Tintagel Castle lies on the windswept coastline of Cornwall on the very fringes of Southwest England. At times, it feels like the very end of the earth itself. And it must have done even more so during the middle ages when the castle was constructed. Perched perilously above the crashing waves, many of the buildings have already fallen victim to the shoreline below. Those that remain are crumbling and in poor repair.
Tintagel Castle: Seat of King Arthur
This is the legendary seat of King Arthur. It is in this castle, far from civilization and on the very boundaries of human endurance that Arthur allegedly commanded his knights. It is here he wandered with Gwynevere and from which he ruled his kingdom.
Now, of course, these are all legends. Look anywhere in Celtic Europe and you’ll find tales of knights, mighty Arthur, and that famed round table. After all, Winchester claims to house the round table Arthur sat at. And a forest in Brittany claims to be home to magical Merlin.
Arthur or not, the real reason you visit Tintagel Castle is to marvel at the thousand-year-old architecture. To wonder how people could have ever lived such perilous lives atop the cliff, and of course to realize that the majority of these people were just like you and I. Trying to get by, work for a living and provide for their loved ones.
The medieval settlement and trade in the ‘dark ages‘
The number of buildings in the settlement that makes up Tintagel Castle once rose to over one hundred. And the settlement was perhaps inhabited as early as the Romano-British period, nearly two thousand years ago.
During the early 5th and 6th Centuries, there is evidence that the coastline was inhabited. Pots have been found and it’s thought that there was a rich trade between the inhabitants of the Northern Cornish coast and those of the rest of the Mediterranean.
Perhaps most surprising of all though, was that even up here, on the north coast of Cornwall, cut off from the rest of mainland Europe, the import/ export business thrived during the early medieval period. Products were exchanged and the inhabitants of Tintagel enjoyed luxuries such as Phocaean red slip (a type of pottery produced exclusively in Phocaea, an ancient city in Western Modern day Turkey).
What about King Arthur?
The only evidence that Arthur *may* have lived here comes from a fictional account by local historian, and fake news producer of his time, Geoffrey of Monmouth (who was based not far away along the Jurrasic Coastline). His fanciful tale of the Kings of England notes that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel by Uther of Pendragon and his wife Igema. He wrote his histories in the 12th Century.
The grand palace (the remains of which you see today) were actually constructed on the site by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in the 13th century as a way of giving credibility to the Arthurian legend that Geoffrey of Monmouth had constructed. Without knowing it, Richard gave rise to a legend which continued through the centuries. By the 17th century, the once grand palace and its dwellings were deserted. However, the great legend continued. Arthur and local folklore became one.
Tips for Visiting Tintagel Castle
Today, the site is managed by English Heritage. Fun fact: it’s actually owned by the Duchy of Cornwall AKA Prince Charles (the Queen’s Son). I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I visited the castle. Many of properties like this have become over commercialized to the point where you can no longer get up close and see the rivets on the rock, or imagine the hard labour of the stone mason. For me, this is one of the most special parts of seeing a piece of history in person.
However, I was pleased to see that the management of Tintagel Castle has kept obstructions at bay as much as possible. You are free to explore the ruins, and wander the coastal paths just like Arthur may have done all those years ago.
Just a quick note on safety; if you’re planning to visit with young children or dogs, then the area is full of steep drops as can be expected from a ruin of this nature. So just bear this in mind when planning a visit! Wandering up and down the steps is also quite challenging. Some are quite steep and I would rate the exercise level at somewhere between moderate and intense.
The nearby village of Tintagel is quaint and definitely worth a quick look around if you’ve got time. I particularly enjoyed visiting the honey shop, as well as the medieval ‘Old Post Office’ and its historically accurate medicine/ kitchen garden. It’s hard to imagine that the sleepy village was once full of the hustle and bustle of royalty, and perhaps even the man behind the Arthurian legend himself…