Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Tintagel Castle

Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Tintagel Castle

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By James Turner

The bleached bones of a blasted cliff-top castle, scourged by leaping sea and howling wind, Tintagel made as much from tempered dreams as carved stone still has the power to inspire. While the Castle that once crowned it is now reduced to jagged splinters, the site itself, set deep into the labyrinthine Cornish coast upon a great spur of wave hewn rock, is perhaps the most evocative in the British Isles, possessed of a wild yet deeply permeating and reverberating beauty. Built atop an ancient fortress and inexorably tied to one of Britain’s most pervasive legends, Tintagel’s political reality stretches deep into the Island’s mist shrouded past while its mythical legacy echoes to this day.

Unlike the majority of its fellow castles that share Iron Age roots, many of which benefited from continuous habitation, Tintagel Castle’s medieval rebirth came relatively late and was a direct result of the transmuted Celtic folk tales which had, during the flourishing of the Middle Ages, come to rest upon Tintagel. When these tales fired the imagination of a newly rising royal prince, Richard Earl of Cornwall, he raised a grand castle upon the misremembered ruins of a lost royal court. For in the great shared canon of romance literature hungrily devoured by the noble courts that criss-crossed Europe and which alongside the universality of the church bound it together with a singular aristocratic culture, Tintagel is the place wherein the story of Arthur’s chivalric monument and the Once and Future King begins.

In 43 AD, the clockwork of the monolithic Roman Empire began to spin towards the conquest of Britain, cranked by the hand of the Emperor Claudius. Claudius had been elevated as a result of the machinations of the fickle and avaricious Praetorian Guard and politically exposed due to his dubious claim to the Imperial title, embarked upon a series of military expansions as a way of building credibility and support within Rome. It remains unclear what the Romans found at Tintagel as the legions and administration of the empire unfurled itself across Britain, since archaeological surveys performed on the site have thus far found no trace of Celtic settlement although the Dumnoniitribe had settled the area and there was undoubtedly a hill fort located at nearby Wilapark. Similarly, as of yet no buildings have been discovered at Tintagel dating from the Romans’ long occupation.

However, examination of the site has revealed a cache of Roman material including a substantial number of pottery fragments, other household goods and a chronologically diverse hoard of Roman minted coins. This alongside Tintagel’s position athwart what is now a long gone Roman road into the heart of Cornwall, which was then one of the Empire’s biggest suppliers in the lucrative tin trade, indicates that on the balance of probability Tintagel was already settled by the time the Empire entered its twilight although the size and nature of the hypothetical settlement remains a mystery.

Following the completion of the struggling Empire’s slow withdrawal from Britain in 410, the famed and sophisticated but increasingly localised Roman administration collapsed into a number of fledging kingdoms often based upon old but still extant tribal distinctions. Tintagel fell under the domains of the Kingdom of Dumnonia which controlled much of what would become south western England and it was here under the Dumnonian kings that Tintagel would reach the height of its temporal power and importance.

The site quickly transformed into a crucial trading hub and major Romano-British settlement, archaeologists have uncovered luxury Mediterranean imports including high quality North African pottery and glassware in numbers far outstripping those seen anywhere else in Britain during this period, articulating Tintagel’s great wealth and importance. If, although it is often disputed, Britain had entered a Dark Age where civilization teetered on the brink, then Tintagel was undoubtedly one of its brightest lights. The site and the large compound built both atop the island and stretching to encompass the surrounding cliff top was one of the principal centres for the semi-migratory and often embattled royal court of Dumnonia alongside Exeter and Cadbury.

As well as its undeniable value as a trading post and its geographical location, the royal favour shown to Tintagel may well have been informed by its formidable natural defences. The island which formed the heart of the palace complex was accessible to the mainland only via a narrow causeway and further protected on the landward side by a wide ditch. Such concerns must have loomed increasingly in the minds of the successive ranks of Dumnonian kingship as they were forced to contend not only with rival Romano-British kingdoms but also the predatory attentions of the swelling tide of Saxon settlement. The Saxons had originally come to Britain as mercenaries before, like mercenaries the world over, striking upon a more direct method of transferring their employers cash and land to themselves and then writing home to their friends and family about a rich new land ripe for the taking.

The why and when of Tintagel’s abandonment has been lost in the mists of time, the Romano-British world was wiped away by the advancing Saxons and Germanic tribes who taking advantage of the opportunities arising from their hard won conquests quickly set about continuing their own internecine wars. While their political manifestations were destroyed, elements of Brythonic language and culture lingered in Cornwall. They were further preserved within Wales and the Kingdom of Strathclyde alongside a greater degree of polity, albeit fragmented and transitory, in the cases of Wales and Strathclyde respectively.

