King Arthur. Heroic British warlord who led the fight against marauding Anglo-Saxons, or a figment of a writer’s fertile imagination? It’s a question that’s been puzzling poets, chroniclers, historians and film-makers for more than 1,000 years.
And nowhere does this question have more resonance than on a small, windswept, rain-battered headland projecting into the sea off north Cornwall: Tintagel.
Numerous sites across north-west Europe – from Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset to the Forest of Paimpont in Brittany – have trumpeted their connections to King Arthur. Yet surely none are as intimately linked to the legendary warlord as Tintagel.
That this is the case is almost exclusively down to the endeavours of one man: a Welsh cleric going by the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the 1130s, Geoffrey set about writing a history of the kings who had ruled the Britons over the preceding 2,000 years. The resulting Historia Regum Britanniae is among the greatest pieces of medieval history writing – though not an entirely reliable one. It tells us, for example, that Britain was founded by the Trojans, and introduces us to King Lear. Yet, most significant of all, says Miles Russell, senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University, is what it tells us about Arthur.
“In his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey gathered together a series of legends from western Britain to come up with a single narrative of the past,” says Miles. “So, in the case of Arthur, he related a tale that had been passed down by word of mouth through the generations.
“In this story, Uther Pendragon is besotted with Igraine, beautiful wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Uther is determined to have Igraine for himself and so, with the help of the wizard Merlin, assumes the image of Gorlois and tricks his way into Gorlois’ castle at Tintagel. And it is here, Geoffrey tells us, that Arthur is conceived.”
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It’s not hard to divine why Geoffrey chose Tintagel as the site of a key, dramatic scene in his retelling of a shadowy, mythical past. The modern world can seem a long way away when you venture out onto the island fortress on a dark winter’s day – the wind whipping around you and the sea raging below. Yet there’s more to Tintagel’s links to Dark Age Britain than atmosphere.
“Geoffrey’s decision to choose Tintagel as the site of Arthur’s conception would have been informed by history every bit as much as legend,” says Miles. “We know that there was a lot of mining activity – primarily for tin – around here in the Iron Age. And, as Tintagel is such a dominant part of the local landscape, it’s more than possible that there was an Iron Age fort up here – perhaps ruled by an Arthur-like warlord.”
Listen: Miles Russell offers a bold view on the historical King Arthur based on his reinterpretation of medieval sources, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
What’s beyond dispute is that, by the sixth century, Tintagel was a bustling port – a key link in a thriving trade network that stretched from southern Britain down the Atlantic seaboard to the Mediterranean coastline.
“You would have had ships coming in here from all over southern Europe to buy tin and copper,” says Miles, “and, in return, they brought with them exotic goods such as wine and olive oil.” That this is the case is attested by the hundreds of pieces of fifth to seventh-century pottery that have been discovered all over the island. Faint remains of what is thought to have been the residence of a Dark Age ruler also suggest that Tintagel was a site of some importance.
Yet, following its brief heyday, Tintagel slipped back into obscurity – a draughty outpost on the edge of the kingdom. And there it probably would have stayed if it hadn’t been for the arrival on the headland of Earl Richard of Cornwall – brother of King Henry III – in the early 13th century.
The great building project that Richard initiated here in the 1230s still dominates Tintagel today. At its centrepiece is his castle and, though it’s now nothing more than a ruin, much of Richard’s handiwork – including two courtyards, a curtain wall and a gate tower – continue to defy everything that the Cornish weather can throw at them.
But the question is, why did Richard choose to build at Tintagel? “Like many Norman aristocrats, Richard was entranced by the romance of the Arthur legend,” says Miles. “So when he decided to set up residence in northern Cornwall, what better way of establishing a bond with a heroic, Dark Age warlord – and, in doing so, effectively controlling the Cornish people – than by choosing the site where Arthur was conceived? For Richard, building a castle at Tintagel was a canny political move.”
Richard’s desperation to establish himself as a latter-day Arthur is even reflected in the design of the castle itself. “Its walls are thin, and it’s built out of slate in a mock antiquated style,” says Miles. “This tells us that Richard wasn’t attempting to build a highly defensible stronghold but a romantic building that harks back to Arthur – part of what you could call a medieval theme park.”
If Richard was obsessed with King Arthur, he was far from alone. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was hugely popular in the Middle Ages – and Arthur was its most feted hero.
“The Normans loved Arthur, and that’s partly because he is said to have defeated the Anglo-Saxons, just like they’d done,” says Miles. “By identifying with Arthur, the Normans were saying: ‘We’ve got a kinship with an ancient line of British kings, so don’t dare question our legitimacy.’ You can see this in Henry II’s decision to commission Glastonbury’s monks to excavate the supposed graves of Arthur and Guinevere.”
