There are few places in the world where history and legend intermix so thoroughly and so naturally as at Tintagel in Cornwall. Following the retreat of the Romans from Britannia, from about the 5th to the 7th century AD it was an important stronghold, and probably a residence of rulers of Cornwall. Many fragments of luxury pottery imported from the Mediterranean were left behind by those who lived here.
It was probably memories of this powerful and lavish seat of Cornish kings that inspired the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth to name it in his History of the Kings of Britain as the place where King Arthur was conceived, with the help of Merlin. At the same time, Cornish and Breton writers linked the love story of Tristan and Iseult with Tintagel.
In turn, these associations with legend led the hugely rich and ambitious Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build a castle here in the 1230s. The site was of no military value – legend alone seems to have inspired him to build here. And long after the castle had fallen into decay, its mythical associations kept interest in Tintagel alive.
In the Middle Ages, Tintagel’s residents walked from one side of the site to the other using a narrow land bridge as high as the cliff tops but at some point in the 15th or 16th centuries, a likely terrible Atlantic storm caused a landslip that washed much of it away.
There aren’t many ‘bridges’ with such a dramatic role in history, real or imagined and it was here that according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Uther Pendragon engaged the help of Merlin to sneak over narrow span, ravish the Duke of Cornwall’s wife Igraine, and sire King Arthur.
Of course, physical proof of an individual named King Arthur is rarer than hens teeth and he is likely an amalgamation of one or more great rulers from either Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria or even Scotland that safeguarded his lands and civilisation during the so-called Dark Ages. Most people think that King Arthur and Camelot were likely to be either in Wales or the far South West of England with Tintagel the likely favourite.
For many years if not centuries the idea of Tintagel having anything to do with a remotely Arthurian figure was thought to be from historical accounts of those such as Geoffrey of Monmouth whose history is valued as it was written almost 1,000 years ago and so that much closer to the events but tinged with the problem that with less than modern-day discipline, gaps would sometimes be filled by fanciful guesswork or attempts to legitimise then current monarchs or sponsors.
In fact some thought Geoffrey to be totally off his trolley as the castle ruins most evident today are from centuries after the time of King Arthur but increasingly discoveries are being made that indicate there was a great civilisation here from almost precisely the correct time… something that historians from the 19th and 20th centuries knew little if anything about but perhaps which historians with all their flaws a millennia ago, did.
In some countries where historic locations are allowed to fall apart or in places such as Iraq and China, restored into what we in Britain would think to be a spectacular but entirely fake historic Disneyland or even worse where history is totally discarded such as The destruction of historic Mecca by Saudi Arabia. In Britain though this would not only be illegal but the height of bad taste. Structures and landscapes might be stabilised so they don’t deteriorate further but generally speaking, everything is left as we find it today.
Due to this policy, English Heritage who maintain Tintagel along with countless other sites have caused something of an uproar in the last few years by declaring their intention to build a new bridge at Tintagel which is currently closed for a few months allowing construction to take place.
It is the biggest project ever undertaken by the organisation, funded by a £2.5 million donation from philanthropists Hans and Julia Rausing. Until now Tintagel has been so separated by this large chasm that to many it looks like two different castles, one on the mainland and one on the very nearly island section. Access has been through some steep steps and winding paths which is beyond many with issues of disability or infirment.
The new bridge will reinstate the original route, offering visitors the chance to experience Tintagel Castle the way its medieval inhabitants once did albeit with much of the castle still missing. Though simple and stunning, many believe it is a stain upon the rugged environment and possibly an attempt to cash-in on the mystique of King Arthur by the over-stretched and underfunded heritage organisation.
There must surely be room to mix history with legend. I haven’t been to Greece but I know when I do I will both be following in the footsteps of real physical people but also in search of the great Greek gods who are much less likely to have existed than even King Arthur.
We should be grateful that we have figures such as King Arthur and Robin Hood that capture imagination around the world when outside a few select legends of Athens and Rome, Aladdin and the bustling souqs of Baghdad or Cairo and ancient Chinese warrior kings, no-one else is so fortunate.
Those who say English Heritage should tell the real story of Tintagel rather than focus on the “mythical fantasies” of King Arthur fail to grasp the nature of cultural history. In many ways, the myth of Arthur created medieval civilisation. It also helped create Britain as we know it. We British may have invented King Arthur, but Arthur in turn legitimated the idea of Britain as a great nation. Henry VII, who founded the Tudor dynasty that did so much to shape the modern British state, called his heir Arthur. This Arthur died young, but his younger brother, as Henry VIII, shared the family passion for Arthurian chivalry. The story of Arthur helped Henry declare independence from the Catholic church.
Even centuries ago, King Arthur inspired much of Europe. “The matter of Britain”, as it was called, not only inspired great chivalric writers like Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach but provided the costumes, themes of hundreds of medieval tournaments and banquets, right through into the Italian Renaissance. One of the most poignant paintings of Arthur and his knights is a cycle of frescoes by Pisanello in Mantua, northern Italy.
Cultural fantasy and real history are not opposites. Arthur is woven into the landscape and identity of Britain, and we’re very lucky to have such a great global myth with fans across the world just as I’m an avid fan of the great Middle-Eastern civilisations.
The tales of Arthur add up to a beautiful, complex legend full of melancholy. Today, we’re perhaps in danger of losing touch with the details of these stories. Modern children have Harry Potter, but Arthur and Merlin are more magical. English Heritage is evidently aiming its Arthurian reboot at families, and doing its bit to keep the mystery of the grail alive in the 21st century. I think anyone who really loves history, and wants a new generation to love it, should applaud their efforts
What do you think? Does the hard to teach route to Tintagel add authenticity to Tintagel or is English Heritage right to add a bridge to one of the key locations in British history, even if it didn’t happen there at all?
For more on the birthplace of King Arthur check out my post Has the birthplace of King Arthur been discovered?
If you are interested in contemporaries of Geoffrey of Monmouth and even books that go back right to the time of King Arthur himself, then check out my post from 2018 on The Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library