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To Tintagel, a village on the rugged, spectacular northern coast of Cornwall which is mostly famous for its castle. Having previously visited Tintagel in February on a day when said castle (owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, administered by English Heritage) wasn’t open, I was very keen to have a look round when I went back there on a trip to the West Country last month.

The first thing to note as you approach Tintagel is that the castle is not the castle-like building on the hilltop – that’s a hotel which was built in late nineteenth century in anticipation of a branch-line of the Great Western Railway which was never actually built. Why were they considering a branch-line? Well, there was (thanks to the likes of Lord Tennyson) a big interest in all things relating to the myths and legends of King Arthur in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and King Arthur is still the main reason for Tintagel’s appeal. In the village there’s a King Arthur’s CafĂ© and a (fairly decent) pub called the King Arthur’s Arms, while a few miles inland there is a hamlet called Slaughterbridge that claims to be the site of one of his battles (the last one, although quite how a wounded Arthur was able to get from Cornwall to Glastonbury is a puzzle). Perhaps inevitably, the souvenir-shops of Tintagel do a good line in Arthur-related tat.

According to the legends, Tintagel Castle is the place where his life began. The story goes that Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) was an enemy of Gorlois, a warrior who lived at Tintagel Castle. Uther quite fancied Gorlois’s wife, Igraine, but as Gorlois kept her at the castle, which was impregnable on account of it being on a rocky peninsular that could only be accessed via a narrow and tightly-guarded causeway, he couldn’t get anywhere near her. So he decided to cheat; he got his friend, Merlin the wizard, to cast a spell that made him look like his enemy. This served not only to trick the guards into letting Uther into the castle, but also to trick Igraine into letting Uther into her bed. Thus was King Arthur conceived; setting aside Uther’s rather questionable behaviour, this does pose the inconvenient notion that the Once and Future King of the Britons was illegitimate, a notion that many a writer has got around by adding a bit about Uther subsequently killing Gorlois and marrying Igraine.

Adultery also features in another of Tintagel’s legends, the story of Tristan and Iseult – a tragic tale of forbidden courtly love which is rather similar to the story of the relationship between Arthur’s loyal knight, Sir Lancelot, and his queen, Guinevere. Iseult was the wife of King Mark, presumably a client king of Arthur’s. She fell in love with Tristan, variously described as either one of Arthur’s knights or Mark’s nephew (sometimes both). He felt the same way about her, and the pair went to various lengths to keep their relationship a secret until, perhaps inevitably, her husband found out.

We know, thanks to archaeological discoveries at Tintagel, that the castle – located on the afore-mentioned rocky headland that can only be accessed from the mainland via a narrow causeway – was a high-status settlement of some sort in the fifth and sixth centuries which means that it was in use at the time when King Arthur is believed to have existed, and that it could well have been used by the kings of Cornwall (and in the Dark Ages Cornwall did indeed have its own kings, although if truth be told they were actually client kings of the post-Roman British kingdom of Dumnonia and later the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex; the last one died in or around 875). In 1998, archaeologists found pottery and glass fragments from the fifth and sixth centuries there, along with a 1,500 year-old stone bearing the Latin inscription Patern[--] Coli Avi Ficit Artognou, translated as ‘Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made this’. This discovery led to much speculation that ‘Artognou’ could perhaps have been Arthur himself.

The present-day ruins of Tintagel Castle, though, date back to the thirteenth century. It was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall – a younger son of King John who probably decided to build a castle there on account of the area’s Arthurian connections (which were by the thirteenth century very well known, thanks mainly to chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth who popularised the Arthur legend in his largely fanciful History of the Kings of Britain). It was of little strategic value – Earl Richard, who appears to have been infatuated with the Arthur legend, built in such a way that it looked older than it actually was. By the early fourteenth century it was already a ruin, although in the 1580s the government considered fortifying it when England was threatened with invasion by Spain. It became a popular tourist-destination in the mid-nineteenth century thanks to a revival of interest in all things Arthurian, and it still draws in the crowds today.

From the village, it’s a steep walk down to the sea although in the summer months English Heritage does lay on a shuttle service. Once you’ve paid your entrance-money, it’s a steep walk up to the causeway across to the island itself. 

After perusing the ruins of the keep, I followed a narrow path down to the Iron Gate, a (not iron) wall with an opening that formed part of the castle’s small harbour, allowing it to be provisioned from the sea (the island itself has several natural springs, so in the event of a siege they wouldn’t have been short of fresh water).

Back up on the top of the headland (which has a windswept feel to it, although when I went there was very little by way of breeze), there’s a ruined chapel (dedicated, apparently, to St Hulanus, although some sources say St Julitta; little appears to be known about either) and a walled garden (believed to date back to the time when Earl Richard built the castle, and heavily associated with the Tristan and Iseult legend). 

There are the remains of various settlements from the Dark Ages, plenty of places to stand atop the cliffs looking out to sea or back to the mainland, and those who follow the paths to the extreme end of the island are rewarded with the slight of a knightly statue.

And the views! 

The visitor to Tintagel Castle cannot complain about these; out to sea and back to the mainland, with vistas of that rugged north Cornish coastline, atop which my attention was drawn to St Materiana’s, the parish church of Tintagel which stands somewhat isolated from the village it serves. I wonder why? Another mystery to consider…

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