In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth finished his Historia Regum Britannia, a vastly intriguing and imaginative pseudo history in which he traces the history of Britain all the way back to Brutus, a Trojan refuge whose people settled the Isles after defeating the terrible race of giants who lived there. Furthermore, it was one of the first and certainly the most widespread exposure of non Welsh speakers to the legends of King Arthur. Gaining steadily in popularity as they spread through the aristocratic network of western and central Europe, the Arthurian tales conflated with the rapidly coalescing principles and pageantry of chivalric practice soon emerged as the centrepiece of Romance literature, forming a potent cultural movement and becoming Europe’s most pervasive and enduring fad. Eagerly devoured by nobles throughout Europe, the legend of Arthur often changed with the telling and soon new versions of the story were being written including new characters and episodes as a means of expounding upon favoured themes.

In many ways King Arthur was the Batman of Medieval Europe enjoyed by many, worshiped by some but instantly recognisable to all. Similarly the enduring popularity of the character spawned a host of re-telling and re-imaginings which greatly altered the details and even tone of the story while still upholding the inalienable and instantly recognisable core of the character. In the rich riotous medley of Arthurian legend throughout the Middle Ages, Arthur’s association with Tintagel is one of the few points of continuity. According to Geoffrey, Arthur was conceived when Merlin in a horrifying and flagrantly irresponsible useof magic, transformed King Uther Pendragon into the form of his enemy Duke Gorlois of Cornwall so that he could infiltrate the Duke’s great castle at Tintagel and sleep with his wife, Igraine. A problematic and uncomfortable origin to say the least for England’s greatest hero. The immense tapestry of the flourishing Romance genre could often be a tangled affair and Tintagel also came to be associated with the Court of the duplicitous King Mark of Cornwall, in the widely celebrated medieval version of the ancient romance of Tristan and Iseult.

In 1233, Tintagel Castle which until now had existed only as a mis-remembered dream of a Dark Age palace complex was raised by Earl Richard of Cornwall and the nominal Count of hotly disputed Poitou. Ambitious and capable, yet frequently frustrated, Richard, born in 1209, was the second son of the cunning yet short sighted King John and grew up during the long reign of his elder brother Henry III. Despite the generous grant of the Earldom of Cornwall, Richard was an oftenproblematic ally of his often struggling brother, for while he acted as Henry’s lieutenant in both Wales and France, he was extremely touchy about his dignity, rebelling several times when he felt that it had been impinged upon.

Richard went to considerable expense to acquire Tintagel as the site of his new seat within the Earldom and it seems clear that the otherwise strategically and economically irrelevant Tintagel was selected for its Arthurian pedigree and its intertwined association with Cornish cultural and political autonomy. In order to emphasise and further project this affinity, Tintagel Castle was deliberately designed to be archaic by contemporary standards. These affectations served to boost Richard’s own status within the wider European nobility and help woo his famously truculent and independently minded Cornish subjects. The Earl’s love for romance literature and his recognition of its political utility perhaps informed the views of his nephew, the future Edward I who would decades later employ the legends of The Round Table as a way of increasing the flagging ranks of English knighthood and to build solidarity amongst his nobles.

Richard’s long and distinguished career took him far away from the Castle he so carefully built, going on crusade in 1240 following the death of his wife, Isabel, the daughter of the famed William Marshall and in 1256 amidst rather confused and murky circumstances Richard was elected ‘King of the Romans’ by a majority of the German Dukes, although it seems the reality of the Dukes’ relative strength and Richard’s unorthodox position precluded him from wielding any real power within the Holy Roman Empire.

Following Richard’s death in 1272, the Castle, the primary value of which was symbolic, was abandoned by his heirs and given to successive generations of sheriffs to administer in the course of their expansive and often profitable duties. While the Castle was used briefly as a prison, it swiftly fell into ruin. Upon his accession to the newly created Duchy of Cornwall in 1337, Edward the Black Prince, the legendary warrior son of Edward III visited the Castle and commissioned its repair and refurbishment but since he himself never spent any significant amount of time there and because the Castle still lacked any tangible significance, this proved only a halting measure with the Castle quickly sliding back into decay. There Tintagel languished, reduced to ruination until it was once again resurrected by its Arthurian connection in the Victorian era when the Castle of Arthur’s birth ringing with the crash of the sea and open to the bite of the wind once again stoked the imagination of a nation.

Tintagel then does not derive its importance from the deeds performed within it or for the greatness of the lord that raised it, although great he was, rather Tintagel is an exemplar of the profound effect the self created mythology and chivalric pantheon had upon medieval aristocratic culture. It truly is a castle made from the stuff of dreams.

Follow the castle on Twitter @EHTintagel

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