Tintagel – or King Arthur, part I

Tintagel Castle

In today’s chapter of Cornwall Sunday, we’ll go to Tintagel and meet King Arthur for the first time. It surely comes as no surprise the legendary leader was conceived in Cornwall, land of magic and mysteries.

Tintagel Castle

King Arthur and Tintagel

The tales of King Arthur first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in the early 1100s. Have you heard the story of Arthur’s conception? It’s a tale of passion and deceit. (Clearly, nothing is new in the world).

King Uther Pendragon lusts after Igerna, wife of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, who lives at Tintagel. To have his wicked way with her, he enlists the help of the wizard Merlin, who gives him a drug that makes him look exactly like Gorlois. Uther then goes to Tintagel, where, Geoffrey relates, he

‘… spent the night with Igerna and satisfied himself with the lovemaking he had longed for, for he had deceived her by the guise he had assumed.’

‘Believing him, therefore, she denied nothing that he asked. That night also she conceived the most renowned of men, Arthur…’

Tintagel Castle

Did King Arthur exist? Historians disagree. Many believe he’s completely mythical, others think he’s based on a 5th or 6th century leader of the Britons who fought against the Anglo-Saxons.

Meanwhile, a drug that makes you look exactly like someone else … intriguing, no? Just imagine what you could do. I think I might change into a Muslim – probably a man – so I could visit the Kaba’a in Mecca. Or into just any ol’ man – to have a look at Greece’s Mount Athos. It irks me no end, that there are still places in the world off limits to one gender. But I digress.


Arthur or no Arthur, Tintagel Castle did indeed exist. Arthur wasn’t conceived in the castle, however, because it was built in 1233, seven centuries after Arthur’s time. Interestingly, though, lots of high-quality glass and pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries have been excavated here, and there’s evidence of a settlement from Roman times.

Tintagel is one of the most famous properties under the care of English Heritage, and owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, i.e. Camilla, Prince Charles’ wife.

The castle (or ruin) is about a 30-minute walk from Tintagel village, down a steep hill. There is a Land Rover shuttle for a small fee, a nice option for going back up afterwards.

From the bottom of the hill, there’s a good climb up the cliff to the ruins. Watch your footing! Not a climb for sufferers of severe vertigo, and not exactly wheel-chair accessible. My 8-year-old complained out loud all through the climb up the long, narrow stone stairways. But once on top, she adored running around, climbing and, of course, doing cartwheels on the castle grounds.

Tintagel Castle

Back home in Port Isaac that night (more on Port Isaac in a later post), we were recognised by a Faroese man who remembered her well (not that many Chinese-looking girls yelling loudly in Norwegian at Tintagel that day, apparently). He and his wife are now our friends; we’ve met up later in the Faroe Islands.

Cave at Tintagel Castle

Tintagel is a fascinating ruin to explore, on top of steep cliffs with crashing waves, caves, grottos and fantastic views. There isn’t much left of the castle; a vivid imagination is a bonus. The ruins lie on two sides of a rocky outcrop facing the forceful Celtic Sea. One part is on a huge rock, separated from the mainland, and connected by a somewhat unnerving bridge.

Bridge at Tintagel Castle

We were there in early July, before the British school holidays, so it wasn’t very crowded. Just a few weeks later, and it would have been a different story, I was told.

For a completely different feel, I think I might like to visit in say November. The bleakness of late autumn, windy, misty, maybe even a cold drizzle… in short, a bit of pain and suffering. (Definitely sans kids).

Tintagel Castle
Camelot Castle Hotel in Tintagel village, seen from the castle ruins

The little village of Tintagel has quite a few pleasant cafes and pubs, and, unsurprisingly, heaps of little shops selling all things Celtic and all things hippie. (Yes, we bought some crystals and … things.)

Tintagel village, Cornwall Tintagel village, Cornwall

Tristan & Isolde – and Tintagel

King Arthur isn’t the only one associated with Tintagel. The tragic ending to Tristan and Isolde’s love story also takes place here.

Tristan is a Cornish knight who is entrusted to go to Ireland and fetch his uncle’s wife to be. The lovely Irish Princess Isolde (also known as Iseult or Yseult) has a love potion meant for her coming husband, King Mark. But Isolde, you see, gives it to Tristan instead (the jury is out as to whether she did this on purpose or by accident – although a middle-aged king vs a young, brave, probably dashing knight… what do you think?).

