Tintagel Castle in History and Legend

English Heritage

Tintagel island (Early medieval)Original Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

An Introduction to Tintagel

Tintagel Castle in Cornwall occupies an area which is half on the mainland and half on a rough headland known as the ‘island’. The site has been occupied intermittently for centuries and has ancient associations with international trade and the myths of King Arthur. 

Tintagel islandOriginal Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

The landscape has changed dramatically since the site was first occupied.

In the early Middle Ages it would have been possible to walk directly from the mainland to the island. Over the centuries this natural bridge has been eroded by the sea.

Visitors must now access the island via a wooden bridge.

It is possible that the name Tintagel is a corruption of the Cornish Din Tagell, meaning ‘Fortress with the narrow entrance’.

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.

Merlin's Cave, Tintagel CastleOriginal Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

Tintagel in the ‘Dark Ages’ 

After Roman occupation ended, the headland was occupied intensively. Archaeological evidence shows that from the later 5th to the 7th centuries, Tintagel was well connected with the Mediterranean world. 

Tintagel island (Early medieval)Original Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

The early Middle Ages are often referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ because of a lack of documentary evidence and substantial archaeological remains. Tintagel challenges this preconception by revealing a story of wealth, power and international trade.

Reconstruction Drawing of Tintagel in the early medieval period by Aaron WatsonOriginal Source: Tintagel Castle

Traces of more than 100 buildings survive across the headland, both as the remains of stone structures and as earthworks.

Most of them are likely to be post-Roman in date. This indicates a substantial settlement.

Of immense importance was the harbour (later known as the Haven) where vessels could land their cargoes of goods.

Reconstruction Drawing of Tintagel as an early Medieval settlementOriginal Source: Tintagel Castle

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.

Artognou slate (500/599)Original Source: Tintagel Castle

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.


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’.

Fragments from glass vessels (400/599)Original Source: Tintagel Castle

Further excavations have found evidence of extensive trading links at Tintagel. These fragments of pottery found on the site date from the 5th to 6th centuries and come from Greece.

They are from amphorae that would have been used to store and transport olive oil and wine.

Fragments from glass vessels (400/599)Original Source: Tintagel Castle

Also found were fragments of glass from southern France which date to the 5th or 6th century.

In the early Middle Ages glass was hard to produce and expensive. The presence of even such small pieces indicates the wealth and status of Tintagel at the time.

Reconstruction map of the finds (2015/2016)Original Source: Tintagel Castle

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.

Tintagel island (Early medieval)Original Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

Knights, Chivalry and Romance

Occupation of the site appears to stop abruptly in the 7th century. In the 12th century Tintagel began to be associated with the chivalric tales of King Arthur made popular by the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

A view of Tintagel CastleOriginal Source: Tintagel Castle

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.

Reconstruction Drawing of the Gret Hall c.1260 by Bob MarshallOriginal Source: Tintagel Castle

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.

Silver Groat (1558/1603)Original Source: Tintagel Castle

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.

A view of Tintagel CastleOriginal Source: Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Today

For almost three centuries Tintagel and the myth of Arthur faded into obscurity. However, in the middle of the 19th century there was a renewed interest in the medieval world. Tintagel began to attract tourists.

By 1900 the nearby village of Trevena had changed its name to Tintagel and visitors could stay at the King Arthur’s Castle Hotel.

Tintagel island (Early medieval)Original Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

Today Tintagel sees more than 200,000 visitors a year. Archaeological excavations in 2016 and 2017 are revealing new features and adding to our understanding of the site.

Current Excavations at Tintagel CastleOriginal Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

Excavations on the southern terrace of the island have revealed substantial buildings and exotic imported objects.

Tintagel island (Early medieval)Original Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

In a reassessment of previous excavations, this structure, on a terrace on the north-east side of the island, has been reinterpreted as a building where mead was made in the later 5th and 6th centuries. This provides further evidence of the feasting events that took place at Tintagel.

Tintagel links us with the romance of King Arthur and can also shed light on the ‘Dark Ages’. Its complex archaeological story still has much to tell us.

Credits: Story

Matt Thompson, Cameron Moffett, Rose Arkle

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