The ruins of Tintagel Castle lie just up the coast from Port Isaac. Run by the English Heritage, it is one of their top five attractions in the UK. As you descend towards the beach and the rocky outcrop, overhead you do wonder who would be mad enough to try and construct a building in such a place!
Before you explore the mainland there’s a short and sweet exhibition giving some background on Tintagel Castle’s history and legends. By the Dark Ages a considerable community had grown up on the headland, which had its own source of fresh water. It also had an enviable defensive position with clear view across the Bristol channel and just one small narrow neck of land connecting it to the Cornish coast. The community, likely a kingship of the Dumnonia tribe, prospered from trade across the Med.
Tintagel is a place which has seen the rise and fall its inhabitants, often left for centuries at a time to be reclaimed by Mother Nature and the sea, I think that this is the ruins appeal. Over 500 years went by before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of Kings of Britain’ connected Tintagel with the legendary King Arthur.
“The History contains the earliest written mention of Tintagel Castle in the tale of how Arthur was conceived there by Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, the result of his magically assisted seduction of Queen Igerna (Igraine), wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall.” – English Heritage
Once the Arthurian legend was cemented with Tintagel Castle, royals were keen to assert their lineage. The Earl of Cornwall, Richard, brother to Henry III, bought the island in 1233, having already built a castle on the headland. Richard was soon seconded to the crusades in the Holy Land in 1240, and it’s unlikely that he returned to Cornwall from then on.
A century later, Duchy of Cornwall was created and Edward the Black Prince, the first duke, had the Great Hall renovated into smaller buildings following years of coastal erosion and decay. The Duke was hardly ever here and just a small number of staff were employed to maintain the castle – a sheriff, ward and chaplain. Visiting the small chapel, it must have been a lonely and poorly paid existence indeed. By 1600s it was once again deserted…
The Victorians quickly became obsessed with Tintagel and its mystic ruins wrapped up in local folklore, Arthurian legend and literary tales – in part to Lord Alfred Tennyson’s retelling of the legend.
Roaming through the ruin, the wind whipped through our clothes, reinforcing the idea that living on the headland was simply absurd. Even until 1856, the castle’s ‘Keeper of the Keys’, Florence Nightingale Richards, would climb the steep steps to the summit, like her mother and grandmother before her, to sit in the castle’s shelter, watching over the ruins and welcoming the occasional visitor. This was a positon she held until she was 82!