History of Tintagel Castle
The site of Tintagel Castle has been inhabited at least since the late Roman period, and a community flourished here in the 5th to 7th centuries. In the 12th century Tintagel gained literary fame when Geoffrey of Monmouth named it as the place where King Arthur was conceived. These Arthurian associations may have inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build a castle at Tintagel in the 1230s, and the enduring legend still ensures Tintagel’s international renown.
No conclusive evidence has been found that there was an Iron Age fort at Tintagel, although the site would have been similar to those of Iron Age promontory forts found on other south-western headlands, such as on Willapark headland, 1 mile east.
Similarly it is uncertain how much activity there was on the site in the Roman period. The two Roman honorific markers from the area, one now in Tintagel church and one at Trethevy 1½ miles east, suggest some presence in the area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Various small finds, including pottery and some late 3rd- and early 4th-century Roman coins, also suggest activity on the headland at this period. However, this seems unlikely to have been significant.
Tintagel and the Mediterranean World
Both the importance and the date of the Dark Age occupation of the site are evident from the many pieces of imported Mediterranean pottery, including high-quality tableware, found on both the mainland and the island. Such fragments have been found all over western Britain, but Tintagel has by far the largest quantity so far discovered.
Fragments of Mediterranean glass of the same period have also been found. These goods arrived in the south-western peninsula by ship as part of a systematic trade which brought luxury goods and in exchange presumably took tin, the most distinctive and desirable commodity produced here, back to the Mediterranean.
The pottery finds, combined with the buildings on the island, some of which have hearths, suggest intensive occupation at this period.
Richard of Cornwall’s Castle
In May 1233 the newly created Earl of Cornwall, Richard, brother of Henry III, bought the ‘Island of Tyntagel’, together with ‘Richard’s castle’, from Gervase de Tyntagel (whose father, Robert, had changed the family surname from Hornicote to Tintagel). ‘Richard’s castle’ was presumably built by the earl himself. If so, it was begun between 1225, when King Henry granted him the county of Cornwall, and 1233, when the transaction took place.
It is likely that Earl Richard was keen to exploit Tintagel’s international literary fame. In about 1242 he used the castle to receive his nephew, the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llywelyn, whose allegiance to Henry III was questionable. Any doubts over Richard’s own loyalty, however, were dispelled when soon afterwards he campaigned in Wales on Henry’s behalf against Dafydd.
Apart from this episode, little is known of how much the castle was used, if at all. Earl Richard was involved in international politics, going on crusade to the Holy Land in 1240 and being elected King of the Romans (ruler of Germany) in 1257. From that date until his death in 1272 he is unlikely to have had much time to visit Cornwall.
The Growth of the Arthurian Legend
Although the castle was little used, imaginative legends continued to flourish. In about 1480 the antiquary William Worcestre gave Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s birth as well as his conception; and in 1650 the name King Arthur’s Castle is first found.
By this date references to King Arthur and to the castle had become an inextricable mixture of local folklore and literary legends. In medieval romance Caerleon, and then the legendary Camelot, not Tintagel, had occupied the role of King Arthur’s castle.
About the Author
Oliver Padel is an authority on Cornish place-names and history, and president of the English Place-Name Society. He has also written about the legends of Arthur and Tristan.