Castle of the Week 22 – Tintagel

Without a doubt there were Iron Age hillforts and cliff castles built in Cornwall. Whether there was a fortress at such an early date as Tintagel is doubtful but no work about this castle would be complete without at least a mention of the clouded and legend swathed beginnings of this, the most romantic ruin in the British Isles.

Though what survives today is mainly of Norman origin, there was certainly a monastic settlement here in the early years of the Christian era, and almost certainly some form of fortification when the 5th century prince, upon which the legends of Arthur were founded, ruled those lands. And the castle is no typical Norman stronghold. It has been properly called a ‘Dark Age defensive position surviving into feudal times, almost in defiance of the principles of medieval architecture’.

Tintagel is set among the cliffs of the north Cornish coast. Derelict since the 16th century, the fortress remains and is an impressive sight. What gives it its special appeal is not the documented history of those who built it and lived there, but its long association with the story of King Arthur. It was the middle of the 12th century that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain, which first told at length the story of the British hero and linked Tintagel forever with his name.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells of Tintagel in the tale of Uther and Igerna. Uther Pendragon, King of the Britons, fell in love with the beautiful Igerna who was married to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Gorlois objected to the attentions that the king paid his wife and returned to Cornwall with her. Uther demanded that Igerna should be returned to court, and when Gorlois refused the king invaded Cornwall. Igerna was locked away in the town of Tintagel, which Geoffrey of Monmouth describes as ‘situated upon the sea and on every side surrounded by it, and there is but one entrance to it, and that through a rock which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom’. Tintagel was in fact so impregnable that it was only with the aid of the magician Merlin that Uther was able to enter the place in disguise. Merlin effected a transformation that made the king so like Gorlois that he was able to seduce the innocent Igerna. Gorlois was then killed in battle, Uther and Igerna married and their son Arthur was born. Geoffrey of Monmouth does not specifically say that Tintagel was King Arthur’s birthplace but the association had been formed. It does not feature prominently in the Arthurian romances but it plays an important part in another medieval romance, that of Tristan, where it figures as King Mark’s Castle.

In the 19th century the great revival of interest in the code of medieval chivalry in general, and the story of Arthur in particular, brought new fame to Tintagel. Tennyson’s Arthurian poems made the legendary king’s story one of the most famous and popular of the time and it was inevitable that new interest should focus on these remote cliff top ruins. It was this that led to the repair of those ruins and the creation of a new path to the site in 1852. Further interest led to further investigation, and during the last 50 years, since the ruin has been in the care of the state, careful preservation and exploration of the site has been undertaken.

Whatever the facts behind the story of King Arthur, it is now certain that there was, at least, a Celtic monastery at Tintagel by the end of the 5th century and it was doubtless a visit to, or tales of, this remotely sited outpost of the missionary St Juliot that inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth. Traces of the monastic ruins have been found though not of any Saxon fortress, which would certainly have been of mainly wooded construction.

The ruins we can see today date from the 12th century. This castle was begun by Reginald, an illegitimate son of Henry I. He was created Earl of Cornwall and held Tintagel until his death in 1175. He had no heir and at his death the castle passed to Prince John. When John became king in 1199 the Tintagel estates were united with the crown, and various sub-tenants held the castle until just before his death in 1216, when he granted the lands of the earldom of Cornwall to Henry, the illegitimate son of Reginald. They reverted to the crown 5 years later, and in 1224 were granted to Richard, the younger brother of Henry III, who decided to take over Tintagel. He built most of the castle we see today. He was a prince of some power and influence in Europe and was elected King of the Romans, crowned with a silver crown at Aachen.

Among those who held the title Earl of Cornwall in the 13th century was Piers Gaveston, the notorious favourite of Edward II, and John of Eltham, brother of Edward III. Both of them neglected the castle and it was already partly in ruins before the death of Earl John. In 1337 Edward III created his eldest son, Edward (later known as the black prince), Duke of Cornwall, and since his day Tintagel has been among the possessions of that duchy. Towards the end of the 14th century, in the face of an invasion scare, the crumbling castle was refortified. It was used for a time as a prison but by the middle of the 15th century it was deserted again, and the long process of continuing decay had begun.

Access to the castle is still difficult for part of it is on an island and part on the mainland. The entrance is by a path beneath a towering 82-metre (270-foot) cliff which forms the base of the upper ward. There are traces of the outer defences that protected this path and significant remains too of the main gate to the castle, above which was a chamber that was entered from the wall walk and that led to the upper ward.

The lower ward is rectangular and is enclosed on the north-east and south-east is a five foot thick curtain wall. The south-west is protected by the cliff. The upper ward is approached by steps cut into the rock, the top ones following the original gate. In this ward there are traces of guard rooms and two garderobes opening over the cliff face. We know from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of the causeway, which could be defended by 3 men, that there was once a narrow neck of land connecting the island with the mainland. Today the only means of getting to the island is by a path on the landward side, reached by a flight of steps down the cliff face, or by one of the paths leading from the outer gate of the castle to the road.

Through a door made in 1852 when the island was opened to visitors, one passes into the inner ward, dominated by the remains of the massive great hall. The southern end has fallen over the cliff but there are significant traces of the rest and of the series of buildings that succeeded each other on the site. At the foot of the cliff, on the north-east of the island, is a landing place guarded by a curtain wall whose gateway is still known as the Iron Gate.

On the island too are the scattered remains of St Juliot’s monastery. There are traces of a primitive cell, perhaps the missionary’s own, and among the monastic ruins are the remains of a Roman-style hypocaust system of under floor heating, and of sweat houses in which the interior was heated and the steam produced by pouring water onto the floor. This was though to be a cure of rheumatic ailments.

The deep misty past of Tintagel is all around you there. It is an historical remoteness underlined by the fact that by the time of the Doomsday Book in 1086 there was apparently no trace of the monastery recorded. The knowledge of its presence was to be woven into the legendary history written by Geoffrey of Monmouth about half a century later.

Write-up and images provided by Forcemaster


You can find Tintagel in the Excalibur Pack from FireFly