Where was King Arthur Really Born?

July 15, 2018

 

         About six hundred years after the death of King Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth identified the wind tossed headland fort at Tintagel in North Cornwell as his place of conception. There are eighty hill forts in Cornwall so why did Geoffrey choose this one? The most obvious answer is that if ever a ruin looks Arthurian, this ruin looks the part. It is a craggy mound of splintered grey rock on a small peninsular that is endlessly pounded by the Atlantic’s grey waves and behind it at the base of the crag is a tidal cavern now called Merlin’s Cave which is said to be haunted by the ancient wizard.

 

Over the last eighty years there have been numerous archaeological digs at the site and what have they discovered? The first three or four found an ancient monastery and a castle built in the thirteenth century by Richard, the Duke of Cornwall and occupied in the 1230’s. But in the last ten years, with more sophisticated and careful excavations, an older structure of the late fifth century and the early sixth century has been unearthed. And these fit King Arthur’s approximate dates. This dwelling had substantial stone walls, and well-laid slate floors and the people who lived there ate well: oysters, roasted pork, lamb and beef and they drank fine wines. They imported Mediterranean oils and used pottery crafted in today’s Turkey. So, has King Arthur or his parents been discovered at Tintagel?

 

I would advise them to keep digging. Why?  Because despite Tintagel’s spectacular setting it would not have made strategic sense for Gorlois, the husband of the mother of King Arthur and the warlord to the kings of Devon and Cornwall, to be living there. Yes, Tintagel has a small ocean harbour which could receive luxury goods, but it has no river access, and despite its exposed position it has limited views of the coastline from were sea-borne enemies could attack, unseen. Nor is there any evidence discovered so far that Tintagel was ever heavily fortified. But one of the most persuasive arguments is that warlords from political necessity had to live closer to where their lord and masters lived. And Tintagel is at least 60 miles away from Fowey the home of King Mark. So where was Arthur born?

 

The Rumps, a twin headland six miles down the coast towards Padstow is a more likely site even though it sounds more like a place for a barbeque than a royal palace for the birth of the king.

 

 

Gorlois, the warlord was a man with many enemies, and therefore he wanted to ensure that his lovely trophy wife, Ygern, and his two stunning daughters, Morgana and Morgause, were safe and secure when he was away for months at a time rampaging and pillaging. The Rumps was a far better choice for him than Tintagel.  Not only did it give him a place for display but it oozed power. It was an Iron Age Fort on the headlands of the strategically important and entirely passable Camel River and protected by a narrow neck guarded by four ramparts. Besides being one of the most spectacular sites in Cornwall, Gorlois had unobstructed ocean views up and down the Atlantic coast and of the busy Padstow harbour below him. From there he could glimpse the main ancient traffic route across the spine of Cornwall over Bodmin Moor that led to the home of his employer, King Mark at Castle Dore.

 

In the Arthurian legend, at a time around 460, Gorlois was away and Uther Pendragon, the red-haired son of a king Constantine, and the brother of another king, Ambrosius Aurelianus, was feverous from his infatuation with Ygern. Guided by Merlin, to Gorlois home at The Rumps, he would have seen a stronghold built of timber, not unlike the forts the Americans built at the Alamo. Assisted by Merlin’s enchantment, Uther is disguised to look like Gorlois, and after gaining access to the fort he seduces the fooled Ygern. From their union, the illegitimate Arthur will be born and being illegitimate he will not be able to inherit the kingship. He will, instead have to rely on the wiles and trickery of Merlin to gain the throne of Britain.

 

But the story of magic and seduction does not end there. When Arthur becomes King his wife, Guinevere is herself seduced by Lancelot, a great warrior and beloved friend of the king. It has tragic consequences. This story reminds us to a very similar tale of King Mark at Castle Dore when Sir Tristan, one of the knights of the Round Table and a nephew of the king is asked by him to escort his fiancé from Ireland to Castle Dore. He falls in love with Isolde, with tragic consequences. Wagner wrote a beautiful opera about their fate. Don’t you love Arthurian stories?

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