Tintagel

by Josie Harrison Schultz

Figure 1. Stone discovered at Tintagel, 1998.

Writing of Tintagel in Cornwall, the England Heritage Trail states, "Tristan and Isolt, King Mark, Uther Pendragon, Merlin the Magician and King Arthur were all here according to legend" ("Tintagel Castle"). The statement suggests that it was the association of Tintagel with King Arthur, Uther Pendragon and Merlin the Magician that made the site so well known.

King Arthur's connection to Tintagel was popularized by two major literary sources, one historical and the other fictional: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, or the History of the British Kings of 1138, and Lord Alfred Tennyson's The Idylls of the King of 1888. Both linked Tintagel with King Arthur ("Tintagel"). More specifically, Monmouth's history placed Arthur in the royal line of Britain and attempted to provide factual evidence regarding his life, while Tennyson, who greatly contributed to the renewed interest in Arthurian legend during the late nineteenth century, emphasized the romance. Tennyson discussed Arthur's union with Guinevere and his very last battle against his son, Mordred.

Many of the sources available today discuss the geography and archaeological sites at Tintagel in terms of the legendary accounts of King Arthur. Perhaps the examination of the geographical features and history of Tintagel Island, St. Nectan's Glen, Slaughter Bridge, and other related sites, in terms of the legend will help to separate fact from fantasy.

Monmouth identified Tintagel as the location where Arthur was born circa A.D., 480-500, in his History of the British Kings ("Arthur"). According to Monmouth, Ygerna, his mother, was very beautiful and sought-after. Uther Pendragon, Britain's High King, desired her so much, he invaded Cornwall and fought her husband Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, to have her. While Gorlois was besieged at a nearby hill fort by Uther's forces, Uther resorted to deception to get what he could not take by brute force. He called the magician Merlin for help. Merlin offered Uther a drug to make him take on the appearance of Gorlois. Uther and Merlin went to Gorlois' castle in disguise. Ygerna believed Uther to be her husband and didn't refuse him her bed. That night Arthur was conceived. When Gorlois later died in battle, Uther returned without the disguise, and married Ygerna making Arthur the next High King of Britain ("Tintagel").

Monmouth developed this account largely based upon legend to establish Tintagel as the birthplace of Arthur. He also tried to discuss Arthur as a king in his own right. He believed that the castle that Uther infiltrated was at Tintagel because historically the Dukes of Cornwall had a residence there.

There is no physical description of the geography in the account to strengthen the claim. During the sixth century Tintagel was an island connected to the mainland by a natural causeway. By the time Monmouth completed his History of British Kings in the twelfth century, erosion had reduced the castle's causeway to a narrow piece of rock so small that it was rumored three armed soldiers could hold it against an entire army ("Tintagel"). It has also been suggested that a drawbridge was used to gain access to the island. In the 1540's, Tintagel was only approachable by a bridge made of long elm trees. Its grounds were inhabited by sheep and rabbits. Today the island can only be approached by a set of steep wooden and stone stairways that connect the island to the mainland as part of the English Heritage Trail ("Tintagel").

Specific areas that are related to Tintagel have been discussed in terms of Arthurian legend such as Slaughter Bridge, regarded for centuries as the site of King Arthur's last battle. According to Monmouth, Arthur and Mordred marshaled their forces on opposite sides of the river. A bloody battle ensued between father and son. Mordred was killed and Arthur, although mortally wounded left for Avalon. According to Monmouth this happened in 542, but another historian, Nennius, claims Arthur died in 537 ("Arthur"). Arthur could have been anywhere from thirty-seven to sixty-two years old when he died. The date of his death is as uncertain as the date of his birth.

A sixteenth-century traveler noted the discovery of the armor and bones of many soldiers while plowing the meadow next to Slaughter Bridge. The name of the bridge is ambiguous and can be misleading. 'Slaughter' could mean 'muddy' from the old English translation. The archaeological findings from a great battle have been traced to the fight between the Cornish and Saxon Egbert of Wessex in 823 rather than to Arthur's last stand against Mordred ("Tintagel").

A stone that Richard Carew regarded as a marker for Arthur's tomb in 1602 has also been discounted. The stone is from a gravesite used as a bridge across the stream ("Tintagel"). Arthur's grave is now traced to Glastonbury where it was discovered in 1191 ("Arthur").

The larger of two tunnels that run beneath Tintagel Island is referred to as Merlin's Cave. Legend has it that Merlin, the magician, can be heard there ("Tintagel").

A couple of miles from Tintagel is St. Nectan's Glen, which contains a waterfall with rocks below known as St. Nectan's Kieve. The Kieve is another Arthurian spot where Arthur's knights allegedly swore their oath to find the Holy Grail. Further up the glen there is a pair of small rock carvings. These were known as finger-labyrinths and date back almost 4,000 years ("Tintagel").

