscan Balloon Photography; English Heritage Photo Library
The castle has been linked with the tales of King Arthur since 1136, when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his "History of the Kings of Britain" that King Arthur was conceived there. Later stories related that Arthur was born and even lived at Tintagel. The name derives from Din Taggel, meaning fortress of the narrow entrance. Although there are few historical certainties concerning the Dark Age Castle, legends swirl around it. It is reputed to be the home of Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur and the legend of Tristram and Iseult has strong connections to the site.
Although historical facts are scarce, concerning the Dark Age Castle, legend surrounds it, which relate that Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, fell in love with the beautiful Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall and was determined to have her. Arthur was concieved as a result of Uther's entering the castle secretly at night with the aid of Merlin. Archaeologicall evidence, includiing the remains of a fifth to sixth century settlement and a large quantity of imported luxury goods found, suggest that this may have been a stronghold of the kings of Dumnonia - a kingdom which consisted of Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset.
The gateway to the inner ward © English Heritage Photo Library
The present Medieval castle was built in 1233 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of King Henry III (1216-73). Its fortifications are divided into two sections, the upper and lower wards stand on the edge of a stand rather precariously on the edge of a crumbling precipice on the landward side, and the inner ward clings to a narrow ridge reaching to a small island. The Great Hall originally measured over 80 feet long by 36 feet wide, it was divided later into smaller buildings. A path descends to the landing at sea level. It was protected by an Iron Gate defended through arrow slits. There is still a walled area which was used as a garden in the medieval era. The castle's chapel, is dedicated to St. Julitte, the chapel's west end is the oldest part of the building, a porch added in the thirteenth century. The castle was originally joined by a causeway to the mainland but erosion has destroyed much of the causeway and access is now by two steep stairways.
Later Earls of Cornwall made little use of the castle, the hall was roofless by the mid fourteenth century although in 1483 the Chapel of St Julitte was still being used. By the late fifteenth century the castle had already fallen into ruins.
View of the inner ward from North with the upper and lower wards beyond © English Heritage Photo Library
Excavations in the 1930's confirmed Dark Age occupation of the site and uncovered monastic remains. Pottery found at the Tintagel site was dated to the 5th and 6th centuries - the time of Arthur. In the 1998 excavations undertaken by archaeologists from Glasgow University lead to the discovery of an inscription on a piece of slate which reads 'ARTOgNOV' a Latin form of the Celtic name Arthnou, derived from the Celtic word Arth, meaning bear.
The 6th century AD "Artognou" inscription stone discovered by archaeologists from Glasgow University © English Heritage Photo Library
Two tunnels run underneath Tintagel. The shorter tunnel, known to have been made with metal tools, opens out in the meadow above the cliffs. The larger tunnel is known as Merlin's Cave.
Tintagel can be accessed via a
coastal footpath from St. Materiana's church or by a land rover service from Tintagel village. There is an information centre and gift shop. Owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, Tintagel is maintained by English Heritage.
See also:- Tintagel Village