In Arthurian legend, Lyonesse is the home country of Tristan, from the legendary story of Tristan and Iseult. The mythical land of Lyonesse is now referred to as the “Lost Land of Lyonesse,” as it is ultimately said to have sunk into the sea. However, the legendary tale of Tristan and Iseult shows that Lyonesse is known for more than sinking into the ocean, and that it had a legendary presence while it remained above ground. While Lyonesse is mostly referred to in stories of legend and myth, there is some belief that it represents a very real city that sunk into the sea many years ago. With such a legendary location, it can be difficult to ascertain where the legend ends and reality begins.
The story of Lyonesse most logically begins with Tristan and Iseult. The story of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic story of love and loss. It is an Arthurian tale, inspired by Celtic legend. It is said that the story was possibly the inspiration for the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, as both stories push the boundaries of love, family, loyalty, adultery, and betrayal. While the story of Tristan and Iseult can vary based upon who is telling it, the plot follows a common theme. Tristan, a young boy from Lyonesse who has been orphaned, it taken in by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, which borders Lyonesse.
Tristan and Iseult. ‘The End of the Song’ by Edmund Leighton, 1902 (Wikimedia Commons)
As the years pass by, Tristan is very loyal to his uncle, as he raised him as his own son. When Tristan is grown, Mark sends him to Ireland to retrieve the fair maiden Iseult and bring her to Cornwall, as she and King Mark are set to marry. Tristan loyally follows his uncle’s orders, and journeys to Ireland. On the return trip from Ireland, however, the pair are exposed to a love potion and fall madly in love with one another. Iseult eventually arrives in Cornwall and marries King Mark, but the love potion is very powerful, and Tristan and Iseult cannot deny their love for one another.
Tristan and Iseult both love King Mark, but their love for one another is stronger. Eventually the pair is discovered and King Mark is devastated. While Tristan should be sent immediately to the gallows for adultery, King Mark harbors an affection for him, as his nephew. King Mark agrees to forgive Tristan, on the condition that Tristan return Iseult to him. Tristan does so, and he and King Mark make amends.
In most variations, the sinking of Lyonesse occurs well after the stories of Tristan, Iseult, and King Mark take place. The sinking itself is not mentioned in Arthurian legend, although some say that Lyonesse sunk when Tristan left for King Mark’s court. In Lord Tennyson's epic Idylls of the King, Lyonesse is the location where Arthur and Mordred fought their final battle. One passage foreshadows Lyonesse’s sinking:
Iseult with King Mark, Edward Burne-Jones, 19th Century (Wikimedia Commons)
Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse -
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
There are some variations in the legends that surround the sinking of the land. Prior to its sinking, Lyonesse would have been quite large, containing one hundred and forty villages and churches. Lyonesse is said to have disappeared on November 11, 1099 (although some tales use the year 1089, and some date back to the 6th century).
Very suddenly the land was flooded by the sea. Entire village were swallowed, and the people and animals of the area drowned. Once it was covered in water, the land never reemerged. While the Arthurian tales are legendary, there is some belief that Lyonesse was once a very real place attached to the Scilly Isles in Cornwall, England. Evidence shows that sea levels were considerably lower in the past, so it is very possible that an area that once contained a human settlement above-ground is now beneath the sea level.
Some believe that Lyonesse was a real place attached to the Scilly Isles (pictured). Source: BigStockPhoto
It is said that all that remains of Lyonesse is today’s still-standing island of Scilly. Fisherman near the Scilly Isles tell tales of retrieving pieces of buildings and other structures from their fishing nets. These stories have never been substantiated, and are viewed by some as tall tales. They also say they can see remnants of a forest when the sea is at low tide. On a more ghostly and spiritual level, some claim to hear the church bells of Lyonesse ringing during stormy times. As the legends of Lyonesse continue in today’s story-telling, it also remains a part of modern English literature. In 1922, Walter de la Mare wrote:
In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town,
The Nereids pluck their lyres
Where the green translucency beats,
And with motionless eyes at gaze
Make ministrely in the streets./
And the ocean water stirs
In salt-worn casement and porch
Plies the blunt-nosed fish
With fire in his skull for torch.
And the ringing wires resound;
And the unearthly lovely weep,
In lament of the music they make
In the sullen courts of sleep:
Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And - lapped by the moon-guiled tide
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side.
It is no surprise that the story of the sinking city of Lyonesse has come forth with many variations throughout the years. The image of a large, functioning city inhabited by thousands of people suddenly sinking into the sea, never to emerge again invokes an image that is both awesome and horrifying. From the legendary tales of Tristan and Iseult, to Arthur’s final battle with Mordred, to the stories of a city being swallowed by the sea, the tales of Lyonesse invoke a vast array of thoughts and emotions by those who wish to know more about this legendary city, and who like to believe that it’s legendary tales are founded upon a very real lost city.
Featured image: Artist’s depiction of Lyonesse being swept away (AnnoyzView)
- The Legend of Lyonesse – Lyonesse Falmouth. Available from: http://www.lyonessefalmouth.co.uk/legends/legends.html
- Lyonesse – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyonesse
- The Land of Arthur: Lyonesse – King Arthur’s Knights. Available from: http://www.kingarthursknights.com/theland/lyonesse.asp
- Lyonesse – Princeton. Available from: https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Lyonesse.html
- Lyonesse, the lost land off Cornwall – Legend of King Arthur. Available from: http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/cornwall/lyonesse.htm
- Tristan and Iseult – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_and_Iseult
By M R Reese