King Arthur’s Tintagel

Engraving of Tintagel by Samuel Buck, 1734

Tintagel has been associated with King Arthur for a millennium, particularly after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote and published his History of the Kings of Britain in the early 12th century. Though now often claimed as the site of Arthur’s court or castle, Geoffrey cited Tintagel merely as the site of Arthur’s conception.


Uthr, Uthyr, Uther

Uther Pendragon, whose last name derives from a Welsh title pen dragon or pen draig (‘head dragon’ or ‘chief warrior’), is a rather strange and shadowy figure. His chief claims to fame are his sobriquet Pendragon and his being the father of King Arthur. In the 11th-century Welsh poem numbered 31 in the Black Book of CarmarthenPa Gur (‘Which man?’) — he appears as uthir pen dragon, a warrior whose servant is in Arthur’s retinue: uthr in modern Welsh means wonderful or terrible, perhaps even awesome in the sense of ‘producing awe’. [1]

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c 1095-1155) the name Pendragon came from a comet which supposedly gave Uther victory over the Saxons. [2] Geoffrey may have had in mind a comet of 508 with several tails, or may even himself have remembered a spectacularly brilliant comet of 1106, noted in a Welsh chronicle as “a star wonderful to behold, throwing out behind it a beam of light of the thickness of a pillar in size and of exceeding brightness, foreboding what would come to pass in the future”. [3]

The word dragon in Welsh seems to have been a customary title for a warrior, however, as Maelgwn of Gwynedd (d 547) was called by his contemporary Gildas ‘the dragon of the island’, insularis draco (possibly Gildas meant the isle of Anglesey). [4] A plausible suggestion has been that Uther is therefore a ‘ghost’ and that the person in Arthur’s retinue mentioned in Pa Gur is merely the servant of uthir pen dragon, the ‘fierce chief warrior’.

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Changing History?

The ‘Arthur Stone’, a drain cover from Tintagel Island with 7th-century inscriptions

Slap-bang in the the middle of the silly season in 1998 Tintagel became a focus of interest with news of its so-called ‘Arthur Stone’. As the dust settled it became time to see what the fuss was about, examine its significance and assess the reaction.

A team from the Archaeology Department of Glasgow University, led by Professor Christopher Morris, had been re-evaluating Ralegh Radford’s pre-war excavations at Tintagel Island, Cornwall; the project was commissioned by English Heritage who are guardians of the site, itself owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Radford’s Site C is a terrace situated between the sea and the main plateau, on the north-eastern side of the promontory. On a nearby terrace Morris’ team had already discovered occupation from the late Roman to the 7th century, with evidence of cremation and sherds of imported East Mediterranean ware. Undisturbed, under Radford’s Site C, were further deposits, including drains running around the southwest corner. Re-used as a cover to the later of two drains was a piece of slate.

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