King Arthur in Cornwall
King Arthur is one of the most enduring British legends. The Celtic warrior king and his stand against the Saxon invaders have inspired a continuous retelling of the tale since time immemorial. But in reality very little is known about Arthur, including whether he ever actually existed.
Much of what we 'know' about King Arthur originates from the romantic re-interpretations of the story through the centuries. A good deal of this can be traced back to the Welsh Cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and his 12th century "History of the Kings of Britain". And it was this same historic work that was the first to cite Cornwall as the place where King Arthur was conceived.
In reality there is very little in the way of concrete evidence about the life of Arthur and much of what we have to go on are the fanciful tales of Geoffrey and Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century "The Death of Arthur". It is from this later work that many of the Arthurian legends originate. But whilst these tales of Guinevere, Lancelot and Excalibur may continue to fascinate they are very thin on the details of where these legendary events took place.
North Cornwall in particular has become entwined in the legends of King Arthur with sites linked to not only his birth but his death and some important events in between. Below we have listed some of the most notable Arthurian sites in Cornwall.
Nowhere in Cornwall is as intimately linked to the Arthurian legend as Tintagel Castle. For this is where it is said that King Arthur was conceived with a little help from the sorcery of Merlin.
The story, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth goes that the magician Merlin disguises King Uther Pendragon as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, who "visits" his wife Igraine at their Tintagel stronghold. Gorlois had hidden Igraine in the clifftop castle to protect her from Uther and his army, but sadly for him, Merlin's magic was too strong for mortals to overcome. In later tellings of the story the baby Arthur is also born within the walls of this impenetrable fortress.
In terms of evidence there isn't really that much to support Tintagel Castle's place in Arthurian lore (but the same goes for most places). The remains of the castle here actually date back to the 13th century and are the work of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Given the lack of strategic position it is thought that the castle was more a fantasy folly, probably inspired by the tales of Arthur. Whatever the case there is no denying this is a truly magical location and the atmosphere may persuade you even if the facts don't.
The tiny village of Slaughterbridge lies a few miles inland from Tintagel. Set in woodland along the banks of the River Camel it is also home to the Vale of Avalon, Arthurian Centre. There is a reason for this, for it is claimed that Slaughterbridge was the site of the Battle of Camlann in 537 where King Arthur was mortally wounded by Mordred.
In the legend the battle here was so fierce that the river turned red with the blood of the dead, while Arthur and Mordred fought with swords on the bridge. Although Arthur killed Mordred he had himself been wounded by Mordred's poisoned blade and was himself dead within minutes.
There is evidence that Slaughterbridge was the site of an ancient battle but the most compelling link to the death of the legendary king is the presence of the Arthur Stone. Set next to the river this inscribed stone bears text in a mixture of Latin and Celtic ogham reading "Latinus son of Macarus lies here". This more likely refers to a 6th century Celtic chieftain than Arthur.
One of the best known tales from the Arthurian legend is that of the 'Lady of the Lake' and the sword 'Excalibur'. After Arthur damages his sword in a fight against King Pellinore he is taken to a lake by Merlin. From the lake emerges the ethereal lady and presents Arthur with the magical Excalibur in exchange for a promise that he will fulfill any request from her at a later time. It is worth pointing out that the sword Arthur draws from the stone was not Excalibur, but another set there by Merlin to test the rightful king.
The second part of the story of the Lady of the Lake follows the Battle of Camlann with Arthur dying. The tale tells of Sir Belvedere returning Excalibur to whence it came - throwing the sword into the lake only for a hand to reach up and catch it and return it to the depths. Soon after a black boat arrives carrying a number of magical maidens including Morgan Le Fay. They take the body of Arthur and take it to the mystical isle of Avalon.
A number of locations are associated with the "Lady's Lake". Near the top of the list, and close to many of the other sites in Cornwall, is Dozmary Pool. This small lake is set at the heart of Bodmin Moor and has something of an air of mystery and melancholy about it making it the perfect location for the Arthurian tale.
Located on the main road just outside of Fowey is this 7 feet tall inscribed stone. This is not, however, the stone's original location - it was originally sited close to the hillfort of Castle Dore, said to be the home of King Mark of Cornwall in the 5th century. Known as the Tristan Stone the legend is that is a memorial to Sir Tristan, one of Arthur's knights and the nephew of King Mark.
The inscription on the stone reads "Drustans hic iacet Cunomori filius", which means: Drustanus lies here, the son of Cunomorus. Drustan is known to be a variant of the name Tristan, whilst Cunomorus may be a convoluted reference to King Mark.
The story of Tristan and Iseult is one of tragic love. He was sent to Ireland to escort his uncle's beautiful bride-to-be, Isolde, to Cornwall. On the voyage back Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank a love potion, intended for the wedding, mistaking it for wine. After this the couple fell unbreakably in love.
Although Isolde married the king the affair continued until Mark found out. Tristan was banished whereupon he became a member of King Arthur's court.
The mythical land of Lyonesse is said to have stretched from Land's End, on the western tip of Cornwall, to the Isles of Scilly, around 30 miles away. It was a beautiful place with fertile plains, 140 churches and the wonderful 'City of Lions', Carlyon. Some say this fine city was located around the Seven Stones reef, upon which a great cathedral or castle was built. The legend also says that the land of Lyonesse was swallowed back into the ocean in a single night never to be seen again.
