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.