Lyonesse, Lyoness, or Lyonnesse is a country in Arthurian legend, birthplace of the knight Tristan.

In a later tradition, Lyonesse is identified as a sunken land lying off the Isles of Scilly, to the south-west of Cornwall. The Trevelyan family of Cornwall takes its coat of arms from a local legend; "when Lyonesse sank beneath the waves only a man named Trevelyan escaped by riding a white horse." To this day the family's shield bears a white horse rising from the waves.

Lyonesse in Arthurian legend

In medieval Arthurian legend, there are no references to the sinking of Lyonesse, for the simple reason that 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.

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.

A real-life counterpart to Lyonesse is the fishing port of Dunwich.

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.

Legendary kings of Lyonesse

The Romans referred to the Isles of Scilly as Siluram Insulam (or Sylina Insula). According to legend, Lyonesse stretched from Scilly to Land's End at the westernmost tip of Cornwall, and once had some 140 churches. The names of the legendary kings of Lyonesse are derived from late romances of the Arthurian cycle.

Felix (Felec) is a character in the late Prose Tristan and even later Italian romances. In the latter stories he is made the father of Meliodas.

Son of Felix in later romances. Marries Isabelle, daughter of King Meirchion of Cornwall.

Son of Meliodias. The famous Tristram of Arthurian legend, he is sent by his maternal uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, to fetch the latter's intended bride Iseult from Ireland. Tristram falls in love with Iseult, but ends up marrying a different woman of the same name, Iseult of the White Hands, whom he does not love. He eventually dies of a broken heart, having been tricked by his jealous wife into thinking his true love had forsaken him.

Son of Tristram. Only appears in the very late Italian I Due Tristani.

Following the Battle of Camlann, supposedly in 537, King Arthur's men flee west across Lyonesse, pursued by Mordred and his men. Arthur's men survive by reaching what are now the Isles of Scilly, but Mordred's men perish in the inundation.

Lyonesse in Celtic mythology

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, although the parallels were limited in that Lyonesse remained in Cornish thought very much a mystical and mythical land, comparable to the role of Tir na nÓg in Irish mythology.

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. For example, the Cornish name of St Michael's Mount is Carrack Looz en Cooz - literally, "the grey rock in the wood". Cornish people around Penzance still believe strongly in a sunken forest in Mount's Bay, archaeological evidence of the forest is visible at very low tides, 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 legendary Brythonic hero Arthur.

Lyonesse in modern English literature

Lyonesse has been used as a setting for many modern fantasy stories, notably Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. 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. J. R. R. Tolkien drew some of his inspiration for the lost kingdom of Númenor from the legends of Lyonesse; one of the kingdom's many names in his mythos is "Westernesse". 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 film First Knight, Lyonesse 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."

Other uses of Lyonesse

The name Lyonesse has often been applied to transport subjects:

See also



External links

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