High on the cliff are the remains of a castle built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall between 1233 and 1236. It was five hundred years after the legendary King Arthur, and Arthur was supposed to have fought the Saxons far to the east, but nonetheless Tintagel (tin tah jl) came to be associated with the Arthurian legends.
Tintagel sits on an eighteen-acre island. When we were there, perhaps at low tide, it was more of a peninsula. Nonetheless, there is a deep sharp gorge between it and the mainland. One has to cross a high pedestrian bridge and then climb steep narrow winding steps cut into the rocky cliff to get to the top.
Nonetheless, and perhaps because it was relatively secure, Tintagel was a prosperous trade center even before the castle was built. A fire swept the site a few years ago, and subsequent rains revealed a number of interesting ruins for archaeologists to investigate. In addition to the castle, the promontory has the remains of a number of buildings dating back as far as Roman times. Thousands of pieces of Mediterranean pottery were found indicating it was a trans-shipping point for trade between what is now Ireland, the U.K. and the Mediterranean. A bag of Roman coins suggests the island may have even been inhabited in the third century.
One climbs a steep set of steps from the landward side arriving first at the remains of the castle. Further on the path, we saw the lawn mowers — a pair of goats and their kids.
Several of the old buildings’ foundations can be seen nestled on precarious ledges as you climb higher. As we neared the top, walls remain around what was once a garden where the lady of the castle entertained her friends on pleasant days. There also are the remains of a chapel, and we saw a workman doing something with what looked to be an old well.
Much of the legend of King Arthur is attributed to the 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. He wrote that King Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon lusted after Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Merlin, whose cave is said to be at Tintagel, disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, and thus Arthur was conceived at Tintagel.
Even though there is no real connection between the Celts of the period Arthur is supposed to have lived, it is likely that Earl Richard, an outsider who built the castle, fostered the legend to try to cement the loyalty of his Cornish subjects. He even built the castle in a style that made it appear much more ancient. He really intended and used it as a palace, not as a fortress. It fell in to disuse and ruins within a century of his death.
Even though there is no historical connection to Arthur, it is a romantic place. One looks out from ancient ruins and high promontories at sailboats on the sea and waves striking the spectacular rugged Cornish coast.
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