Tintagel Castle (King Arthur's Castle)

The island on which Tintagel Castle is perched
Approach from St Materiana
Wildflowers on the rugged cliffs around Tintagel Castle
Rugged cliffs around Castle Island

Tintagel Castle (also known as "King Arthur's Castle") is perched on an island which was joined by a land bridge in the Middle Ages. The ruins of Tintagel Castle that you see today were built in the 13th century by Richard Earl of Cornwall. From coins and pottery fragments found at the site, it is thought that before this, the site might have originally been a Roman settlement, and later, in the early Middle Ages, a Celtic settlement. There is speculation amongst historians that the site was a summer residence for one of the Celtic kings, perhaps leading to the legends of Arthur.

The castle setting is certainly dramatic, especially in Winter when huge Atlantic waves pound the island. Consequently much of the castle, and indeed the land it was on, has been taken by the sea. John Leland, the King's Antiquarian, in 1538, speaking of Tintagel, said:

"This Castelle hath bene a marvelus strong and notable forteres, and almost situ loci inexpugnabile, especially for the dungeon that is on a great high terrible cragge, environed with the se, but having a drawbridge from the residew of the Castelle unto it. There is yet a chapel standing withyn this dungeon, of S. Ulette alias Ulianne."

The Castle in its prime

Diagram of Tintagel Castle
Tintagel castle in 1626

The current castle was built on the site by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1233. The castle consisted of two baileys. The outer one was on the mainland (where the upper kiosk is now) and was surrounded by a moat. The entrance was next to the rocky outcrop on the approach from St Materiana Church though a gatehouse tower and along a walled passageway running alongside the rocky outcrop to another tower which guarded the entrance to the outer bailey. A thick wall ran around the top of the rocky outcrop and joined with this tower before running around the rest of the perimeter of the outer bailey, so the entrance "channel" protruded from this. On the corner of the wall to the right of the entrance "channel", stood a narrow watch tower.

The diagram on the right of the castle drawn in 1626 (click to enlarge) by Norden gives an idea of the outer bailey though the perspective is a bit off (9 should point left towards St Materiana church).

At the time the castle was built, the gap to the island was narrow enough to span with a drawbridge. The inner bailey on the island contained the principal part of the castle including a Great Hall and a chapel.

The history of Tintagel Castle

View of Tintagel Castle along the coast from St Materiana church
Tintagel castle
Tintagel castle
On castle island
St Julietta font in St Materiana Church
St Julietta's font
Roman stone in St Materiana Church
Roman stone

Richard's castle had fallen into disrepair within about a century of of it being built, but the dungeon was used as state prison for some time after that. By 1538 when Leland visited it, the castle had been a ruin for approximately two centuries:

"Shepe now fede within the dungeon. The residew of the buildinges of the Castel be sore wether-beten and yn ruine, but it hath beene a large thinge...ij be woren away with gulfying yn of the se: withowte the isle renneth alonly a gate house, a walle, and a fals braye dyged and walled. On the isle remayne old walles, and yn the est parte of the same, the grownd beyng lower, remayneth a walle embateled, and men alyve saw ther, yn a postern, a dore of yren. There is in the isle a prety chapel, with a tumbe on the left syde."

and Norden, who surveyed the buildings in 1585 also reported:

"it was somtime a statelye impregnable seate, now rent and ragged by force of time and tempestes; her ruyns testefie her pristine worth; the view wherof and due observation of her situation, shape, and condition, in all partes, may more commisseration that suche a stately pile shoulde perishe for wante of honorable presence. Nature hath fortified and arte dyd once beautefie it in such sorte, as it leaveth unto this age wounder and imitation; for the morter and ciment wherwith the stones of this Castle were layde, excelleth in fastnes and obduritye the stones themselves; and nether time nor force of handes can easelye sever the one from the other."

