A Place of Legends - Rumored to Be the Birthplace of a Factual King Arthur, the Windswept Ruins of Tintagel Castle on England's Cornwall Coast Mystify and Intrigue Historians and True Believers in the Arthurian Legend

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The wind is blowing so hard outside my bedroom window that the glass is rattling to the point of shattering in the old wooden pane. The bed underneath me shudders violently, along with the walls and floor. Shrieking gales and thunder startle me awake over and over, echoing on the rocks below the eighteenth-century house.

Wide awake in the middle of the night, covers to my chin, I'm reminded that Atlantic storms like this have drowned entire towns along Britain's Cornwall coast--along with major tracts of land and thriving ports. I recall the legend that some kingdoms were submerged as punishment for their sins. Not too far from this house--perched on a seaside cliff in the tiny enclave of Tintagel--the whole settlement of Lyonesse was washed from neighboring Wales into the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Although legends are just that--fanciful remembrances of both fact and fantasy transformed by centuries of adaptation--they remain eternal. And no legend remains as strong as that of King Arthur: a man who, throughout history, has played an important role in both European literature and British history. Those who believe Arthur truly lived think he was born at Tintagel. The dramatic battle of the wind and sea convinces me that the legend has plausibility.

First mentions of Arthur are found in writings from the ninth century, most notably History of the Britons by the cleric Nennius, who lists Arthur as the victor in twelve battles. The more widely known story is included in the supposedly fictional twelfth- century History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Supposedly Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, had prophesied certain events, which gave him credibility with King Uther Pendragon of Britain. The king fancied a certain Igraine Gorlois, wife of the duke of Cornwall. Aware of this, the duke had strategically hidden his beautiful wife on the island of Tintagel, a natural fortress with only one rocky path as access. Merlin agreed to change King Pendragon into the likeness of the duke--gaining him access to the duke's wife--if the child conceived from that coupling was released to Merlin's guardianship. The king spent an entire night with Igraine at Tintagel, and the legendary Arthur was conceived.

The castle ruins

Below the cliff where I'm staying this stormy night is Merlin's Cave, where, legend has it, Arthur was schooled in the ways of magic and purpose of his knighthood. Above the cave, the ruins of Tintagel castle have withstood the Atlantic's wrath since the twelfth century. This enormous and mysterious site has been excavated, researched, and analyzed by dozens of experts, who disagree about the findings.

Responsibility for the castle was transferred from the duchy of Cornwall to the government's Office of Works in 1929. An archaeological dig begun that year was led by respected historian Ralegh Radford, who deduced that the castle had been built by Richard, the young earl of Cornwall, in approximately 1233. The History of the Kings of Britain, which specified Tintagel as Arthur's birthplace, was written almost a century before he undertook the project. Some speculate that Richard built Tintagel because of the chivalry and heroism attributed to the site in the story. Earl Richard--the brother of King Henry III--was determined to rule the Holy Roman Empire. Construction of a magnificent castle on a legendary piece of ground may have been his way of manifesting that goal.

For hundreds of years, Tintagel remained mysterious and was used little by subsequent earls of Cornwall. More tales of Arthur were created by Sir Thomas Malory in his Le Morte D'Arthur. Only in the late sixteenth century were the accounts of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table converted from manuscripts to actual printed books.

As history became firmly entwined with legend, the story gained a much broader audience. In 1699, the first large-scale printed map of Cornwall featured "King Arthur's Castle. …