Roberta’s Celtic Corner: The mystery of Tintagel

Another tale of Celtic history and myth, this time from Cornwall. Fans of the Arthurian legend will know it as the supposed birthplace of Arthur, but that myth may have been invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. It’s a fact, though, that Tintagel was an immensely rich and important place in Celtic days; recent excavations have proved the full extent of its importance. So, what is Tintagel’s real history?

Tintagel

The area of modern Cornwall was sparsely populated in ancient days, and the Romans didn’t bother to explore it much either, except for exploiting the local tin deposits. Only after the Romans left Britain around 410 and the region became the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia, on a remote peninsular cliff on the North coast of Cornwall a promontory fort of huge dimensions for the time was built. It was so big that when it was first excavated, archaeologists believed it must have been a monastery – but it was actually a king’s palace! On this very informative site, you can see how Tintagel looked like around 700, at the height of its power:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tintagel-castle/history-and-legend/tintagel-dark-ages/

Like in most European kingdoms in the early Middle Ages, the kings of Dumnonia didn’t have only one residence, they travelled through their country and stayed at various places throughout the year. Tintagel, though, was by far the richest of all the palaces in Dumnonia; nobody knows exactly why – they must have been trading with countries around the Mediterranean, especially the Byzantine Empire, obviously exchanging the local tin for luxury goods, but there was tin all over Cornwall. Maybe it was the extreme protection from all sort of attacks the peninsula offered to its inhabitants? They also had springs, which is a very rare thing for such a small island, and which made them independent from the mainland and immune to sieges.

Tintagel_Ruins

For a long time, the excavations concentrated on the castle itself; only in 2016, a large village next to the castle was discovered, and the excavations soon showed that not only the inhabitants of the castle itself, but also the villagers were extremely wealthy by Dark Age standards: amphoras and glassware from as far away as Africa and Asia Minor were found! And they seemed to have been eating very well, too: remains of cows, sheep and fish show that they were by no means vegetarians, and they were also consuming olive oil and wine from faraway Greece.

Tintagel village

Then, though, some time after 700, Tintagel’s power and wealth declined – why? Nobody can answer this question yet, either. It might have been internal fights in Dumnonia or the Anglo-Saxon invasion in Britain or both that put an end to Tintagel’s hegemony.

Anyway, Tintagel shone once again in the 13th century, when the Norman Earl of Cornwall, Richard, bought the derelict old castle and had a new palace built – in honour of King Arthur, since Geoffrey of Monmouth had only just established the myth of Tintagel being Arthur’s birthplace! Richard never really used his fantasy castle, though, and after his death the place started falling apart again.

Tintagel_Castle Ruins

It was only in the 19th century, due to the boom of Arthurian folklore in Victorian days, that Tintagel became fashionable again: for the first time, tourists came to visit the few excavations that had been made by then, wanting to see ‘Arthur’s birthplace’! Later on, English Heritage took over the place and the responsibility for the excavations, and today Tintagel is something in between a huge archaeological dig and a favourite destination for romantic tourists. And even though it’s not very probable that Arthur himself ever even set foot on Cornwall (whoever he was exactly, he was probably based in Wales), there’s much to see and read about this unique early Medieval palace and its real inhabitants!

 

 

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