Lyonesse (Isles of Scilly)
The land of Lyonesse was one that had been engulfed by the ocean. Although
the name and familiar trappings of Lyonesse are almost entirely legendary,
or indeed mythical, the kingdom is traditionally linked to the Isles of
Scilly. These islands, lying to the west of the Land's End promontory in
Cornwall) do exist and were inhabited for many thousands of years. They
form part of a low-lying region that encompasses the territory between the
islands and Cornwall itself.
There remains some doubt as to where Lyonesse was located. Early romancers
who mention Tristan of the Tristan & Iseult story may be thinking
of Lothian of the
Gododdin in modern
Scotland which they
called Loenois in Old French, or perhaps they were thinking of
Leon (Leonais) in
the Leon of Brittany is not one and the same as Lyonesse, then the two
may still be connected, with the
Lyonesse perhaps being responsible for creating the Armorican principality.
Today Lyonesse is firmly rooted to Cornwall's traditions, so linking it to
the Isles of Scilly seems the most logical step.
Neolithic people lived on Scilly, at which time the chain of islands were
linked together. They constructed tombs, such as the one on St Mary's, and
walls and huts that now lie below the present high-water mark. Even at that
period the links between islands must have been increasingly prone to
flooding. The Romans termed them Scillonia insula, suggesting a single
island, or at least one main island. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the
islands were becoming isolated but were still less submerged by water than today,
so they would have presented enough land on which to warrant founding a small
kingdom. The central plain was flooded around this time, and the inundation by
water continues to this day, with water levels around the Isles of Scilly having
risen five metres (sixteen and-a-half feet) in the last two thousand years. At
exceptionally low tides, it is still possible to walk between the islands.
Folk memories of the islands' past habitation went into the gradual build-up
of the legend of Lyonesse. Fisherman used to claim that the Seven Stones reef
off Land's End marked the site of one of Lyonesse's vanished towns, the City
of Lions (note the similarity to 'Lyonesse', or even the Armorican 'Leon'),
and the supposedly lost land between Scilly and the mainland was called Lethesow,
or Lethowsow. The fisherman used to haul up fragments of masonry in their nets,
and church bells are allegedly heard under water when the sea is stormy. Around
the mainland, in the bay of St Michael's Mount which was part of the Scilly region,
are the fossilised remains of a sunken forest, with beech trees still bearing nuts.
Although at least some of the traditional kings of Lyonesse are known to have
existed as historical, or at least likely historical, figures, elements of this
list are slightly dubious and unlikely ever to be confirmed fully. The kingdom
seems to have been created around the time of Merchion ab Custennyn, king of
Cornubia, probably as a vassal state, but it survived in this form for less than
a century before it was reintegrated into Cornubia.
(Additional information by Paul Bennett, and from The Landscape of King Arthur,
According to tradition, the territory of the Isles of Scilly is granted to
the son-in-law of Meirchion ab Custennyn of
Merchion's natural son, Cyn-March ap Meirchion, inherits Cornubia itself.
Meliodas probably marries Cyn-March's sister before the death of Merchion to
be in a position to receive this grant of territory. However, it is also
claimed that Felec is the first king of Lyonesse, making the marriage
between Meliodas and Isabelle a dynastic match.
A courtyard house at Halangy Down on Scilly, an
Iron Age and Romano-British village
Tristan, son of Meirchion, is one of the main characters of the story of
Tristan & Iseult. While bringing Iseult, daughter of the
Irish king, to
where she would marry King Mark, the two people fall in love. They have
a secret affair which is belatedly discovered by Mark. Tristan manages to
escape, but the couple are later forgiven. Unlike some later works,
Tristan & Iseult portrays Mark in a sympathetic fashion. Later
works paint him in increasingly darker tones, making him more and more evil
and less of a sympathetic figure.
The sixth century Tristan Stone, near Fowey in Cornubia (close to Castle Dore)
bears an inscription which marks the grave of Drustanus, son of Cunomorus. The
monument is subsequently moved several times so the grave itself is lost, but
its original site is closer to Castle Dore than today. The idea that Cunomorus
is the same person as Mark is a persistent one, but it would mean that Tristan
(a form of the extremely variable Drustanus) is his son, making the Tristan
& Iseult story considerably less of a romance. Alternatively, this Mark
is the slightly earlier Marcus Conomari of
diminutive territory is probably re-absorbed into
Curiously, this seems to be around the same time that the first of a short
list of kings appear in Leon in
Brittany, which of course
retains very strong links at this time with south-west Britain. Speaking
very theoretically, perhaps the heir to Lyonesse is given
in Britanny in compensation.
After the Arthurian period the water levels rise substantially, partially
inundating Scilly and turning it into a chain of small islands. Overall it
remains part of Dumnonia
and is unconquered but subjugated along with the remains of that kingdom,
Cornwall. They stay linked as the duchy of Cornwall, and Scilly has its own
governors between 1568-1920.