Tintagel: Historical or Legendary Birthplace of King Arthur?

Welcome to another article exploring the history and legends behind King Arthur. There are many locations associated with Arthur’s life and death. Today we’re visiting the only place associated with Arthur’s birthplace: Tintagel in Cornwall.

Tintagel Arthur's Birthplace
The location of Tintagel in the region that was Dumnein (Dumnonia) in Arthur’s time.

Cornwall is the southern third, roughly, of Britain’s southwestern peninsula. The region is studded with Stone Age megaliths, and in the Bronze Age, it was a major source of tin, which was traded throughout the Mediterranean. There is little evidence that Tintagel was inhabited before the Roman era, and some evidence of activity during the Roman occupation. But what happened after the Romans left is very interesting.

Tintagel South Face
Tintagel’s southern face. The castle blends into the island.

Tintagel is the name of the parish, but when you say the name, it brings to mind the promontory where a ruined castle stands. It’s a dramatic site to gaze over the cliffs to the ruins on what is almost an island now that the slim neck of land connecting it to the mainland is nearly eroded away. In The Arthurian Age series, I use the name ‘Din Tagell’, Brittonic for something like “Fort with the Narrow Place”, which fits with the narrow land-bridge.

Tintagel stairs
Crossing to the promontory is an adventure. The bridge crosses the fallen gap that was once a land-bridge.

The castle that stands there today, partly on the headland and partly on the promontory, has nothing to do with the era of King Arthur. That castle was built in 1225 by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, apparently due to the connection of Tintagel to King Arthur established by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (HRB) in 1136.

Tintagel medieval castle
Earl Richard’s castle at Tintagel in the 13th Century. (English Heritage image)

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first known recording of Arthur’s birthplace. Why did he choose Tintagel? He claims to have not made up the HRB, but to have compiled it from other sources, namely an “ancient book in the British language”. That book, if it ever existed, is lost, but Geoffrey certainly had some of the same information that is recorded in earlier writings, such as by Gildas and Nennius. Some source must have given Tintagel as Arthur’s birthplace. Why?

Tintagel medieval hall
Earl Richard’s Hall on Tintagel promontory.

Because in Geoffrey’s time, nothing would have been visible on Tintagel to suggest it had ever been a Dark Age fortress. This is not surprising, because unlike Richard’s stone and mortar castle, the fortresses of the Britons in Arthur’s time were made of ditches, timber, and un-mortared stone. The buildings would have been of timber or wattle-and-daub, with stacked stone foundations and thatched roofs. These would not have withstood the stormy ravages of more than 500 years between Arthur’s era and Geoffrey’s.

Tintagel looking east
Looking back at Tintagel’s Gatehouse and fort on the mainland.

In the 1930’s, the archaeologist Ralegh Radford excavated areas of Tintagel. He found evidence that Tintagel had been inhabited in the Arthurian Age, but determined that it was a Celtic Christian monastery and not any sort of Dark Age fortress. Those who were adamant that Arthur was a myth rejoiced in their vindication. But then it was found that Radford was wrong.

Merlin's Cave
Jenn inside Merlin’s Cave, a natural tunnel under Tintagel.

A fire on the promontory in the 1980’s revealed the foundations of many more buildings. An inscribed piece of slate called the Artognou Stone was found showing that Latin literacy was still in practice in the 6th century. And in 2016, new excavations found that the Tintagel was not a monastery. They discovered that, between the fifth and seventh centuries, Tintagel was occupied by a large number of people who had access to vast amounts of Roman luxury goods from as far away as the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Tintagel boasts the greatest amount of expensive Roman pottery and glass from this era to be found anywhere else in Britain, such as the proposed site of Camelot at South Cadbury Castle.

Din Tagell in King Arthur's time
Din Tagell, as it may have looked during Arthur’s era. (English Heritage image)

In the mid-fifth century, when Arthur would have lived, Tintagel was a royal residence. The only explanation for Geoffrey of Monmouth to have known this is that he had access to written or oral traditions that pre-dated his HRB.

Tintagel Arthur's footprint
Arthur’s Footprint – Located on the highest point on Tintagel, it was partially carved out and may have been part of a kingship ceremony for early Cornish rulers.

Tintagel would be an ideal site for a stronghold. First, attackers would have to get past the fortification guarding access to the promontory. Then the narrow isthmus from the mainland to the peninsula would have been very easy to defend. A siege would be difficult to maintain, as the promontory had a fresh water source, and could easily be resupplied by ship in the sheltered cove on the north side of the isthmus. There is no evidence that any battles were fought there, and it appears to have been abandoned in the 7th century. This may have been due to the plagues that ravaged Britain in those times.

Tintagel Merlin's Hat
Jenn and me on Tintagel’s southeast end. The pointed island in the distance is called Merlin’s Hat.

With Tintagel established as a properly historical site, was Arthur born there? Geoffrey says he was conceived there, but nothing more. There doesn’t seem to be anything else linking Arthur to the place, and his homes and fortresses are all said to be different locations, from Celliwig to Camelot. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t conceived and born at Tintagel. In fact, if you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon or The Strife of Camlann, you’ll see the hints of a plausible explanation. Just wait until the third book, Three Wicked Revelations comes out and you’ll get the whole picture.

Merlin Sculpture
Merlin’s Face sculpted into the rock near Merlin’s Cave.

Tintagel was one of the most magical places we’ve visited in Britain. I hope you get a chance to visit someday, and thanks for visiting here, today. As always, I love to hear from you in the comments or by using the “Contact” option. Until next time!

Tintagel King Arthur sculpture
Jenn admiring Arthur’s big sword.

4 thoughts on “Tintagel: Historical or Legendary Birthplace of King Arthur?”

  1. I was brought up nearby in Devon, but only visited recently and it is such an evocative place! For me there’s something magical about the jagged slate rock that leads into the sea all over the coast. Standing on the cliff tops I could imagine waving to the sailors on a Mediterranean ship making their way to Britain to trade for tin.

    Although I’m often quick to dismiss history not of ‘our period’, as my obsessiveness allows me only to focus on the Arthurian era to the exclusion of all others, I do find the life and character of Richard of Cornwall to be fascinating.

    Looking forward to reading your interpretation of the place in your book as it’s arriving soon. Did you visit King Arthur’s great halls?

    • Hi Owen, thanks for your insight. We completely agree. Tintagel is magical. We’ve been to many Arthurian locations around Britain, including Cadbury Castle, which I find to be a very plausible location for Arthur’s main hall and fortress. We’re looking forward to another visit in the future.

      I do hope you enjoy the book, and please let me know what you think!


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