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Tristan and Iseult location
GenreArthurian legend
In-universe information
TypeFictional country

Lyonesse (/liːɒˈnɛs/ lee-uh-NESS) is a kingdom which, according to legend, consisted of a long strand of land stretching from Land's End at the southwestern tip of Cornwall, England, to what is now the Isles of Scilly in the Celtic Sea portion of the Atlantic Ocean. It was considered lost after being swallowed by the ocean in a single night. The people of Lyonesse were said to live in fair towns, with over 140 churches, and work in fertile, low-lying plains. Lyonesse's most significant attraction was a castle-like cathedral that was presumably built on top of what is now the Seven Stones Reef between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly, some 18 miles (29 km) west of Land's End and 8 miles (13 km) north-east of the Isles of Scilly.

Lyonesse is mentioned in Arthurian legend, specifically in the tragic love-and-loss story of Tristan and Iseult. It was the home of the hero Tristan (one of the Knights of the Round Table), whose father Meliodas was king of Lyonesse. After the death of Meliodas, Tristan became the heir of Lyonesse, but he was never to take up his inheritance because the land sank beneath the sea while he was away at his uncle King Mark's court in Cornwall. In later traditions, Lyonesse is said to have sunk beneath the waves in a single night, but stories differ as to whether this catastrophic event occurred on 11 November 1099, or 10 years earlier. According to one legend, the people of Lyonesse had committed a crime so terrible that God took his revenge against them and their kingdom. The exact nature of the crime is never specified, but the legend tells of a horrific storm that occurred over the course of a single night, resulting in an enormous wave that swallowed the kingdom.

The sole survivor[edit]

Trevelyan arms depicting the white horse

Local Cornwall village tourism guides offer stories of a man who escaped the storm and a subsequent wave while riding a white horse. Apparently, the horse lost one of its shoes during the escape. The rider's name is thought to be Trevelyan (or Trevilian). The rider had been out hunting during the day and had fallen asleep under a tree. Trevelyan was awoken by a horrible noise and raced across the land to higher ground. This story is linked to local Cornish families who have used the image of three horseshoes as part of their family crest for generations. One family in particular goes by the name Vyvyan, and is one of Cornwall's oldest families; they also have a crest of a white horse and claim to be descendants of the sole survivor, Trevelyan. The Vyvyan family claims that Trevelyan was the last governor of the lost kingdom before Lyonesse was swallowed by the ocean.

Today, many myths and legends continue to arise about Lyonesse without physical evidence. Included among these legends are tales of local fishermen who claim that on calm days, one can still hear the bells of the many churches softly ringing in the seas off the west Cornish coast. Local fishermen also claim that they have caught glass, forks, and wood in their fishing nets.

The Lyonesse Project[edit]

Isles of Scilly in 3000 BC: The lower sea level meant that the archipelago formed one large island with a fertile plain.

A 2009–13 joint study titled The Lyonesse Project: A Study of the Coastal and Marine Environment of the Isles of Scilly was commissioned by English Heritage and carried out by the Historic Environment Projects, Cornwall Council, with a team of academics, local experts, and enthusiasts "to reconstruct the evolution of the physical environment of the Isles of Scilly during the Holocene, the progressive occupation of this changing coastal landscape by early peoples, and their response to marine inundation and changing marine resource availability." The project found that while much of the story of Lyonesse can be "dismissed as fantasy", an overflow of legends and memories of submergences is common throughout the northwestern portion of Europe. It concluded that the Isles of Scilly were once a single large island, which separated into smaller islands due to the rapid sea-level rise. Stone walls have been located under the water in the vicinity of the Isles of Scilly, which support the findings that sea level rises impacted the towns of the area, although whether they are evidence of buildings or the remains of medieval fish traps remains unclear.[1]

Lyonesse in Arthurian legend[edit]

In medieval Arthurian legend, no references are made 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;[dubious ] thus it is that the author of the French Prose Tristan appears to place Léonois beside 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.[2] 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 King Arthur and Mordred (King Arthur's nephew and illegitimate son). One passage in particular references legends of Lyonesse and its rise from (and subsequent return to) 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.

Analogues in Celtic mythology[edit]

The legend of a sunken kingdom appears in Cornish, Breton and Welsh mythologies. 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. A Breton parallel is found in the tale of the Cité d'Ys or Ker Ys, similarly drowned as a result of its debauchery, with a single virtuous survivor, King Gradlon, escaping on a horse. According to Welsh legend, the kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod in Cardigan Bay was drowned due to the drunkard negligence of its prince, Seithenyn, who allowed the sea to sweep through the floodgates.

The tale of Lyonesse is sometimes suggested to represent an extraordinary survival of folk memory of the flooding of the Isles of Scilly and Mount's Bay near Penzance[3] when the sea levels rose during the Bronze Age. For example, the Cornish name of St Michael's Mount is Karrek Loos y'n Koos – literally "the grey rock in the wood", suggesting that the bay was once a forest. According to local tourism guides in the region, Lyonesse was once connected to the west of Cornwall and is firmly rooted in Cornwall's traditions and mythology. 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 adjacent to the Celtic Sea. John of Worcester, a famous English monk and chronicler, wrote in 1099 that St Michael's Mount (now an island in Mount's Bay) was five or six miles from the sea, enclosed in a thick wood. 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.

Notable cultural references[edit]

In fiction[edit]

In poetry[edit]

In music[edit]

  • "Lyonesse", a song by Cornish folk composer Richard Gendall, appears as the title track of the 1982 album by Brenda Wootton.
  • "When I Set out for Lyonnesse" is a setting of Hardy's poem by English composer Gerald Finzi in his 1936 song cycle Earth and Air and Rain
  • "The Bells of Lyonesse", a song by German progressive metal band Subsignal, appears on their 2018 album La Muerta.

In transport[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charman, Dan; Johns, Charlie; Camidge, Kevin; Marshall, Peter; Mills, Steve F; Mulville, Jacqui; Roberts, Helen M (2014). "The Lyonesse Project: a study of the coastal and marine environment of the Isles of Scilly". Archeological Data Service. Retrieved 13 May 2021.
  2. ^ Bivar, A. D. H. (February 1953). "Lyonnesse: The Evolution of a Fable". Modern Philology. 50 (3): 162–170. doi:10.1086/388954. S2CID 162310176.
  3. ^ Hind, C. Lewis. (1907). "Days in Cornwall": 163. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan and Co., 1932): 293-94
  5. ^ "Distance Dorchester, Dorset, England, GBR > St-Juliot, Cornwall, England, GBR - Air line, driving route, midpoint".

Further reading[edit]