Now that most of the hordes of sightseers who flock to Tintagel to commune with King Arthur have better things to do, it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the proper significance of this iconic site. While it has no significance at all for English heritage, it has major, if still not fully understood, significance for Cornish heritage.
We have to forget its present marketing as a commercial tourist honeypot and home of Arthurian fantasy. The castle remains point to the earlier role of Tintagel, as a symbolic centre of great importance. When Earl Richard planted his castle there in the 1200s it had no military point, but was instead a massive folly, built to symbolise the earldom’s control over Cornwall, squatting on a revered site for the Cornish.
The real importance of Tintagel lies in a period 800 years earlier, and 250-350 years before the English arrived at the Tamar. Even before then it had some sort of special meaning for the Romans, who took the trouble of constructing some way-markers on the route to the place.
The astounding fact is that this inhospitable spot has provided archaeologists with more sherds of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean pottery than any other site in the British Isles. Far more. More goods passed through it than any other place between around 450 and 550. Tintagel was at that time the primary site of a trading system that stretched far up the Atlantic coast and back to the eastern Mediterranean. It was the gateway through which the remnants of the Roman Empire maintained contact with the Christian parts of Britain.
It doesn’t end there. Tintagel was some sort of royal citadel, the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribute centres. It may well have been the geographical centre of the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, or Greater Cornubia, one that in the 500s organised the colonisation of parts of what was to become Brittany.
Look beyond its present condition and the twaddle peddled to tourists. Tintagel speaks to us down the centuries of a time when Cornwall was at the centre of the Atlantic world, not a marginalised periphery of England. It deserves to be remembered as such.