Significance of Tintagel Castle

In its earliest phase Tintagel was economically one of the most important sites in the whole of Britain, closely involved in trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Its literary fame seemingly arose later out of that earlier significance, and subsequently inspired the medieval castle. The international renown of the site, arising from its exceptional and romantic situation, has thus influenced its physical history.

The island remains looking towards the mainland; to the left of the path are some of the remains of the Dark Age settlement

The remains on Tintagel island, looking towards the mainland. To the left of the path are some of the remains of the Dark Age settlement

Dark Age occupation

Tintagel Castle was a prosperous and highly significant site for about 150–200 years, from about AD 450 until AD 650. Its precise function is not known, but it was closely involved in trade with the Mediterranean world, and its prominence and defensible nature suggest that it may have been a stronghold of the rulers of the south-west peninsula, probably of the combined kingdom of Devon and Cornwall.

The precise role of Tintagel in the trade is not clear: either it was a primary trading site, where the imported goods were landed and exchanged, or the actual trading took place elsewhere and the goods were brought here for use.

Within this broad interpretation there are various possibilities for its precise use. It would have been well placed for controlling trade in the area, both because of its own seaward view, and because of being readily sighted from the sea. The Mediterranean trade would have taken place mainly in summer, when Tintagel is suited for occupation. But it cannot have been simply a trading-station, since so many of the goods were used and consumed on the site.

British kingship during this period was peripatetic, and Tintagel would probably have been one of several royal sites in Devon and Cornwall. It has also been suggested that the headland could have served as a site for royal inauguration ceremonies. A foot-shaped hollow in a rock on the summit, known as King Arthur's Footprint, might have played a part in such ceremonies. These would have been accompanied by feasting, and would well explain the quantities of expensive goods consumed on the site.

King Arthur's Castle Hotel

An early postcard of King Arthur's Castle Hotel (later renamed the Camelot Castle Hotel), built in the 19th century to exploit the popularity of Tintagel

Place in Arthurian legend

Tintagel’s legendary fame appears to have been a result of its earlier significance, which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth to name it in his History of the Kings of Britain as a stronghold of his fictional Duke of Cornwall and the place where Arthur was magically conceived.

By the time Richard, Earl of Cornwall, came to build his castle here in the early 13th century, it was probably the site’s literary renown that moved him to do so, since the site did not serve any administrative or strategic purpose.

In the 19th century Tintagel gained its full prominence, as a result of renewed interest in medieval literature and history. The connection was cemented by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his Idylls of the King. Visitors began to come in large numbers, and the nearby village, Trevena (renamed Tintagel in the mid-20th century), expanded to cater for them.

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