We are talking about Tintagel today because it is associated with King Arthur as the place he was conceived. This comes only, however, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote his highly fantastical History of the Kings of Britain in the early 12th century. Honestly, Geoffrey’s work is so ahistorical that the fact he claims Arthur was there is reason enough to doubt the veracity of the legend. As he tells it, Arthur’s farther was turned into the likeness of Gorlois, Igraine’s husband, and thus he slept with her, and she conceived Arthur.
Even with the unlikeliness of this particular aspect of the story, Tintagel does have a fascinating history. The castle, as it exists today, was begun in the 12th century by Earl Reginald, brother to Robert of Gloucester, for whom Geoffrey wrote his history to justify the Norman conquest of Britain.
This date is also the approximate moment Earl Reginald began his castle, but it is not clear which was the impetus for the other. What is clear is that the castle continued to be used as a stronghold because of its association with the Arthurian legend, and the casting of the Earls of Cornwall in the place of King Arthur.
Excitingly, excavations have revealed far older remains underneath the later Norman castles, including more than fifty stone buildings, dating to the early medieval period. Along with these were found many items dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, among them Tunisian oil jars, Carthaginian dishes, Aegean amphorae, and jars from Byzantium. Scholars think that, because of the evidence of these traded items, Tintagel could have been a royal court. At the very least, it was a wealthy trading port.
If the discovery of a settlement dating to the 5th and 6th centuries wasn’t exciting enough, archaeologists also have found an inscription or carving on a slate slab, dating to the 6th century, which translated says: “Arthnou, father of a descendant of Coll, had this built.” The name Arthnou means “Bear Knowing”.
We don’t know that this was the Arthur of legend, obviously. Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist at English Heritage encourages us not to dismiss the possibility. He states: “Tintagel has presented us with evidence of a Prince of Cornwall, in the Dark Ages, living in a high-status domestic settlement at the time Arthur lived. It has given us the name of a person, Arthnou. Arthnou was here, that is his name on a piece of stone. It is a massive coincidence at the very least. This is where myth meets history. It’s the find of a lifetime.”
It is even possible that the existence of this genuine, historical Arthur who ruled at Tintagel was passed down through the centuries, which is why Geoffrey of Monmouth had his Arthur conceived there and then linked him to the Arthur whose story is told by the Welsh bards we talked about last week.
That said, many historians (many of whom don’t believe Arthur existed) were actually more excited to see evidence of the continuing tradition of reading and writing, even outside a religious context, and that this was a sophisticated post-Roman settlement.
Suitable, one might say, for a king!