Mark of Cornwall

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14th century depiction of Mark of Cornwall from the Tristan Quilt.

Mark of Cornwall (Latin Marcus, Cornish Margh, Welsh March, Breton Marc'h) was a king of Kernow (Cornwall) in the early 6th century. He is most famous for his appearance in Arthurian legend as the uncle of Tristan and husband of Iseult, who engage in a secret affair.

The Legend[edit]

"King Mark of Cornwall", illustrated by Howard Pyle (1905).

Mark sent Tristan as his proxy to fetch his young bride, the Princess Iseult, from Ireland. Tristan and Iseult fall in love, and, with the help of a magic potion, proceed to have one of the stormiest love affairs in medieval literature. Mark suspects the affair and eventually his suspicions are confirmed. In some versions, he sends for Tristan to be hanged, and banishes Iseult to a leper colony. Tristan escapes the hanging and rescues Mark's bride from her confinement, later to be discovered by Mark. Mark eventually forgives them, with Iseult returning to Mark and Tristan leaving the country.

The story is cyclical with Mark suspecting Tristan and Iseult of adultery and then believing they were innocent. This happened again and again in the story. In the Beroul version, Tristan and Iseult are never in grave danger due to the narrator's declaration that he himself and God were on their side. King Mark, in the role of husband, is not portrayed as idealistic as other kings in Arthurian literature who were only portrayed in the role of king and not the personal role of husband.

In the Prose Tristan, Mark's character deteriorates from a sympathetic cuckold to a downright villain. He rapes his niece and then murders her when she produces his son, Meraugis. He murders his brother Baldwin as well. In earlier versions of the story, Tristan dies in Brittany, far away from Mark; but in the Prose Tristan, Mark stabs Tristan while he plays the harp under a tree for Iseult. Though this version of Mark's character was popular in other medieval works, including the Romance of Palamedes and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, modern versions of the Tristan and Iseult legend tend to take their inspiration from the older poetic material, and Mark becomes a sympathetic character once again. In these legends, Mark is usually seen as ruling Cornwall from Tintagel Castle.

Mark has become associated with a Celtic variant of the story of Midas and his donkey ears from Greek mythology. In a Welsh tale, Mark has the ears of a horse – a pun on his name, March, Welsh for "horse".[1] There is a Breton legend in which he is also the king of Cornouaille, where, one day, he hunted a doe before discovering she was actually the princess Dahut who, for it, and under her human appearance, condemned him to have the ears and the mane of his horse Morvarc'h.[citation needed]

In Other Tales[edit]

Marie de France[edit]

Main article: Chevrefoil

Marie de France's Breton lai Chevrefoil (titled sometimes as The Lay of the Honeysuckle) tells a partial story from the Tristan and Iseult tale. The lai begins with an explanation that Mark was enraged with Tristan's affair with his wife, and thus banished him from Cornwall. Tristan spends a year in his own land of South Wales, pining away for Isoude. Eventually, his sorrow grew so great that he went against Mark's order and hid in the woods of Cornwall, taking shelter with villagers only at night.

Eventually Tristan comes to hear that Mark plans to hold a feast for Pentecost, and that Isoude would be riding through the forest to attend. He finds the path the queen is most likely to take, and lays on it a hazel stick he stripped the bark off of and carved his name into. Isoude recognizes the sign and stops her party to rest, sneaking away with her maid Brangwaine to see Tristan. During this illicit meeting, Isoude helps Tristan to construct a plan to win back the favor of King Mark, which Tristan resolves to do as soon as the two part.

Marie de France ends the poem by telling the reader that the lai Tristan composed was called "Goatleaf" in English or "Chèvrefeuille" in French, and that the very lai he composed was the one the reader just finished.[2]

Idylls of the King[edit]

Main article: The Last Tournament

King Mark takes on a much more gruesome role in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetry cycle Idylls of the King.

