Description of Tintagel Castle

The site at Tintagel is dominated by its natural topography, particularly the eroded neck of land dividing the island from the mainland. The castle lies on both sides of the chasm. Centuries of erosion have taken many parts of the castle and earlier buildings with them.

The mainland courtyards at Tintagel Castle

The mainland courtyards at Tintagel Castle

The Mainland

The mainland section of the castle is in two parts, the lower and upper wards. The lower ward is the courtyard forming the entrance to the whole castle, and enclosed on the south-east and north-east sides by a curtain wall.

On top of the crag is the upper ward, with a further curtain wall and various small buildings belonging to the medieval castle; Dark Age imported pottery has been found here. At this end of the courtyard is the medieval gateway forming the entrance to the castle. Outside that is the great ditch, which is of Dark Age date, and made the headland into a promontory fort.

Further inland and uphill, several more banks and mounds are visible. They do not seem to have been investigated closely, and their date is not known.

The Great Hall on Tintagel Island, looking east

The Great Hall on Tintagel Island, looking east

The Island

The inner ward, on the island, contained the castle’s Great Hall, built on a sheltered, man-made terrace. By 1337, only a century after being built, the hall was in decay, and a few years later it was rebuilt by Edward the Black Prince as smaller buildings on the same site. This area was also a main focus of the Dark Age occupation, where large quantities of Mediterranean pottery have been found, although any Dark Age remains are now buried underneath the medieval castle.

Much of the level surface of the island is covered by lines of small rectangular huts. Some are visible today, having been reconstructed after excavation in the 1930s; but many more became known only when a fire swept the headland during the dry summer of 1983.

For the most part the huts were flimsily built, as if for temporary occupation. Their rectangular shape is unusual for Cornwall in the 5th to 7th centuries, but excavation has confirmed that these buildings belong with the Dark Age pottery found among them.[1] Below the northern end of the inner ward is the Iron Gate, a protective wall guarding a slate platform which forms the only landing-spot on the island.

Among the group of buildings at the northern end of the island are some more substantial structures, including one that contains a circular corn-drying kiln, similar to those found at the 13th- or 14th-century village of Houndtor on Dartmoor. This building may belong to the same period. If so, it was a small-scale farm growing grain crops at about the time when the castle was built, but was preceded by Dark Age buildings.

The main focus of activity on the summit of the island is the area around the chapel. The chapel is dedicated to St Juliot, presumably a local saint, and is of uncertain date. The main body of what now exists is contemporary with the castle. The location here, rather than with the main castle buildings, and the presence of several rock-cut graves in the vicinity,[2] suggest reuse of an older site.

Around the chapel are buildings of various dates, some overlying others and interconnecting, suggesting a complex sequence of uses.

The ‘Iron Gate’ above the rocks and cove on the east side of Tintagel island

The ‘Iron Gate’ above the rocks and cove on the east side of Tintagel island

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Footnotes

1. RC Barrowman, CE Batey and CD Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990–1999, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 74 (London, 2007).
2. One at the north-east corner of the chapel was noted by Leland in about 1540 and by Norden in about 1600. It was still visible in the 1980s, but has since been filled in.

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