From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Tristan and Iseult location
Genre Arthurian legend
Type Fictional country
Notable characters Tristan

Lyonesse is a country in Arthurian legend, particularly in the story of Tristan and Iseult. Said to border Cornwall, it is most notable as the home of the hero Tristan, whose father was king. In later traditions Lyonesse is said to have sunk beneath the waves some time after the Tristan stories take place, making it similar to Ys and other lost lands in medieval Celtic tales, and perhaps connecting it with the Isles of Scilly.

Lyonesse in Arthurian legend[edit]

In medieval Arthurian legend, there are no references to the sinking of Lyonesse, because the name originally referred to a still-existing place. Lyonesse is an English alteration of French Léoneis or Léonois (earlier Loönois), a development of Lodonesia, the Latin name for Lothian in Scotland. Continental writers of Arthurian romances were often puzzled by the internal geography of Great Britain; thus it is that the author French Prose Tristan appears to place Léonois contiguous, by land, to Cornwall.

In English adaptations of the French tales, Léonois, now "Lyonesse", becomes a kingdom wholly distinct from Lothian, and closely associated with the Cornish region, though its exact geographical location remained unspecified. The name was not attached to Cornish legends of lost coastal lands until the reign of Elizabeth I of England, however.[1] However, the legendary lost land between Land's End and Scilly has a distinct Cornish name: Lethowsow. This derives from the Cornish name for the Seven Stones reef, on the reputed site of the lost land's capital and the site of the notorious wreck of the Torrey Canyon. The name means "the milky ones", from the constant white water surrounding the reef.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Arthurian epic Idylls of the King describes Lyonesse as the site of the final battle between Arthur and Mordred. One passage in particular references legends of Lyonesse as a land fated to sink beneath the ocean:

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.

Deriving from a false etymology of Lyonesse, the 'City of Lions' was said in some later traditions to be the capital of the legendary kingdom, situated on what is today the Seven Stones reef, some eighteen miles west of Land's End and eight miles north-east of the Isles of Scilly.[2]

Analogues in Celtic mythology[edit]

The legend of a sunken kingdom appears in both Cornish and Breton mythology. In Christian times it came to be viewed as a sort of Cornish Sodom and Gomorrah, an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living.

There is a Breton parallel in the tale of the Cité d'Ys, similarly drowned as a result of its debauchery with a single virtuous survivor escaping on a horse, in this case King Gradlon. The Welsh equivalent to Lyonesse and Ker Ys is Cantre'r Gwaelod, a legendary drowned kingdom in Cardigan Bay.

It is often suggested that the tale of Lyonesse represents an extraordinary survival of folk memory of the flooding of the Isles of Scilly and Mount's Bay near Penzance.[3] For example, the Cornish name of St Michael's Mount is Karrek Loos y'n Koos - literally, "the grey rock in the wood". Cornish people around Penzance still get occasional glimpses at extreme low water of a sunken forest in Mount's Bay, where petrified tree stumps become visible. The importance of the maintenance of this memory can be seen in that it came to be associated with the legendary Brython hero Arthur, although the date of its inundation is actually c. 2500 BC.

Lyonesse in modern fiction[edit]

Walter de la Mare's "Sunk Lyonesse" (1922) evokes it as a lost world:

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.

Lyonesse has been used as a setting for many modern fantasy stories, including:

  • Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy.
  • Lyonesse makes a small appearance in Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the Gnarly King, the seventh book in the Dragon Knight series, and features much more prominently in The Dragon in Lyonesse, the eighth book.
  • In Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Lyonesse is where refugees from Atlantis (the "Fair Folk") settle, the word Lyonesse being derived from the Celtic corruption of the word Atlantis.
  • In the film First Knight, Lyonnesse is the home of Guinevere, a small land situated between Camelot and Malagant's territory. Lyonesse was ruled by Guinevere's father until his death, after which Guinevere became the "Lady of Lyonesse".
  • The Vyvyan family of Cornwall also takes its coat of arms from the legend, in which a man named Vyvyan, governor of Lyonesse, escaped the inundation by having ready bridled and saddled in his stable a white horse. To this day the family's shield bears a white horse fully bridled with one foot over the waves. The horse leapt, with Vyvyan aboard, and where it landed, there the Vyvyan family set its roots (Trelowarren).
  • Both Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath published poems referring to Lyonnesse, the latter taking the mythical land's name as its title. English composer Gerald Finzi set the Hardy poem, "When I Set Out for Lyonnesse", to music in his song cycle Earth and Air and Rain (published 1936).
  • Sam Llewellyn wrote two children's books set in the sinking Lyonesse, with original Celtic names for the cast of Arthurian legend: Lyonesse: The Well Between The Worlds (2009) and Lyonesse: Dark Solstice (2010).
  • "Lyonesse" is a song, by Cornish folk composer Richard Gendall, which appears as the title track of the 1982 album by Brenda Wootton.
  • In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, the narrator describes the Oxford of his youth as being "submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in..."
  • In the video game Dark Age of Camelot, Lyonesse is a partially inundated zone at one end of the land of Albion, filled with ruins and dangerous monsters, many of them undead.
  • In the video game Chronicles of the Sword, Lyonesse is the forebodding domain of the evil Morgana.

Other uses of the name Lyonesse[edit]

The name Lyonesse has often been applied to transport subjects:

Lyonesse is also the name of one of the three school houses at Cape Cornwall School.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bivar, A. D. H. (February 1953). "Lyonnesse: The Evolution of a Fable". Modern Philology. 50 (3): 162–170. doi:10.1086/388954. 
  2. ^ James, Beryl (1988). Tales of the Tinners' Way. Redruth: Dyllansow Truran. ISBN 1-85022-042-5. p. 2.
  3. ^ Hind, C. Lewis. (1907). "Days in Cornwall": 163.