Updated: May 19
Medieval tradition describes a former land beyond southwest England. Is there any factual truth behind this? What connection does Lyonesse have with King Arthur or the Celts?
Anyone standing at Land's End, at the southwest of England, looking out on a clear day toward the Isles of Scilly, can easily imagine that in between once lay a prosperous country. This was, in the words of the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'the lost land of Lyonesse, where, save the isle of Scilly, all is now wild sea'. But was the existence of Lyonesse ever more than a poet's romantic dream?
A great deluge appears in the traditions of many people in different parts of the world - Asia, Australia, and the Pacific, as well as the Americas. The best known in the West is 'Noah's Flood' from the book of Genesis, a tale derived from ancient Mesopotamia. Curiously, Africa has no universal deluge legend. Neither, folklorists believe, had western Europe until the Mesopotamian myth reached it as the Greek legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha, and as the biblical story of Noah.
What Europe may have had instead was a legend of a more local flood caused not by rain but by the encroachment of the sea, perhaps the following land subsided - a 'lost land' story like that of the Atlantis. Several such tales survive from medieval and later times, particularly along the coasts of Britain and Brittany in France. The most celebrated of these 'lost lands' is undoubtedly Lyonesse, because it has become part of the legend of Arthur.
How Lyonesse Was Lost
The earliest written report of a lost land off the coast of Cornwall is to be found in the 15th-century Itinerary Of William of Worcester. He refers to 'woods and fields and 140 parochial churches, all now submerged, between the Mount and the Isles of Scilly'. But he does not give the drowned land a name.
The Cornish antiquary Richard Carew may have been the first to identify this lost land with the Lyonesse of Arthurian legend. His report of it appeared in Willian Camden's Brittania and later in his Survey of Cornwall (1602). He wrote: 'And the whole encroaching sea hath ravined the whole land of Lioness together with divers other parcels of no little circuit; and that such a Lioness there was, these proofs are yet remaining. The space between Lands End and the Isle of Scilly, being about 30 miles, to this day retaineth that name in Cornish - Lethosow - and carrieth continually a depth of 40 - 60 fathoms, a thing not unusual in the sea's proper domination.'
Moreover, midway between Lands End and the Scilly Isles lay a group of rocks called the Seven Stones, bounding an area known in Cornish as Tregva 'a dwelling'. Here fishermen reported drawing up pieces of doors and windows. The tale told of Lethosow in Carew's day was that, when the sea rushed in and drowned it, a man called Trevilian made his escape galloping on a white horse just ahead of the waves. This was commonly thought to explain the arms of the Trevelyan family: a horse rising from the sea.
In Arthurian romance, Lyonesse is the name of the homeland of the hero Tristan, nephew of King Mark and lover of Mark's wife, Iseult. Because Mark was King of Cornwall, Carew or another author assumed that the Cornish 'lost land' and Lyonesse were one and the same. But medievalists believe this is an error and that 'Lyonesse' is a corrupt form of an earlier name given to Tristan's country. This was Loenois, actually Lothian, in Scotland. Such a location agrees with the fact that Tristan's own name belonged to a Pictish prince of the 8th century.
Once Cornwalls lost land had been identified with Lyonesse, it became bathed in the glow of the Arthurian legend. New connections were made. Alfred Lord Tennyson placed Arthur's court of Camalot there, and mystics expected to see Lyonesse rise again from the waves or to behold it off Land's End in vision.
The Truth Behind The Legend
Like Atlantis, Lysonesse has become a potent symbol, expressing regret for a Golden Age that has perished and for a Cornish past more glorious than its present. But is there any evidence that reality underpins tradition? The Cornish historian William Borlase, writing in 1753, pointed out, as suggestive of a lost land, lines of stones running out from the shore on Samson Flats in the Scilly Isles. Looking like field walls, they were thought to be manmade, and, in the 1920's it was suggested that they were indeed ancient field boundaries built in the Bronze Age.
Oceanographers today, however, say that to submerge what were once tilled fields, a rise in sea level of more than 3.7m (12ft) would be needed over the past 3,000 years. This does not agree with what is known of the recent sea-level changes around Britain.
The theory of the 'walls' were fish traps and always covered at high tide, is more plausible. If so, they are not alone in suggesting that the Scilly Isles have lost ground to the sea. On the foreshore of the islands of St Matin's, Little Arthur, and Tean, there are partially submerged hut circles and cists thought to have been encroached on by the sea in Roman times. Certainly, classical writers speak of the Scilly Isles as one (or substantially one) island as the 4th century AD. But widespread subsidence such as this was taking place around the coast of Britain in the Iron Age, only very slowly. Submergence must have been gradual and intermittent, not a single traumatic event such as one man might witness, remember and hand down as tradition.
The Celtic Connection
The story of Lethosow / Lyonesse has its counterpart in Brittany, where under the Bay of Douarnenez lies drownded the great city of Ker-Is. Only King Gradlon escaped, riding like Trevilian on a white horse ahead of the flood. Both tales are attached to hero's of the 6th century and both belong to the Celtic world. Although there is no evidence of a widespread flood in the Celtic area around that time, there may well have been a local disaster caused by exponentially high tides, such as those the east coast of England witnessed in 1953.
It is possible that when the monks from the Abbey of Mont St Michael in Brittany founded the Cornish daughter-house of St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, they brought the flood story with them. Wherever the tale started it is not hard to believe that there was once a flood which, like all disasters, was improved in the telling: a lost village became a town and the town eventually became a whole kingdom. People forgot exactly where there was 'proof' of the tale - in the shape of submerged 'buildings'. As to when it happened - why, of course, in 'storytime', in the Celtic heroic age, the age of Arthur, Gradlon, and Tristan. Now you have learned of the legend of Lyonesse, make sure you read about Glastonbury: The Legendary Avalon.