Castles were never just defensive structures. They were also centres of administration and justice, but above all they were the power bases and homes of the feudal elite.
Their design reflects the concerns and interests of their royal and aristocratic owners, including their literary interests. Many castles were associated with the stories of King Arthur and the evidence can sometimes be seen in their fabric or in artefacts associated with them.
Winchester Castle is now almost destroyed except for its great hall, which still holds the massive Round Table, probably made in about 1290 during the reign of King Edward I, who was an Arthurian enthusiast. It was probably used during Arthurian tournaments, games and pageants.
Dunstanburgh Castle was built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster, cousin of King Edward II, in the early 14th century. He led opposition to the unpopular king and had ambitions to obtain the throne himself. He was known to his confederates as ‘Roi Arthur’.
Lakes were created around Dunstanburgh, echoing the literary convention of water surrounding Arthurian castles and Arthur’s final resting place in the Isle of Avalon.
At Windsor, King Edward III held a great tournament in 1344 and announced the formation of a new Order of the Round Table. He began to build a large Round Table House for it, but work was soon abandoned and in 1348 the more exclusive Order of the Garter was founded instead.
The castle which is today most closely associated with King Arthur is Tintagel. In the medieval period, however, it was the Cornish legend of Tristan and Yseult, rather than stories of Arthur, that resonated at Tintagel.
In the 13th century Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, built into the landscape surrounding his symbolic castle a ‘chapel-on-the-rocks’, a garden and even a cave – all crucial elements of the Tristan and Iseult story.
Whether these were presented to visitors as the ‘real’ places mentioned in the legend, or whether they were the scenes for promenade dramas is not known but medieval royalty enjoyed games, performances and re-enactments of legendary events, so the idea of actors playing out the stories is not unlikely.
Read more about the legend of Tristan and Yseult
Download the guide: Introductions to Heritage Assets: Stone castles (May 2011)
Download the guide: Introduction to Heritage Assets: Earthwork castles (May 2011)