The huge Condolden Barrow above Tintagel Island is the tomb of a powerful figure. Thomas Hardy presented it as the final resting place of Queen Isolde in his play, The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall. His work was about a pair of doomed lovers, Tristan and Isolde, who were much like Lancelot and Guinevere.

Many scholars believe that the barrow is the burial place of Cador, the sixth century king of Cornwall. In the twelfth century British poem The Dream of Rhonabwy, Cador appeared as one of Arthur's knights. He is also mentioned in Monmouth's account as Arthur's sword bearer at his coronation and a caretaker of Guinevere ("Tintagel").

The Round Table of Camelot is supposed to be buried under the ruins of Bossiney Castle. Only a large mound remains as evidence of the twelfth century castle. However, the legend states that on the eve of the summer solstice, the Round Table appears ("Tintagel").

An archaeological excavation from the 1930's led by Ralegh Radford, disclosed the remains of a medieval monastery. It was assumed that Tintagel rather than Camelot was the site of the renowned Rosnant or Rosnat monastery, mentioned in many ancient Irish sources as a major focal point of culture and religion during the Dark Ages. But in 1983, Tintagel Island saw a fire that revealed the remains of almost another 100 buildings that dated much earlier than the Rosnant monastery.

The fire revealed several thousand pieces of pottery, an amount that exceeded all the excavated sites in Britain and Ireland combined ("Tintagel"). These broken wine and oil jars had come to Tintagel from Asia Minor, North Africa and the Aegean Sea. These items were luxuries, and better suited to the taste of a king like Arthur, than monks ("Tintagel"). This find also substantiated trade between Dumnonia, the ancient kingdom of Devon and Cornwall, and the Mediterranean World after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (Kilbridel). A unique cache of fragments from a single glass vessel underlines this important link. It has also been suggested that the fragments were from a type of large glass flagon not found anywhere in Britain or Ireland at this period. Similar flagons date from sixth or seventh century Malaga and Cadiz, which suggests that there was contact between Spain and Western Britain during this period (Kilbridel).

A small team of archaeologists, under the direction of Professor Chris Morris of the University of Glasgow, undertook a small excavation at Tintagel Castle in June 1998. They returned to the eastern side of the site that was first excavated in the 1930's. The new excavation covered an area outside the buildings that probably dated from the fifth or sixth century. More Mediterranean pottery and storage vessels from this period, known as amphorae, were found during the excavations (Kilbridel).

An even more remarkable find is an inscription on a piece of slate, which acted as a cover for a drain, that was unearthed in 1998. It has been named "Arthur's Stone" (Kilbridel). The stone, found by Kevin Brady, is broken, but it has two partial inscriptions set across it (figure 1). The bolder inscription has at least four letters that are visible although it is impossible to say what they represent. A second, more lightly carved inscription with smaller letters appears below the first. It reads: "PATER / COLI AVI FICIT / ARTOGNOV". It probably translates as: "Artognou", father of a descendant of Col, has had (this) made", according to Morris (Kilbridel). "Artognov" is the Latin form of the Celtic word "arth" meaning "bear". This is similar to many other Old Welsh names such as "Arthmail" and "Arthien" (Kilbridel). Whether this Arthnou was the legendary King Arthur is still not clear, it probably refers to a prince of Cornwall who lived in an important stronghold settlement on Tintagel in the sixth century, the period when Arthur supposedly lived ("Tintagel"). This inscription shows the influence of Roman culture, because of the survival of Latin. It further demonstrates that the rulers of Dumnonia remained literate after the collapse of Roman Britain (Kilbridel).

The slate does not prove that Tintagel was in any way associated with the "legendary and literary figure" King Arthur (Kilbridel). It is also important to note that Arthur was only associated with Tintagel because of the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth from the 12th century. The inscriptions illustrate the Celtic and Latin influences on the region. While the findings may disappoint those who support the link with Arthur, the finds at Tintagel are significant nonetheless (Kilbridel).

Although the other geographical features of the island and the surrounding areas have been made to fit very well with the many stories of Arthur's birth, life, and death, no one can say with certainty that Arthur lived (or ruled as a king) at Tintagel. Monmouth's discussion of Arthur in terms of the history of Cornwall provides the most compelling evidence to suggest it was so.

Works Cited

"Arthur". Timescapes: Land and History.
http://www.time-scapes.co.uk/Arthur%20in%20the%20Southwest/Quick%20History.

Kilbridel, William. "Tintagel Excavations 1998". Archaeology @ Glasgow.
http://www.gla.ac.uk/archaeology/projects/tintagel/index.html> (4 May 2004).

"Tintagel". Timescapes: Land and History.
http://www.time-scapes.co.uk/Arthur%20in%20the%20Southwest/tintagel.html

"Tintagel Castle". English Heritage Trail. 2001
http://www.cornwall-online.co.uk/english-heritage/tintagel.htm (2001).