Saturday, May 26, 2018

Tintagel Castle and The Legendary Conception of King Arthur

Ancient Origins

Tintagel Castle is a castle located on Tintagel Island, a peninsula connected to the North Cornwall coast in England by a narrow strip of land. This castle is said to have been an important stronghold from around the end of Roman rule in Britain, i.e. the 4th century AD, or the 5th century AD until the end of the 7th century AD. Tintagel Castle is perhaps best known for the claim that it was the place where the legendary King Arthur was conceived.

 The site where Tintagel Castle stands today is likely to have been occupied during the Roman era, as artifacts dating to this period have been found on the peninsula. Having said that, as structures dating to the Roman period have yet to be discovered, it is not entirely clear if Tintagel Island had been occupied during the Roman period.

The ruins of the upper mainland courtyards of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

 It may be said with more certainty that the site was occupied between the end of the Roman period and the 7th century AD. Earlier in 2016, geophysical surveys revealed the existence of walls and layers of buildings at the site. Excavation in the later part of the year yielded walls, said to belong to a palace, a meter in thickness. Additionally, numerous artifacts were also unearthed, including luxury objects imported from distant lands. Such objects include fragments of fine glass, a rim of Phocaean red-slip wear, and late Roman amphorae, which are reported to have been used for the transportation of wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean to Tintagel.

It has also been reported that this palace belonged to the rulers of an ancient south-west British kingdom known as Dumnonia. This kingdom is said to have had its center in modern day Devon, and included parts of present day Cornwall and Somerset. It has been suggested that the story of King Arthur’s conception at Tintagel has something to do with the Kingdom of Dumnonia, or at least with its memory.

During the 12th century, the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae (translated into English as ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), a pseudohistorical account of British history. One of the figures in this account was King Arthur, whom, according to Geoffrey, was conceived at Tintagel. It has been suggested that Geoffrey was inspired by the memory of Tintagel as a royal site in earlier centuries to link it with the place of the legendary king’s conception.

According to legend, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, fell in love with / lusted after Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall, whose fortress was at Tintagel. Uther managed to persuade Merlin to use his magic to fulfil his desire. Merlin transformed Uther into the image of Gorlois, and he was able to enter Tintagel Castle to seduce the queen. It was by this way that Arthur is said to have been conceived.

An illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Boy's King Arthur (1922) ( Public Domain )

During the 1230s, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, second son of King John of England, and brother of King Henry III of England, decided to build a castle on Tintagel Island.

It has been pointed out that the castle was built based purely on the Arthurian legend connected to that site, and that it was of no military value whatsoever. The castle was inherited by the earl’s descendants, though they are said to have made little use of it. By the middle of the 14th century, about a century after the castle was built, the Great Hall is said to have been roofless, and another century later, the castle had fallen into ruins.

Ruins of the Norman castle at Tintagel. ( CC BY 2.5 )

It is the ruins of Richard’s castle that can still be seen today. The castle remains as the property of the Duchy of Cornwall, and may be visited by the public. In 2016, it was reported that an artwork depicting Merlin was carved into the rock face close to the spot where Arthur was said, according to legend, to have been conceived. In addition, a footbridge (the design of which was selected from a competition) to connect the mainland and the castle is planned to be built. Whilst some have viewed these positively, as they are aimed at bringing in more tourists, others have called it a ‘Disneyfication’ of the site.

Top image: Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. Photo source: ( CC BY 2.0 )

By Wu Mingren

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