Isolde marries the king and Tristan marries another, but they continue to love each other. Mark discovers the affair, and stabs Tristan with a poisoned lance. Isolde is the only one who can heal him so he sends a friend to bring her to him. If the friend returns with Isolde, he’s to raise a white sail on his boat; if not, a black sail. Of course Isolde says yes, but Tristan’s jealous wife tells the mortally wounded knight the sail is black. Thinking Isolde betrayed him, Tristan dies of grief. Minutes later, Isolde appears, discovers Tristan’s dead body, then dies of grief, too. This all takes place at Tintagel.

Familiar story?

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle




56 Responses to “Tintagel – or King Arthur, part I”

  1. Louise 1 April 2012 0126 #

    I loved this sooo much. Tintagel sounds and looks like a fairytale. I really love the first photo too, it looks so scary and attractive. Like a magnet that’s making me a little queasy.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1156 #

      Thank you, Louise 🙂

  2. Anwar 1 April 2012 0425 #

    I’ve been really enjoying your posts on Cornwall. It is so much more fascinating then I would have ever expected. I love the legend of King Arthur and didn’t realize it came about in that area….but it does make sense given all that you said. Hmm I’d have to think who I’d want to change into if I could take a drug to make me appear like someone else…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1209 #

      Thanks, Anwar. Cornwall is a very exciting and beautiful part of Britian.

  3. David Bennett 1 April 2012 0857 #

    I like the shot through the door and down to the sea – very Poldark-ian, and the bridge across to the rock looks ‘interesting’.

    The story of the conception of Arthur reminds me of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau and the ‘stolen’ birthright.

    [ I think the Duchy is held by both Charles and Camilla as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. – http://www.duchyofcornwall.org ]

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1211 #

      Charles’, too, eh? Makes sense he should be the Duke of Cornwall when she’s the Duchess, I suppose 🙂

  4. Laurel 1 April 2012 1457 #

    Gorgeous photos and such an intriguing story. I didn’t realize that it was debatable about whether King Arthur existed. I visited his Round Table in Winchester and enjoyed it. I also like the idea of drug that lets you turn into someone else, but I would have to thing who I would want to be.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1211 #

      Ooh, the Round Table in Winchester… have heard good things about Winchester, and now this. Must visit!

  5. Andrea 1 April 2012 1722 #

    Such interesting history and the ruins are so well-preserved. It’s great that you got to see these without many crowds.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1213 #

      Thanks, Andrea. It’s a fascinating area Cornwall, so full of lore.

  6. Ana (Ana Travels) 2 April 2012 0010 #

    What an interesting post, Sophie! My craving for Cornwall grows exponentially every week thanks to you 🙂
    I imagine it must be impossible to visit during July and August for the crowds.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1215 #

      Best to get there before the middle of July, I think – and then, after September.

  7. Ayngelina 2 April 2012 0046 #

    I love all those stories of King Arthur, but I didn’t realize that people disagree if he is fact or fiction. I’d like to believe it is fact as it makes ruins a bit more interesting.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1216 #

      I know what you mean, such a romantic story and better if it’s real.

  8. Angela 2 April 2012 1232 #

    This is so interesting, and your photos are beautiful, the first seems a gate to a different world!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1217 #

      Thanks, Angela 🙂

  9. Robert 2 April 2012 1239 #

    I’m completely mesmerized by that door. Fairytale magic!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1217 #

      I like that photo, too. Such an intriguing door.

  10. ItalianNotes 2 April 2012 1754 #

    Interesting stories. And what an amazing castle.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1218 #

      The whole area is full of legends. It’s wonderful.

  11. Alexa Meisler 2 April 2012 2032 #

    It’s so amazing to see that pieces of history are still around. I am a fan of the Tristan and Isolde story reminds me very much of Romeo & Juliet. I wish I could visit Tintagel someday. I love hiking and this would be a great trip to enjoy.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1219 #

      If you love hiking and history, Cornwall would be a great place for you to explore, Alexa.

  12. Christie 3 April 2012 0637 #

    Tintagel seems to be the perfect place for a an idyllic vacation. No wonder it became the setting of great stories.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 April 2012 1220 #

      Seems made for it, doesn’t it…

  13. Victor 4 April 2012 1936 #

    What a place!!! Super!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 0015 #

      Super place, indeed 🙂

  14. Leigh 5 April 2012 0420 #

    I loved the way you started the post with that fabulous shot. What a great find and such an interesting history to the area. It reminds me a bit of Ireland’s Skellig Islands. I’d love to walk around the Cornwall area -looks like the sort of walk I would thoroughly enjoy, even on a moody November day.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1854 #

      There are really excellent walks in Cornwall, along the coast, especially.

