Arthurian England Part 6: Tintagel – Legendary Birthplace of Arthur

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

The story of Arthur’s conception at Tintagel comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. In it, Tintagel was the seat of the King Goloris and his wife, Iggraine. High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, falls in love with Iggraine on first sight. When Goloris is killed in battle, Merlin casts a spell on Uther to make him look like Goloris. He enters the castle unquestioned and sleeps with Iggraine, who conceives Arthur. Nine months later, when the child is born, Merlin comes to Tintagel to spirit Arthur away to safety. Thus, does this impressive castle enter Arthurian legend.

Tres and me high on the cliffs

Tres and me high on the cliffs

Yes, you have to walk up all of those and more to get to the castle.

Yes, you have to walk up all of those and more to get to the castle.

The Tintagel of today is definitely an imposing structure. Situated high (and I mean high) on the Cornish coast, the visible ruins are all that is left of a 12th century castle. To get there, you have to walk up a crazy series of stairways that jut this way and that, and many of the steps are uneven and difficult for a 5’1” person to get up. (My calf muscles will never be the same!) But it is all worth it when you get to the top. In addition to the monastery ruins, there are several stone foundations of early Celtic settlements, where you can see where different buildings, even different rooms would have been. These, wisely, are on the part of the cliff most sheltered from the unforgiving wind.

Some of the Celtic settlements

Some of the Celtic settlements

A few other attractions up top are an ancient, acoustically perfect cavern that no one knows the purpose of. It’s speculated it was for ritual. The walls were hand dug, but are so smooth, they appear machine made. Then there is a flat piece of rock with nearly perfect circles carved into it. Again, no one knows the purpose (ancient cup holders? :)).

King Arthur's footprint

King Arthur’s footprint

Getting back to King Arthur, there’s a rock with an impression in it called King Arthur’s footprint, where, legend says, he was crowned and symbolically married to the land. It does indeed look like a large man’s foot made the impression. You can put your own foot in it, too. Not far away, just off the coast, is a triangular island known as Merlin’s hat.

Inside Merlin's Cave

Inside Merlin’s Cave

The view out from Merlin's Cave

The view out from Merlin’s Cave

Far below are several caves, only one of which actually connects to the mainland. That cave is known as Merlin’s cave, home of the legendary enchanter. It floods at high tide, which we witnessed, since the tide came in while we were there. It is a beautiful cave, with a vertical fissure that lets in the light. It may or may not be magical, but I did capture an orb in a photograph there, the only one in over 1,000 photos.

Merlin's Cave from above

Merlin’s Cave from above

We went swimming in the water just outside of the cave, which was so cold it hurt your feet. Well, Jamie was the only one brave enough to actually swim. I clung to the rocks (which had algae that felt like Astroturf) like a mermaid, only daring to get about waist deep when the waves splashed me. My friend Tres waded out to a waterfall to get a closer look and said she couldn’t feel the lower half of her body when she came back.

The Camelot Castle Hotel

The Camelot Castle Hotel

I have to put in a plug for the Camelot Castle Hotel, where we stayed during our time in Tintagel. There are a lot of negative stories about it on the Internet, but I truly enjoyed my time there. It’s a fancy hotel on top of the cliffs that is currently undergoing a five-year renovation. I paid for an upgraded room, which I would recommend to anyone staying there. My room had a four poster bed and a bathtub that was big enough to swim in! (I kept wanting to quote Pretty Woman: “His bathtub is bigger than the Blue Banana!”) Plus, it had a private balcony overlooking both the ocean and a labyrinth carved into the grass below. I went out on the balcony after dark to look at the stars and was blown away by how many more you can see than in the city. It was a spiritual experience.

Sunset from our hotel, overlooking Tintagel Castle

Sunset from our hotel, overlooking Tintagel Castle

The food is also very good and we got to meet the artist in residence. He’s very kind, maybe a little eccentric (aren’t we all), but I really liked him. I even bought one of his paintings that I fell in love with. And I don’t ever do that – that is the only piece of real art I own.

So, what do you think of Tintagel? Is it Arthur’s birthplace? I have my doubts, but I’d love to hear what you think. Have you been there? What was your experience like?

On Site in England: The Next Best Thing to Going Back in Time

The area of my trip.

Where I’ll be for the next 2 weeks

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the frantic final throes of packing or blissfully winging my way across the Atlantic. That’s because I have the opportunity of a lifetime: taking a tour of England that is all based around Arthurian legend!

I’ve been dreaming about taking this tour since I first heard about it a few years ago. The leader is the guy who helped Marion Zimmer Bradley research the Mists of Avalon (which is what inspired me to write my books). We will have special guests on parts of the tour, including internationally renowned Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe, modern-day Bard Kevan Manwaring, and other scholars on mythology and ancient sacred sites. Poor Mr. Ashe has no idea what he’s in for – a whole lot of questions about how to attack and defend a hill fort, plus anything else I can think of. His is a brain I can’t wait to pick!

