FB: Tintagel

Site of Tintagel
Site of Tintagel

Tintagel is one of the most impressive fortress sites in Britain. It takes the Celtic headland fortress to its fullest extent, perhaps even too far. Its inaccessibility would have been a problem for those actually living there. Pearched out upon the sea it would have had a commanding view of the sea but it would have been hard to access the fortress directly by sea.

There is slight evidence of Roman-era occupation. Tintagel may appear as the name Durocornovium (Fortress of the Cornovii/Cornwall) in the Ravenna Cosmography. Two Roman mile markers and 3rd to 4th century local pottery suggests the site was occupied during the Roman period, but Roman presence at the site was minimal.

Tintagel was occupied and heavily used during the ‘sub-Roman’ or Late Antique period. We really should expect that Tintagel was an active fortress up through the reign of King Geraint (d. c. 710) who ruled all of what we consider to be Devon today. A Christian grave has been radiocarbon dated to 403 and the Tintagel churchyard is in use throughout the period of occupation. Archaeologists have found so much Mediterranean pottery shards there that they are called “Tintagel ware”. These shards appear to be from oil and wine amphora that date from the 5th through 7th century. Modern theories of Tintagel’s use focus on two roles: 1) a trading center and 2) a royal seat. Snyder notes that archaeology supports the trading center hypothesis while literature supports the royal seat. The trading center with primarily seasonal use is supported by the huge number of pot shards and evidence of the tin trade. The trade of tin for luxurgy goods like wine, oil and continental pottery would have made the Dumnonian kings rich. Charles Thomas has argued that the geographical situtation of Tintagel argues against the trading center. It clearly does not have a good port. So then are all these pot shards consumption by a circuiting royal retinue or a king held up as a place of refuge? This is consistent with its geography and extensive evidence of major food preparation. As a place of refuge the evidence of tin and metal workding could be for weapon production and repair, as well as luxury goods. Without a good port it is hard to see it as only a trading center. On the other hand, it seems clear that the immigration route between Wales and Brittany involved Tintagel, as though immigrants had to check in with at least a warden at Tingtagel before setting off on the trail across Cornwall for Castle Dore, were many took a ship to Brittany. As such, gifts (taxes/tolls/tribute) to the ruler of Tintagel by immigrants and other travelers could also explain some of wealth at Tintagel.

Tintagel is best known as the place of Arthur’s magical conception and birth. The well-worn story goes that Uther Pendragon wanted Igraine, wife of Duke Glorious of Cornwall, and so Merlin used his magic to disguise Uther as Glorious. He gets past Tintagel’s security and spends the night with Igraine who conceives Arthur. Merlin’s price is that he will raise any child of this union. Uther later gets rid of Duke Glorious and marries Igraine. Arthur is born at Tintagel and Merlin arrives to carry him away, now against the wishes of his parents. Tintagel then fades from Arthur’s story, although in some stories the ruler of Tintagel, Glorious’ son Cadwy becomes Arthur’s successor since he has no other heirs. Snyder notes that Tintagel may gets its role in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, the first to mention Tintagel in Arthur’s story, by Tintagel’s expansion under the Normans. We should also keep in mind that Bretons came to Britain to with the Normans and were in high social standing. Tintagel may have flourished under the Normans because of the place it held in the migration stories of many noble Breton families.


Christopher A Snyder. 1998.An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400-600 Pennsylvannia State University Press.

12 thoughts on “FB: Tintagel

  1. Great info here, and a nice summary of both the archaeology as well as the legends.

    Its an interesting theory to suggest that travelers had to pay tribute to pass through. I agree on the “not a good port” thing. Not only that, but with all the good ports on the south side of Cornwall, you’d think anyone from the Mediterranean would go there. Maybe the goods traveled by land to Tintagel, maybe even ordered by the regent who lived there.

    I’ll probably put a link to this post on my blog. Thanks!

  2. Hmmmn, as one who is even a ‘zealous’ proponent of The Old North (but who is aware of the proverb “An unbridled zealot is a runaway horse!”) – and who was awakened to the broader area of The Old North by Alistair Moffat’s book “Arthur and the Lost Kingdom’s” – there’s something so romantic about Tintagel in the south-west that I want to be very sure that “the baby is not thrown out with the bath water” when it comes to Tintagel!

    So I think that I’m going to consider a ‘parable’ approach to Tintagel and see what I can glean from that, by which time I hope that Jonathan’s “More chocolate than Cadbury” article is written so that I can consider the broader facts.

    This was a lovely article!

  3. Well, Jonathan, I don’t subscribe to Current Archaeology so I’ll have to wait on your report. I see no reason why it couldn’t be a year around fortress. Of course if that is where the power is, then sea trade will come there and so will any traveler who wants to cross the peninsula. So what does it say that contradicts my post?

  4. You know, now that I look again, I’m not sure… It is keen on it being a very major fortress fifth to seventh centuries (and I’m working from glances at a colleague’s copy here so not able to refer as much as I might) but though you separate the cases for purpose into archaeology vs. literature I see that you favour the fortress. I think my point therefore is that archaeology and literature may have decided to agree now… (I’m going to go and photocopy the article.)

  5. I wonder if much of Tintagel’s large amount of pottery and trade goods isn’t simply because it lasted longer than most fortresses of the time? This area remained in British hands, presumably under the control of Dumnonian/Cornish kings until at least c. 710, and maybe longer if Tintagel remained on the British side of the border. Very few major British fortresses lasted that long. Dumbarton being the only one I can think of. I don’t know that Gwynedd or Dyfed really had a comparable great fortress.

  6. Not sure about that: I think the pottery stops reaching Wales at the same sort of period. My point of reference here is Dinas Powys, as ever, but I may be remembering wrongly.

    I’ve just finished drafting my Tintagel post, it is, er, fifth in the queue so should go up end next week?

  7. The problem with Dinas Powys though is that we know really nothing of its history that archaeology can’t tell us. There is not one literary reference to it and no strong legends attached to it. Even its name is an oddity, so far outside of traditional Powysian land.

    Surely wine keeps moving at least. I wonder if they repackaged it into native vessels to resell? The more valuable it becomes surely it was sold in smaller quantities.

    I’ll be looking forward to your post. I need to learn to use the queue like you do. 🙂

  8. Good point about Dinas, I suppose it could become political unsustainable rather than economically, but I can’t remember its details now and I don’t seem to have notes from when I read up on it. I think wine stops coming from so far away, though; I mean some of this pottery is African or further East, after all. I reckon they switch to perishable wooden barrels of Bordeaux…

    I’m not sure using the queue is a good thing, it means I’m holding up current content out of some idea that it’ll be more widely read for being regular. This is probably true but still. It smacks of OCD symptoms to me and being a quasi-academic I have enough of those already 🙂

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