While Arthur and many of his knights are away taking on the court of the Red Knight, Lancelot is called upon to judge "The Tournament of the Dead Innocence." The tournament quickly becomes a mockery, full of insults and broken rules. Tristram (that is, Tristan) is the winner of the tournament, winning all of the rubies from the necklace. Tristram then breaks tradition in presenting the rubies to a woman present, saying instead "This day my Queen of Beauty is not here." This enrages the crowd, with many saying that "All courtesy is dead," and "The glory of our Round Table is no more."

Tristram, who in this piece married Isolt of the White Hands, carries his winnings instead to Mark's wife Queen Isolt, who is upset that Tristram married another woman. The two mock each other for a brief period before Tristram at last puts the necklace about Isolt's neck, and leans down to kiss her.

Just as his lips touch her, in an uncharacteristically violent gesture, Mark makes his appearance, rising up behind Tristram and cleaving him through the brain.[3]

The Drustanus Stone[edit]

Known as The Tristan Stone, or The Longstone (Cornish: Menhir, meaning long stone), is a 2.7 m tall granite pillar near Fowey, Cornwall, originally situated at Castle Dore, near Fowey. The stone has a mid 6th century AD two line inscription which has been interpreted as reading DRVSTANVS HIC IACIT CVNOWORI FILIV'S ('Drustan lies here, of Cunomorus the son'). A now missing third line was described by the 16th century antiquarian John Leland as reading CVM DOMINA OUSILLA ('with the lady Ousilla'). Ousilla is a Latinisation of the Cornish female name Eselt, otherwise known as Isolde. The disappearance of this third line may be as a result of the stone being moved several times.[4]

In Wrmonoc of Landévennec's Life of St. Pol de Leon, he refers to a "King Marc whose other name is Quonomorus". Also rendered Cunomorus, this name means literally the 'Hound-of-the-sea.'[5] An inscription on a 6th-century gravestone near the Cornish town of Fowey memorializes (in Latin) a certain "Drustanus son of Cunomorus" and it has been conjectured that this is the "Tristan son of Mark (alias 'Quonomorus')" of legend.[6] There is a monument believed by some to refer to Tristan ("Drustanus") at grid reference SX112521.

However, in most versions of the story, Mark is Tristan's uncle. His sister is Tristan's mother, Blancheflor alias Elizabeth/Isabelle, or, in some later versions, he is related to Tristan's father, Meliadus. Some identify King Mark with King Conomor of Dumnonia. However, it is also thought that Wrmonoc may have made a mistake with his recorded alias. In Old Welsh records, Mark is recorded as "March son of Meirchion" and is variously associated with North Wales, South Wales or South-West Scotland. The stone led to Mark's association with Castle Dore.

Modern Interpretations[edit]

See also[edit]

Media related to King Mark of Cornwall at Wikimedia Commons


  1. ^ Rhys, John (1901). Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 233–234. 
  2. ^ "French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France". Project Gutenberg. 
  3. ^ Tennyson, Alfred (1983). "The Last Tournament". In Gray, J. M. Idylls of the King. Penguin Books. pp. 248–268. ISBN 978-0-140-42253-5. 
  4. ^ Craig Weatherhill, Cornovia: Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000 BC – 1000 AD
  5. ^ Thomas, Charles (1986) Celtic Britain. London: Thames & Hudson ISBN 0-500-02107-4; p. 70
  6. ^ "Tristan Stone [Longstone] Early Christian Sculptured Stone". The Megalithic Portal. 
  7. ^ "Arthur of the Britons (TV Series 1972-1973) - Full Cast & Crew". IMDb. 
  8. ^ "Lovespell (1981) - Full Cast & Crew". IMDb. 
  9. ^ "Tristan + Isolde (2006) - Full Cast & Crew". IMDb. 
  10. ^ "The White Raven: Diana L. Paxson: 9780688074968: Books". 
  11. ^ Paxson, Diana. "Historical and Mythic Fantasy". 

External links[edit]

Legendary titles
Preceded by
King of Cornwall Unknown