Anyway, since I’m going to be gone two weeks, there will be no new posts here until June 16, which is our two year blogiversary! After that, I’ll do a series on sites from my trip and things I learned about the legends. Here’s a preview, by way of the itinerary of my trip:

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Day 1: Travel to London, then to Whewell on the way to Glastonbury (which will be in all three books of my trilogy).

Day 2: Tour Glastonbury, including Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn, drinking from Chalice Well, climbing the Tor and visiting Glastonbury Abbey.

Day 3: Visit Cadbury castle, one of the sites thought to be home to Camelot. (This is one of the settings in book 2.) See the ancient Druid oaks of Gog and Magog.

Day 4: Travel to Cornwall, stopping at the holy well of St. Clether. Tour Tinagel castle and Merlin’s Cave. (I can’t wait for you guys to see where we’re staying in Tintagel. It’s breathtaking!)

Day 5: Visit the faerie glen of St. Nectan, the village of Boscatle and Rocky Valley (which has two Bronze Age carvings in a Cretan labyrinth).

Day 6: Head to Penzance and St. Michael’s Mount. Quality time by the sea.

Day 7: Take in the stone circles of Boscowen-un and the Merry Maidens, along with the stone monoliths called The Pipers. Visit the holy wells Madron and Sancreed.

Day 8: Visit haunted Bodmin Moor and the area made famous by Daphne Du Maurier. (I’m very excited about this because I want to write a gothic fantasy someday and am hoping to get the thread a of plot based in local legend.) Spend time in Dartmoor and Marlborough.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 9: Journey to Stonehenge for private access inside the stone circle to witness a real Druid sunrise ritual. Meet J.P. Reedman, who I interviewed, and whose book, Stone Lord, I reviewed. Visit Avebury – the largest stone circle in the world – West Kennet long barrow – the largest burial mound in Europe – and Silbury Hill.

Day 10: Travel back home, no doubt in awe and incredibly grateful for all I’ve seen.

This trip includes several items on my Bucket List. There are no words for how excited I am. I can’t even believe this is really happening. This is invaluable research for my books, a precious networking opportunity with Arthurian scholars and just plain fun for a geek like me. I won’t have Internet access while I’m there, but you’ll get plenty of photos and stories when I get back. I hope you all have fun while I’m gone. I’d tell you to behave, but I know my readers better than that!

What Did Camelot Really Look Like?

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

When I say the word “Camelot” what do you think of?

Probably a grandiose medieval castle made of stone with turrets and spires, something out of a fairy tale. And that is how it has been portrayed in drawings, movies and TV shows.

(Full disclosure, my Camelot does have some of these elements, but I’ve also given you a logical explanation of why it could be possible. In that, I’m invoking the fantasy side of the genre of historical fantasy. But all of the other castles in my books are true to the time period.)

But the reality of Celtic castles, if we assume King Arthur lived somewhere in the late fifth to early sixth century, is very different. In fact, the word “castle” really doesn’t even accurately describe them. They were more like fortifications than homes. For the most part, rulers didn’t have permanent residence there. The castles were protection for the surrounding populous and their livestock in case of attack.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Celtic castles were likely hillforts, which kind of resemble what would later become the motte and bailey style of castle. They were based on large earthenwork hills. The castle itself was at the top in the center, surrounded by one or more wooden palisades, and usually at least one earthen wall or ditch. There are many where the hill is terraced and each terrace has wooden walls and earthen ditches or ramparts to make it even more difficult for the enemy to succeed in siege.

The castle itself was likely to be wooden because timber was readily available. The exception is that stone was plentiful in Highland Scotland, and some British rulers, especially on the western coast, were thought to have fortified their wooden castles using stone. But they didn’t build them the way we picture until the 10th century. In fact, castles as we think of them didn’t come into prominence until the reign of Edward I, who is credited with building the great castles of Northern Wales.

These hillforts would have been defended with arrows, swords, axes and spears, along with sling shots. In order to conquer one, the enemy (depending on what technology they had available) may have used ballista bolts in addition to pure manpower.

Examples of hillforts in Arthurian legend include Traprain Law (King Lot’s capital in Lothian), Badon (if one takes Solsbury Hill outside of Bath to be the location of the battle of mount Badon), Maiden Castle (which is linked to several Arthurian stories), and Cadbury (which Geoffrey Ashe and many other scholars believe is the true location of Camelot).

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur's birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur’s birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what about Tintagel, you might ask?  It’s the most famous surviving castle linked to Arthurian legend (Arthur’s birthplace) and it’s made of stone. We know the site was occupied during what I’ll call the Arthurian period, but the castle itself dates to the 13th century. I’ll be visiting Tintagel in less than a month, so I can tell you more when I get back.

PS – Scholars can’t agree on if Camelot existed, much less where. Someday I’ll do a post on some of the possible locations. What I’ve described here is typical of the time period, but we may never know for sure what Camelot really looked like.

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Sources
British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam
Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennett and Jim Bradbury, et al
There are probably more because I wrote most of this post from memory. Please check my research page for more possible sources.

How do you picture Camelot? What have you seen portrayed in movies, books or TV? Are there any other Arthurian castles you’re curious about?