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A Dark Age Beacon

Long shrouded in Arthurian lore, an island off the coast of Cornwall may have been the remote stronghold of early British kings


Monday, January 07, 2019

Tintagel King Arthur Headland FortificationsAt the beginning of the fifth century A.D., the people of the province of Britannia found themselves living outside the borders of the Roman Empire for the first time in more than 350 years. The previous centuries had been prosperous ones for the citizens of Rome’s most northwesterly territory, but their circumstances would soon change radically. The diverse population, made up of native Celtic Britons, the offspring of Roman soldiers, and immigrants from elsewhere in the empire, faced an uncertain future. The collapse of Roman Britain ushered in a period known in the popular imagination as the Dark Ages. It’s an era commonly thought to have been characterized by economic breakdown, cultural deterioration, and mass invasion by pagan Germanic peoples such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. After the dissolution of a central Roman ruling body, Britain began to fracture politically into several small kingdoms. Few written sources date to the time, making it one of the least documented and least understood periods in British history.


Hundreds of years later, medieval writers who chronicled early British history portrayed post-Roman Britain as a mystical time of warlords and epic battles, of monsters, dragons, and wizards. It was also the age of King Arthur, Britain’s greatest legendary hero, who was said to have led the Britons to victory against the Germanic invaders. It is difficult for scholars to disentangle the reality of life in the early Dark Ages from the many myths associated with it, as there are few established facts upon which archaeologists and historians can rely. But recent excavations on the shores of Cornwall at Tintagel Castle, a place inextricably intertwined with Arthurian legend, have revealed new evidence about life in post-Roman Britain that seems to contradict the traditional Dark Age narrative. Archaeologists now believe that here, in one of the most remote places in England, a settlement unlike any other thrived from the fifth through eighth centuries. As the new story of Tintagel shows, this era in Britain’s history was anything but dark. 


Today, the approach to Tintagel resembles something out of a fantasy movie. A sharp descent from a nearby village winds through a deep, narrow ravine before eventually leading to a small hidden cove. From there, the ruins of a castle suddenly rise up out of the Celtic Sea, seemingly out of nowhere. While Tintagel is known as an island, it is actually a craggy headland jutting out into the water, tethered to the coast by a thin, rocky spit of land. It is currently accessible only by ascending a steep, and, at times, daunting staircase. As dramatic a setting as it is, hundreds of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage here each year for another reason—to follow in King Arthur’s footsteps. Arthur’s association with Tintagel Castle dates back nearly a thousand years. The British cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth’s widely read twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain records that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel Castle, the product of a duplicitous union between Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, and Ygerna, Duchess of Cornwall (see “Was There a Real King Arthur?”). Although little is known about Monmouth himself, his epic book propelled him into the role of de facto national historian of England. His Arthurian tales were particularly popular with the literate upper classes. In fact, most of the standing remains visible at Tintagel belong to a thirteenth-century medieval castle that was directly inspired by the legend. One of Europe’s wealthiest men, Richard, Earl of Cornwall and brother of King Henry III, reportedly read Monmouth’s account and was moved to build a romanticized fantasy castle on the supposed spot of King Arthur’s conception.

Was There A Real King Arthur?

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