The dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle sit atop craggy hills with waves crashing against steep cliffs. Dating from the 13th century, the fortress is located in the far south-west of England in the county of Cornwall. It’s a fascinating remnant from the Middle Ages. But it also looms large in the British imagination as the dramatic site of the legendary King Arthur’s life and times, the monarch who presided over the Knights of the Round Table.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
King Arthur’s story — first recorded in detail by a Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in 1136 — spread across Britain and medieval Europe as an exciting tale of knights, battles and fair maidens. Even today, the tales of Arthur’s bravery echo around the world. As many as 250,000 make the pilgrimage to Tintagel Castle each year to marvel at the purported stronghold of King Arthur and his nobles.
Truths, half-truths and warring historians
But there’s a huge question mark over this early British king. Did he actually exist? That’s a mystery that still exercises historians today. We’ll start on a journey of discovery by tracing Arthur’s history as closely as we can. But as we’ll see, separating fact from fiction when it comes to King Arthur is no simple task. It’s a labyrinth of truths, half-truths and warring historians.
What is probably the very earliest reference to a warrior king called Arthur comes in a poem called Y Gododdin, perhaps written in 638 A.D. That’s only about 100 years after Arthur is said to have lived, making it almost contemporary compared to some sources. But the only surviving copy of this work actually dates from six centuries after that. So there has to be a question mark over how trustworthy this late copy is.
A monk called Nennius
Judging the authenticity and accuracy of ancient documents is a problem that dogs efforts to establish the truth about Arthur. Another work, said to be by a monk called Nennius, describes Arthur as a British warrior who defended his homeland against the invading Saxons. But it was written circa 828, some 300 years after Arthur was supposed to have died in battle. The oldest version we have of that comes from three centuries later.