[Sunday - 05/09/99] Tintagel (pronounced Tin-TAJ-el) is, perhaps, the most familiar of all the sites associated with Arthur. Local tradition, founded largely on the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1139), claims this as the birthplace of Arthur, from where Merlin took him to be fostered in secret.
One can guess that Geoffrey picked up from local folklore one major belief most likely rooted in actual fact-- that Tintagel had been a royal fortress of the ancient kings or rulers of Cornwall. In one set of stories, the island held the palace of King Mark, whose nephew Tristan fell in love and eloped with Isolt, his uncle's chosen bride. Geoffrey had a different story, though. In his writings, the palace belonged to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, whose beautiful wife Igerna aroused the love of King Uther Pendragon. Uther besieged Tintagel and then, aided by Merlin, made his way secretly into the castle at night and seduced Igerna, who subsequently gave birth to Arthur.
While Arthur figures in the post-Roman legends of all the Celtic British areas, it's more as a sixth century war-leader rather than a king. Geoffrey, writing in the twelfth century, is accredited with inventing both the details of Arthur's birth and its location at Tintagel. Of course, Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King (1888) brought the Arthur myth into modern popularity. While basing his work on Malory, Tennyson also cites Tintagel as being the location where Arthur is washed ashore to be found by Merlin.
The story of Mark, Tristan, and Isolt does, however, seem to be genuinely Cornish and pre-Norman. This is important, in that, by Norman times, Tintagel may have been known throughout Cornwall as the one place where everybody supposed the ancient kings had their seat. When Earl Richard built his medieval castle there in 1230, he must surely have seen that it had no strategic value. But, in propaganda terms, it was essential to place a castle on the spot where his legendary predecessors had held court. While the dramatic ruins of his castle are too late to have anything to do with the 'real' Arthur, they do invoke a great deal of romantic inspiration.
In 1993, a fire burned away the grass and topsoil from the island's surface and revealed evidence of more extensive building and occupation than previous excavations had shown. More recent discoveries, following excavations in 1994, indicate that it may have been a Celtic site of some importance. And a much earlier monastic site on the island promontory behind the castle dates from a time contemporary with Arthur. Building foundations dated to the fifth and sixth centuries as well as pottery fragments from the same period all help support the fact that there may be more to the legends upon which Geoffrey initially drew his inspiration than previously believed. Whatever the case, we braved the steep, zigzagging steps to see for ourselves. And Tintagel did not disappoint.
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