Tintagel Castle has an aura of mystery. The ruins of this little fortress – located along the stormy Cornish shoreline – attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Most visitors come searching for the legendary King Arthur. After all, it’s said that Arthur was born here….!
If you’re willing to use your imagination – and if you enjoy old legends of gallant knights and wise kings – it’s likely that you’ll be swept away by the ambience of Tintagel.
And although there’s not a great deal in terms of Medieval castle ruins to see at the site, the dramatic, rugged Cornish shoreline is spectacular in itself.
The King and the Castle: The Legend of King Arthur
Every age has its crazes and obsessions. In Medieval times, people throughout Great Britain were obsessed with tales of King Arthur.
Back then, anyone you can imagine – from the mightiest king to the lowliest peasant – would have been able to tell you tales of Arthur’s legendary strength, his skill in battle, and of his fair and just temperament.
Arthur was believed to be the mightiest of old kings, who had shaped Great Britain for the better. Indeed, to Medieval people, Arthur wasn’t just a legend. He was an genuine, old King of England – just like Edward the Confessor, or William the Conqueror.
Of course, nowadays, we know that King Arthur didn’t ever exist in real life (I hate to break that to you if you’d thought otherwise!).
Instead, the stories of Arthur were conjured up from myths and folk-tales, which had been told and re-told over the years.
Of course, Medieval people had none of our modern cynicism. Arthur was considered to be a ‘perfect’ king from long ago, and many rich and powerful people tried to emulate him.
They thought that by copying him – by building castles, or by staging tournaments, or by sitting at a round table – they would be able to appropriate some of his grandeur and importance for themselves.
And this quest to emulate King Arthur explains why Tintagel Castle was built in the first place.
Exploring Tintagel: Remains From the Dark Ages
When you visit Tintagel, you’ll see lots of small ruins, scattered across the island.
They’re often small brick walls: about ankle-height. They look like the foundations of houses and settlements.
The majority of these bricks aren’t Medieval (and aren’t castle ruins, either): they date from the Dark Ages.
They originate from around 450AD: a time when Tintagel was a small settlement and trading-post. (Being positioned on the coast, it was a great place for trade).
Obviously, these Dark Age remains have decayed as the years have passed. Even by Medieval times – the early 1200s – they would have been unrecognisable. But this made them all the more intriguing.
The Ruins of Tintagel, and the Myth of King Arthur
Medieval people were intrigued by the ruined buildings scattered across Tintagel.
They probably also appreciated that the place felt, well, quite special. Many people who visit Tintagel today still mention its ‘magical feeling’ – the jagged rocks, roaring sea and beautiful countryside give Tintagel an otherworldly air.
Perhaps because of this, one cult Medieval author – Geoffrey of Monmouth – connected the ruins at Tintagel to the stories of King Arthur.
He wrote a largely fictitious book called ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ [the History of the Kings of England]. He wrote that King Arthur was magically conceived at Tintagel.
Geoffrey of Monmouth created a ‘cult of King Arthur’ – and Tintagel became to be commonly thought of as the king’s birthplace.
In the 1200s, these stories inspired one wealthy noble – Richard of Cornwall. Richard bought land surrounding Tintagel, and attempted to build a castle to honour King Arthur.
Rebuilding King Arthur’s Castle
As wealthy Medieval nobleman, Richard of Cornwall had a lot of money to play with. He was landowner of a substantial amount of Cornwall, and wanted to enhance his own status in society.
Building a personal castle evoking the glorious legends of King Arthur was definitely a technique to attract prestige and attention!
Between 1225 and 1233, he started building the fortress, spread out along the rocky shoreline of Tintagel. It’s worth explaining a little bit of the geography of the site, so you can imagine how the castle might have looked.
Tintagel can be found on the northern coast of Cornwall, and the majority of the castle remains are on the ‘island’ – a small, rocky prominence that sticks out into the rough sea.
Although this section is commonly called ‘the island’, it’s actually still connected to the mainland via a thin, rocky precipice. Nowadays, a suspension bridge crosses this precipice.
In Medieval times, the precipice wasn’t quite so eroded away, so you could have walked across it – from ‘mainland’ to ‘island’. Even then, though, it would have been a narrow, precarious string of rock – and you’d have needed to clamber single-file to cross it.
For this reason, Tintagel was a brilliant, strategic site to build a castle. Richard of Cornwall designed a structure which stretched across mainland and island.
From Island to Mainland: A Very Mighty Castle
Richard built a grand sweep of shell-shaped stone wall upon the mainland. This wall guarded the pathway to the island. Enclosed within the walls were two ‘wards’ and small buildings, which may have been intended for guards.
Even if an intruder could have got past this large sweep of walls, it would have been very tricky to progress along the narrow path to the island – and extremely hazardous if you encountered any guard or soldier. It was a very narrow pathway!
Upon the island, Richard intended to build the grand residential buildings of a castle- most notably the Great Hall.
The Great Hall was undoubtedly intended to be a grand spot to host guests and, although it’s extremely eroded, a remaining stone archway gives us some idea of the intended grandeur.
Richard may have had other grand plans alongside the Great Hall, but these never really materialised. There are few other surviving Medieval remains on ‘the island’ today – although the ruins of a chapel for St Juliot, at one of the highest points of the island, is definitely worth a look.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tintagel Castle was never besieged. But it was never really used, either.
Richard started building many of the pieces of a castle, but it proved extremely tricky to finish. Because of the rough sea and ferocious winds, many buildings quickly eroded away – or simply crumbled into the sea.
In 1250, Richard of Cornwall’s attentions wandered from Tintagel Castle on to his next pet project. The castle would remain generally unfinished – and empty – from that point onwards.
Tintagel and the Tourists: The Rebirth of Tintagel Castle
Tintagel Castle may have been abandoned, but it certainly wasn’t forgotten for too long. In the 1800s – some years after the Medieval craze for King Arthur – interest in the legendary king began to bubble again, throughout Britain.
Tourists began to visit Tintagel, and connected the ruins to King Arthur. Famous poets such as Tennyson even visited the fortress, and a cavern – deep in the rock below – became to be known as ‘Merlin’s Cave’.
Tourists flocked to the site, and a beautiful railway hotel – now creatively named the Camelot Castle – sprang up near to the ruins.
Hollywood producers even chose to film a movie here!
Tintagel Castle is still a ferociously popular tourist destination, and thousands of visitors come every year. Almost everyone relishes the sea air, ragged cliffs, bracing winds… and the magical aura that pervades the place.
If you’d like to discover much more about King Arthur and Tintagel, my first print book – Exploring English Castles – was published by Skyhorse Press in 2015. The book contains an entire chapter on Tintagel, which I hope you’ll enjoy.