According to legend Tintagel was the birth place of Arthur, the legendary Welsh hero, whose warband fought the Saxons. Oh! Not what you're used to hearing? Wasn't Arthur a king? Warband...what about knights? What about the grail quest?

In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d' Arthur,  which is the legend as we know it today. The Welsh and Saxons were eliminated and the grail quest inserted. The knights of Arthur's Round Table wear plate armour similar to that worn by Sir Thomas, who was a professional soldier and knighted in 1441. He was later accused of theft, extortion and rape and was imprisoned several times. Go figure.

The earlier shape of Arthurian legend had a lot to do with a Cambro-Norman called Geoffrey of Monmouth Norman whose family settled in Wales after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans came into contact with the Celtic people of Brittany, their neighbours in France. When William conquered England, the legends of another Celtic people, the Welsh, and their resistance to the Saxons was likely used as part of a campaign to legitimise the conquest. In Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) the good guys were Welsh and the bad guys were Saxons. It was wildly popular in the courts of England and France in the High Middle Ages and a frequent theme of medieval banquets.

So here is taste of Geoffrey's Arthur... or a shortened version thereof:

At Eastertime Uther Pendragon ordered his nobles to assemble in London. Many nobles attended with their wives and daughters. Among them was the duke of Cornwall, Gorlois, with his wife Igerna, the most beautiful woman in Britain. As soon as the king saw her, he suddenly burned with love for her and had eyes only for her. He kept on smiling and joking with her. Her husband noticed and angrily stormed out of court without permission. Uther angrily commanded him to return. When Gorlois refused, the king gathered a large army, marched to Cornwall and set about burning its cities and towns. Gorlois decided to fortify his strongholds, until he could get help from Ireland. He placed his wife in the fort of Tintagel. 

                        The Sea at Tintagel

When this was reported to the king, he marched on the castle where Gorlois was and besieged it. After a long week had passed, he recalled his passion for Igerna and summoned Ulfin of Ridcaradoc, a knight of his household, expressing his desire...

Ulfin answered that no power on earth could get Uther to her in the stronghold of Tintagel. It stood completely surrounded by the sea and could only be reached by a narrow cliff. Yet if Merlin was prepared to help, he could get them in.

Merlin was moved by Uther's great passion and said that with his herbs he could give Uther the exact appearance of Gorlois. Merlin accompanied him in another disguise.

                        The Castle built in Geoffrey's Time

Then they set off on the path to Tintagel, where they arrived at dusk. The gatekeeper was informed that the duke was approaching and the gates were opened and the men admitted. The king spent the night with Igerna and cured himself through the love-making he had longed for. Igerna was deceived by his false appearance and also by the lies he wove so well. That night she conceived the renown Arthur whose prowess secured his fame.

           A rather stunning statue of Arthur at Tintagel

In July 2018 I took a Rick Steves tour of the south of England and discovered Tintagel. Wonderful experience. The post-Roman dunum or fortress was sited on a flat headland of the sea. A narrow land bridge connects the 'mainland' to the 'island'. Today there are steps which lead visitors down to the narrow neck of land leading to the fortress site. You pass by the ruins of a 12th century castle, Geoffrey's time. Not much left of it, but more than the fortress constructed in the 5th century, possibly the time of Arthur. Tintagel might come from British Dyn Tagell meaning the 'fortress of the narrow neck'. 

            A view of the stairs which lead to the 'neck'

The site of the former 'palace' is surrounded by wide seas. Excavation has shown that the buildings were made of dry-stone walls commonly used in Ireland and western Britain. Amazing how they hang together without mortar. The site was probably used by the kings of Dumnonia or a sub-king--like Arthur? Expensive pottery imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th and 6th centuries indicates a prosperous household at Tintagel.

Most interesting of all, an incised slate dating to the 6th century was found with the name ARTOGNOU which might mean Bear Knowing, Bear son or Bear Born. Not quite 'Arthur' but close enough for people who love the legend.


  © Sheila Currie  2018