Uther Pendragon, by Howard Pyle (1903)
Personally, I love Arthurian Legends and there are a few places where the legends are particularly strong. Cornwall, Wales, the West Country generally and, of course, Glastonbury have a good slice of the pie in that respect and just the word ‘Tintagel’ brings visions of a dark stomy night and the strange events surrounding Arthur’s conception … There are, of course, many stories and variations on stories that claim Tintagel as the place where Arthur was either conceived, or sometimes, where he was born. The ruin that stands at Tintagel now is medieval in origin, a 13th century fortification and stronghold of the Earls of Cornwall. It perches perilously on a tiny island linked to the mainland by a narrow bridge – not for the fainthearted! Arthur is not medieval though (late 5th and 6th centuries), although most of the tales do date from these times (which is why we tend to imagine him in armour surrounded by Knights). It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who kicked the whole thing off by writing his fictional account of the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ in the 12th century and he made up all kinds of wonderful characters and tales that are now well and truly embedded in our ‘mythical history’. Incidentally, the tales concerning the Knight Lancelot and the Holy Grail stories were created by French writer Chrétien de Troyes, also in the 12th century. The tales thrived in the middle ages and are still immensely popular today. Generally, we love the idea of a King that unites us, inspires us and rules in a wise and fair way. If only ……
But, what of Tintagel? Geoffrey of Monmouth created this terrific story whereby Uther Pendragon (then King of Britain) seduces Igraine, the wife of his enemy Gorlois (Earl of Cornwall). He manages this by getting the Wizard Merlin to cast a spell so Uther will resemble Gorlois, he then enters the castle unopposed whilst Gorlois is being killed at battle elsewhere (sneaky eh?). That night Arthur is conceived and, many tales claim that 9 months later Merlin again appears at the castle to claim the child and keep him safe until it is his time to take the throne. There are other mentions of Uther, and indeed Arthur, in earlier works (mainly Welsh I believe) but they don’t include Tintagel. However, if you want a jolly good contemporary read on the Arthurian legends (very close to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’) I would recommend Mary Stewarts series of four books (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment and the final book The Wicked Day).
And while we’re at it … other spooky things that happen at Tintagel… Once a year it is said that the ruins disappear and in their place the fully restored castle in all its (13th centry?) glory can be seen . I have no idea when this takes place though, presumably its like Brigadoon and you have to be in the right place at the right time. Below the castle on the rather rocky and perilous coast is ‘Merlin’s Cave’ and the ghost of Merlin is said to haunt it….