  15. Jackie Smith 5 April 2012 0437 #

    I loved the history, the story-telling and the photography. Very nice indeed!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1854 #

      Thanks, Jackie 🙂

  16. Mary @ The World Is A Book 5 April 2012 0601 #

    I love the fascinating stories and ties to King Arthur and Tristan & Isolde. This place does look magical. The pictures are beautiful especially the first one. Those stairs and that bridge look like a great place for hiking with fantastic views.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1855 #

      Cornwall is my favourite part of Britain (that I’ve seen so far, at least). Magical, indeed.

  17. Ah, one of my favorite tales…King Arthur. Your first photo is absolutely stunning. Kudos to your daughter for making it through the hike on all those stairs!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1857 #

      Haha, yes. She usually makes it through – especially when there’s some ‘motivation’ waiting at the other end 🙂

  18. Emme Rogers @ Roamancing 5 April 2012 0719 #

    So jealous! Love the King Arthur Legends and would absolutely love to go to Tintagel.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1857 #

      It’s a very romantic and dramatic place.

  19. Muza-chan 5 April 2012 0747 #

    Great article 🙂

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1857 #

      Thanks, Muza-chan.

  20. Easy Hiker 5 April 2012 0821 #

    All these tales of love and glory in Cornwall. Wonder when Hollywood will make a movie of Tristan and Isolde. If Hollywood gets its hands on it, it would surely have a hilarious ending, staring the cast of Friends, with Jennifer Aniston as Isolde and Schwimmer as Tristan. I’d love to see that movie.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1853 #

      Oh cringe! That sounds like a surrealist nightmare.

  21. Cathy Sweeney 5 April 2012 0939 #

    This is such a cool story — castle ruins, crashing waves, love and grief — oh my! Great pics to go with the story.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1858 #

      Thanks, Cathy 🙂

  22. InsideJourneys 5 April 2012 1406 #

    Man, those folks put us to shame! I’m surprised that I’d never heard the Arthur story before since I used to love reading about him when I was little – or maybe I just don’t remember. Either way, the story’s pretty fascinating and the ruins, beautiful!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 April 2012 1859 #

      I agree. It’s a fascinating story! I’ll write more about Arthur later in this Cornwall Sunday series.

  23. Sabrina 5 April 2012 1918 #

    Beautiful pics and amazing story. I loved the little summary of Tristan and Isolde… I used to live a street called Tristan 🙂 The first picture through the doof on the sea is my absolute favorite.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 6 April 2012 2238 #

      It’s an interesting legend, isn’t it? And inspiration for many others that came later.

  24. Sherry 5 April 2012 2025 #

    I think Arthur existed! His stories are too fantastic to not be real. At the very least, I believe he may have been based on a real man. But whether that is true or not, I still would love to come to these places. Certainly feels very “England” to me. In a few months I’ll be there and hoping to make a stop.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 6 April 2012 2239 #

      Oh, do try and make it to Cornwall. I think you would love it, Sherry.

  25. Fascinating! I always learn so much form your posts! I love the history that I learn!!!

    I hope you will link this up with friday Daydreamin’ – my readers would love this!


    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 6 April 2012 2230 #

      Thanks, Becca. Will link up 🙂

  26. Jessica 6 April 2012 0548 #

    I love the first picture! I just want to go through that door and see what is on the other side!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 6 April 2012 2240 #

      An intriguing construction, isn’t it…

  27. Jenna 6 April 2012 1812 #

    Wow, this is incredibly beautiful, and such interesting history, too. I would love to go there. This is what blog posts should do–inspire others! My mom is going to Cornwall this fall, so I will forward this to her.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 6 April 2012 2243 #

      Thanks, Jenna, you’re very kind. I think your mother will have a wonderful time. I’m working on 5 or 6 more Cornwall Sunday posts.

  28. Michael Figueiredo 7 April 2012 0642 #

    I haven’t heard of Tintagel before, but it sure looks beautiful! I’d love to hike along those cliffs. Great history too!

  29. Suzy 14 April 2012 0539 #

    I was at Tintagel on my first trip abroad at 8 years old. I remember buying a dragon ring at one of the shops there. Luckily my taste has changed since then. I must have wanted to get into the spirit of King Arthur with dragons. Great photographs. Takes me back to that day!

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