Lyonesse's connection with the Arthurian legend are twofold. Firstly as the kingdom of Meliodas who was the father of Sir Tristan. Although Tristan was heir to these lands he never became king as he was away serving his uncle, King Mark, when Lyonesse sank below the waves.
The fabled land of is also more directly connected to King Arthur and this is reflected in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The poem tells of how Arthur's men fled westwards to Lyonesse after the Battle of Camlann pursued by Mordred's army. The King's men reached the Isles of Scilly as Merlin used his sorcery to make the sea rise up an engulf Mordred's men.
St Nectan's Glen sits at the head of a picturesque wooded valley just outside Tintagel. The most stunning feature is the Kieve, a deep basin carved into the slate by the waterfall over the milenia which empties through a hole in the rocks.
The site gets its name from a sixth century saint who is said to have lived in a hermitage cell here. However, the site has been regarded as sacred even before the days of St Nectan, with the basin of the kieve a place of healing and worship.
It is said that this holy site was where the Knights of the Round Table were blessed before setting out on the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Not far from many of the locations in this article is the remote, bleak upland of Bodmin Moor. This is a strangely beautiful place that is steeped in legend and history.
Despite its inhospitable nature the moor was one of the most populated places in Cornwall in ancient times. The area is littered with the remains of ancient settlements and some fascinating archaeological sites. Given the proximity to Arthurian country it is maybe not surprising that a number of these megalithic structures have come to be associated with the legend.
Perhaps most notable of these sites is Trethevy Quoit near Liskeard. Also known as King Arthur's Quoit this most impressive burial chamber stands over 15 feet tall and its huge capstone has a circular hole in, the hows and whys of which remain a mystery. Dating back to the Bronze Age it seems unlikely that there is a genuine connection with the 6th century king.
There are other places on Bodmin Moor named after Arthur; King Arthur's Bed is a natural rock formation whilst King Arthur's Hall is a strange rectangular formation of over fifty stones. According to a document from the 1950s it is said that Arthur was known to frequent the latter of the two sites.
Roche Rock is a rather striking spot; a 20 metre (66ft) block of granite rising straight out of the moorland north of St Austell would be a landmark in its own right. But to add extra drama to this rugged location there are the remains of a 15th century chapel clinging to the rocks.
It is likely the site had some religious significance long before the current chapel was built. It was first suggested by historian EMR Ditmas that the Roche Rock may have been the home of the hermit Ogrin who played a role in the story of Arthur's knight Sir Tristan and his lover Iseult.
The story goes that after escaping a furious King Mark the two lovers sought refuge with Ogrin in his chapel on Roche Rock. A further possibility is that the chapel is the site of "Tristan's Leap" where our hero jumps from the window after being locked in by King Mark's soldiers.
The historic town of Camelford sits on the northern edge of Bodmin Moor, a couple of miles inland from Tintagel and very close to Slaughterbridge. Given its proximity to all these other sites linked with the Arthurian legends it is not surprising that this North Cornwall town has some bold claims of its own.
It is possible that the connection is as simple as the name sounding similar, but it has been suggested that Camelford was the site of King Arthur's legendary fortress, Camelot. Sadly, there is very little in the way of evidence to back this claim up.
The facade of the fairly conventional looking granite building towards the end of Tintagel's high street gives no indication that within are King Arthur's Great Halls. Now, nobody is saying that this is in anyway an authentic Arthurian site, but on the other hand, for anyone with an interest in the legends this is unmissable. In fact for anyone visiting Tintagel it is worth a look.
The Halls consist of, among other things, a round table, granite thrown and more than 70 stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Arthurian legends. It is claimed that this is the only entire building dedicated to the legend of King Arthur to be found anywhere. The Halls are the brainchild of businessman Frederick Glasscock who became captivated with the Arthurian story after visiting Tintagel. King Arthur's Great Halls were opened in 1933 since when it has been visited by over 2 million people.
Other sites linked to King Arthur
There are a number of other sites, mostly in North Cornwall, which have been linked to the story of King Arthur. These include:
- Castle Dore
This Iron Age hillfort near Fowey is said to have been the home of King Mark of Cornwall, the uncle of Sir Tristan.
The dramatic harbour village is one of several places cited as the place Arthur's body was taken after the Battle of Camlann. From here he was transported across the water to the mythical island of Avalon.
- Castle an Dinas
Another Iron Age hillfort, Castle an Dinas sits on high ground between Newquay and St Austell. One of the largest and most impressive hillforts in Cornwall it was reputedly Arthur's hunting lodge.
- Loe Pool
This large lake near Helston is another possible location for the Lady of the Lake story. In Arthur's time the lake would have been open to the sea, so it is also possibly where he was ferried to Avalon from.
- Bossiney Mound
This large hump is thought to have been part of a Norman castle, however it is likely the site predates this. In the Arthurian story the mound is believed to contain King Arthur's golden Round Table. This is said to rise up every midsummer's night and let out a flash which illuminates the sky.