The drawbridge appears to have fallen early in the 16th Century and for some years after its fall, the chasm was narrow enough for elm trees laid across to form a bridge.

The font from the castle chapel was salvaged and is now in St Materiana Church

Richard's castle was certainly not the first on this site. In the 12th century, roughly 100 years before Richard built the current castle at Tintagel, Geoffrey of Monmouth described the previous castle at Tintagel as:

"It is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it, and there is an entrance to it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom"

Scholars think the castle described by Geoffrey of Monmouth would have been a fortification of earth and stone.

Major excavations beginning in the 1930s on and around the site have revealed that Tintagel headland was the site of a high status Celtic monastery or a princely fortress / trading settlement dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, in the period immediately following the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain. Finds of Mediterranean oil and wine jars show that Sub-Roman Britain was not the isolated outpost it was previously considered to be, for an extensive trade in high-value goods was taking place at the time with the Mediterranean region. During this period a large defensive ditch was dug, cutting off access to the headland and giving Tintagel its name (Din Tagell - the Fortress of the Narrow Entrance).

A Roman stone was found nearby bearing the name of the Emperor Licinius (who was emperor in the early 4th century) which may be evidence that there was once a Roman camp nearby before the celtic settlement. This stone is also in St Materiana Church.

In 1998 a sixth century stone bearing the name Arthur was found at the castle which somewhat excited historians, describing the stone as "the find of a lifetime". The Arthur stone shows that the inhabitants of Tintagel carried on living a Romanised life, and read and wrote Latin, long after the Romans left England in 410 AD. It also shows that the name Arthur existed at that time and that the stone belonged to a person of status, though there is currently no evidence to link the name on the stone to the historical figure Arthur.

Arthurian Legend associated with Tintagel Castle

View from Tintagel Castle
View from the castle
Merlin's Cave beneath Tintagel Castle, photographed from the inside looking out onto Tintagel Haven
Looking out from Merlin's Cave
King Arthur's Great Halls in Tintagel
King Arthur's Great Halls

As a historical figure, Arthur almost certainly did exist as a successful soldier fighting battles across the country in the sixth century. Literary references to Arthur can be found in the ninth century.

The Arthurian legends associated with Tintagel Castle stretch back to the in the middle ages and were popularised in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth and at the end of the 12th Century the famous tales of Arthur and his round table were put together by the Norman writer Wace. It is thought that Richard built his Medieval castle here in the early 13th century to establish a connection with the Arthurian legends already strongly associated with the site.

These were followed in Tudor times by Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur chronicle. Arthurian legend had another renaissance in Victorian times when Tennyson published his Idylls of the King making Tintagel a popular Victorian tourist destination and the nearby Camelot Castle Hotel was built as themed accomodation. It's thought Richard Earl of Cornwall also deliberately built his castle in an old-fashioned style (compared with other 13th century architecture) to make it appear more ancient in an attempt win over his suspicious Cornish subjects!

See our page about Tintagel for more information about the village of Tintagel including the Halls of Chivalry.

Things to do near Tintagel Castle

Sea Kayaking at Tintagel Haven
Sea Kayaking at Tintagel Haven

There are a number of nice coastal walks from Tintagel Castle either back towards St Materiana Church (15 min) or on towards Barras Nose which is also a good fishing spot. To the right of the castle you can climb down steps to Castle Beach from which Merlin's Cave runs beneath the island.

There are a number of geocaches near Tintagel Castle:

More information on Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Haven
Tintagel Haven
Grey seal at Tintagel Haven
Seal at Tintagel Haven
Sunset at Tintagel Haven
Sunset at Tintagel Haven

Parking near the castle

There are a couple of possibilities for parking:

  • Park at St Materiana church (5 min drive from Park Farm) and walk 10 minutes along the cliff path.
  • Park in Tintagel (10 min drive from Park Farm) and either walk 15 mins or catch the landrover service down to (or more likely up from) the castle.

Photos on flickr

Web links