A thousand years before the castle’s construction, Tintagel probably served as a remote official outpost of the Roman Empire, with a role in the important trade in Cornish tin.
The archaeological evidence is slight but points towards occupation late in the Roman period, around the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.
Tintagel was clearly a thriving settlement in the early Middle Ages. It seems possible that it may have been a fortress and focus of trade for the kingdom of Dumnonia.
Dumnonia covered Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset. Only two of its kings are known by name – Constantine and Gerent, who both ruled in the 6th century.
Excavations in 1998 found this piece of slate dating to the 6th century, which may give us the names of people associated with the site.
It has two fragmentary inscriptions. The earliest – the larger letters to the top left – is too fragmentary to translate, but may be a piece of late Roman official signage. The second is more casual in style.
The text reads PATERN[I], COLIAVI FICIT/ ARTOGNOV, COL[IAVI] FICIT.
Coliavi and Paterni are forms of a name, but as they are fragmentary they are hard to translate accurately. The name Artognou is Celtic and means ‘famous in a bear-like way’ – the bear being used to symbolise heroic valour. The word ‘ficit’ means ‘he made’.
As well as objects from Greece and France, excavations at Tintagel have found pottery that indicates trading links with modern-day Spain, North Africa and Turkey.
These objects all relate to the storage of wine and oil or to evidence of fine tablewares. In return, the inhabitants of Tintagel probably traded the local tin, slaves and even hunting dogs.
In the 1230s Richard, Earl of Cornwall – brother of King Henry III – bought the headland and had a castle built on the site.
It seems likely that the connection to the mythological Arthur appealed to his sense of chivalry. To this day the site still has strong associations with the stories of King Arthur.
Richard’s castle comprised a courtyard on the island, with a great hall and kitchen surrounded by a curtain wall, and mainland courtyards with a gatehouse and ancillary structures, again surrounded by a wall.
Spanning the gap between the two was a bridge that in 1540 was made of elm logs. The castle was rebuilt several times between about 1230 and 1540 as a result of landslides and erosion. It is clear that, at times in this period, the castle was badly decayed.
As more books were published about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the associations with Tintagel became stronger.
No matter how decayed the castle itself was, the legend that this was where King Arthur had been conceived remained indelibly linked with the site – as it still is to this day.
In the 16th century the castle was clearly ruinous. Maps often portrayed sheep grazing within the walls.
It was surveyed by Cornish landowner and sea captain Sir Richard Grenville in 1583 to see if it could be refortified to protect against invasion from the Spanish.
No work was undertaken, but this silver groat of Elizabeth I, found at Tintagel, indicates that people were still visiting the site at that time.
Matt Thompson, Cameron Moffett, Rose Arkle