Explorations in Arthurian History

The Importance of Geography

Part 3: Tintagel

We begin at the beginning, as first styled by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It was at Tintagel where Arthur was conceived (and, one tale says, where he later died).

When Uther Pendragon became king, he fell under the enchanting spell of Ygerna (Igraine), wife of Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall. Now Gorlois it was who had suggested the brilliant strategy that gave Uther a great victory over the Saxons not too long before this. Still, desire is a powerful driving force. Uther was smitten with Ygerna and he would have her. Gorlois, of course, who was married to her, wanted her for himself (naturally).

Insulted that the new king was paying so much attention to her, he stormed out of the gathering and retired to his castle, ignoring subsequent summons to address his king. Uther considered this an act of war and sallied forth to Cornwall. Gorlois ensonced his wife in Tintagel Castle, which could be defended by a mere handful of men, and banded himself up behind the walls of Dimilioc Castle. Uther laid siege and settled down to wait. However, his lust for Ygerna overcome his desire to wait, and he charged Merlin with finding a way for him to get to Ygerna. Merlin, being the wise man that he was, made it possible. Geoffrey says that Merlin used "drugs"; later writers have said Merlin used magic. Whatever he did, it looked to the Tintagel guards like their leader Gorlois was returning that night. Uther passed into the castle and into the arms of Ygerna. Did she know? Was she part of the plot? No one knows. Yet of that coupling came Arthur.

As for Gorlois himself, he made a rather unwise decision to sally forth himself from his extremely defensive position and got himself killed. When news of his death (and especially the time and manner of it) reached Tintagel, all within questioned what they had really seen. Uther wasted no time in boasting that he had control of the situation and acted before anyone could think twice: In no time at all, Ygerna was queen. She stayed at Tintagel Castle for the birth. What happened next? Geoffrey doesn't say; he skips ahead to Arthur the king at age 15. Other traditions say that Merlin came to get the baby and kept him hidden from his detractors until the time is right.

Tennyson makes Tintagel the home of King Mark and later his queen, Isolde. As the story ends tragically, Tintagel is also the burial place of Tristan.

For Arthurian purposes, Tintagel Castle has served its purpose. We hear more of it in passing several times but almost always in reference to the story of Arthur's begetting and birth. Supposedly, Cador took over the castle when he took over Cornwall.

The castle as described by Geoffrey, of course, did not exist. It was just another example of Geoffrey's applying his times to the story at hand. A medieval castle was built on the site, but it wasn't completed until three years after Geoffrey published the Historia regum Brittanie. Where did Geoffrey get his description? Good question. The tradition of Arthur in Cornwall was ripe at the time. Places in the area today include Arthur's Chair, Arthur's Cups and Saucers, and Merlin's Cave. So the idea of an Arthurian connection to Tintagel was apparently not a new one. Geoffrey also had Celtic tradition to draw on--a tradition that made great importance to the land of Cornwall as a whole. It is tempting to conclude that Geoffrey made it up. And yet ...

Excavations this century have uncovered pottery consist with that found on the Cadbury Castle site, suggesting that Tintagel does indeed have an Arthurian connection based in fact.

Other relevant links

Tintagel Castle: A Historical Approach

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