The timeless legends of King Arthur and his brave knights live on in the magical landscapes of North Cornwall
Words by Natasha Foges
Knights and dragons, warriors and wizards, swords and stones: the ancient myths and legends of King Arthur are tales of storybook valour that have sparked imaginations for centuries.
The timeless stories are known the world over. Brave King Arthur presides over the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table in the court of Camelot, defeating the invading Saxons and rescuing many a damsel in distress.
Mortally wounded in battle, King Arthur is taken to the mysterious Isle of Avalon, where the ‘once and future king’ has slumbered with his knights ever since. The British Isles are scattered with sites linked to the Arthurian legend, but few places can rival the romance and mystery of Tintagel, on Cornwall’s wild north coast.
Perched high on a craggy, sea-lashed headland and accessed via a dramatic footbridge, the ruined castle here swirls with the stories of Arthur’s magical conception. It’s not hard to imagine the life of the heroic king beginning here, in this mystical and elemental place.
According to the account of the 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was at Tintagel that the wizard Merlin disguised King Uther Pendragon as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, so that Uther might seduce the duke’s wife Igraine, leading to Arthur’s birth. Arthur later became the king of Britain after the murder of his father…and the rest is history (or not).
Geoffrey of Monmouth probably drew on Tintagel’s past as a seat of Cornish rulers when writing his fanciful tales. From the 5th to the 7th centuries there is evidence of a thriving and prosperous settlement at Tintagel, which traded closely with the Mediterranean world. It was likely to have been a stronghold of the ancient rulers of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), one of several royal sites across Britain.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book was read far and wide, and Tintagel’s new-found literary fame almost certainly swayed Richard, Earl of Cornwall to build his cliff-top castle here in the 1230s; it is the relics of this ancient fortress that you can see today.
History and legend have become intertwined over the centuries, imbuing the ancient site with drama and intrigue. Look out for Gallos, a larger-than-life bronze sculpture inspired by Tintagel’s ancient royal rulers, and Arthur himself; and on the beach below the castle, Merlin’s Cave, where the wizard is said to have hidden the young Arthur and prepared him for kingship.
Whether fact, fiction or somewhere in between, the legend of King Arthur forms a large part of Tintagel’s allure. It’s no surprise that over the years, devotees of the legend have traced Arthur’s story to other sites nearby. The King Arthur trail weaves through the fabled Cornish landscape, joining the dots between the Arthurian myths and bringing them thrillingly to life.
In the pretty town of Tintagel – where inevitably the shops on the high street are not short of Arthurian knick-knacks – you can visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. This handsome stone building may have little claim to authenticity, but fans of the legend will find a meticulously assembled tribute to the court of Camelot, built in 1933 by Frederick Thomas Glasscock, a custard millionaire. A passionate student of Arthurian legend, Glasscock built the building as the headquarters of the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table. He commissioned a sequence of over 70 stained-glass windows depicting the myths, as well as recreations of King Arthur’s throne and ‘Round Table’.
This is an extract of an article printed in the latest issue of BRITAIN (July/August 2022).
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