Yet the real genius of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text is that it transformed a blood-soaked warlord, battling through the mud of western Britain into a universal hero, celebrated in polite society across Europe. Within decades, Arthur was being championed as a Christian hero during the crusades and celebrated as an icon of knightly chivalry by French writers.
And this, says Miles, was a phenomenon with staying power. “More than 300 years after Geoffrey died, Henry VII named his eldest son Arthur to bolster his hold on the English throne. Henry VIII even used the Arthur legend – and its link to a form of British Christianity that predates the papacy – to justify his break with Rome.”
But beneath the chivalry, the romance, and the political agendas, there remain questions: Where did the idea of King Arthur come from? Could the legend be based on a historical figure?
“The trouble with this is that it takes us back to one of the most shadowy eras in British history – the chaotic, confused period that would have followed the departure of the Romans,” says Miles Russell. “Sure, there could have been a king going by the name of Arthur – this was, after all, a time of warlords, of kingdom fighting kingdom, of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Yet the reality is that, such is the dearth of evidence, we can never know.
“There is, for example, no earliest primary source that we can say contains the first secure reference to Arthur. A poem called The Gododdin, possibly from AD 600, compares one of its lead characters to Arthur, which suggests that he may have existed as a model of heroism by the start of the seventh century.
“But the fact is, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur is a composite character. He’s created from multiple different heroes. There could be elements of Magnus Maximus – the Roman commander of Britain who led a massive rebellion against the emperor Gratian. Then there’s a British general called Ambrosius Aurelianus. He is a prominent figure in the writings of a sixth-century British monk called Gildas, who described how Aurelianus defeated the English at a great (and seemingly historical) battle at a place called Badon.”
Could this English-slaying freedom fighter have been the primary inspiration for the mythical figure that became King Arthur? Again, we may never know. But the fact that men such as Aurelianus lived in the period following Rome’s fall – an age when Tintagel was a thriving port and probably a power base – only serves to strengthen the site’s association with Arthur.
And it is an association that has drawn visitors to Tintagel for centuries. After Earl Richard’s death, the island-fortress went into a long decline and the castle became a romantic ruin. That’s how it stayed until the 18th and 19th centuries when a series of artists such as Alfred Tennyson – fired up by a renaissance in interest in ancient Britain – began championing Tintagel’s connections to the Arthurian legend through paintings and literature. By the end of the 19th century, tourists were flocking here to witness ‘Arthur’s castle’ and ‘Merlin’s cave’.
While most modern historians agree that it is simply impossible to establish a historical link between Tintagel and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s most celebrated creation, those tourists keep coming. Tintagel is now one of English Heritage’s top five attractions, drawing up to 3,000 visitors a day in the peak summer season.
With a new outdoor interpretation of Arthur’s legend (featuring interactive exhibits and artworks) set to be unveiled, and plans in place to build a new, 72-metre-long footbridge to link the mainland with the island in 2019, the future is looking bright for this Dark Age site.
And that, says Miles Russell, is also the case for Arthur. “He’s moved beyond his status as an obscure British king to one of the world’s great mythological figures, and so there will always be another element of his legend that can be drawn out. I don’t think his story will ever end.”
King Arthur: 4 more places to explore in Britain
Cadbury Castle (Somerset)
Where an ancient fort was upgraded
This Iron Age fortress was first linked with Arthur in 1542, when the antiquary John Leland claimed that Cadbury had been ‘Camelot’. Excavations here in the late 1960s demonstrated that there was indeed significant remodification of the prehistoric fort in the post Roman period, but whether this was the headquarters of a monarch who inspired the myth of Arthur is unknown.
Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset)
Where ‘Arthur’ was reburied
Glastonbury today has strong popular associations with King Arthur. This is in part due to the romantic setting of both
the ruined abbey and the Tor, but also because it was here, in 1191, that monks disturbed two graves, supposedly those
of Arthur and Guinevere, establishing Glastonbury as ‘Avalon’. The bones were reburied by the high altar, providing
a lucrative pilgrimage attraction.
The Great Hall (Winchester)
Where a round table hangs
On the wall of the Great Hall of Winchester hangs a large round table. (The round table was added to Arthur’s story in the 12th century, and has become a potent aspect of the myth.) Dendrochronology suggests that it dates from the late 13th century and it may have been commissioned by Edward I, who was a great Arthur enthusiast.
Where it’s claimed Arthur was slain
Birdoswald was the Roman fort of Banna, an outpost at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. Some have suggested that the fort provided the basis for the battle of Camlann, where Arthur fell in battle fighting the treacherous Mordred but, as with all things Arthurian, this is much disputed.
Dr Miles Russell is senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. Words by Spencer Mizen