Lyonesse: Some Background Information

Compiled by Dr. Patrick Roper
Last updated 03/05/2001
Page 1 of 4

This short paper is very much a provisional account of the material that has gone to make up the Lyonesse story over the years. Research on the topic is in active progress and further information and links will be added regularly. Please feel free to sign our guestbook (at the bottom of this page) or email any comments or observations to Patrick Roper, its author, on patrick@prassociates.co.uk

 

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raditionally Lyonesse, an extensive country with 140 churches, was a land that lay between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to the south west of the United Kingdom. It has also been equated with the Little Sole Bank, an under-sea hill on the edge of the Celtic shelf to the south west of the Isles of Scilly and with the Isles of Scilly themselves. It is sometimes said that the Cornish language name for Lyonesse was Lethowsow, but this refers only to the Seven Stones reef between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly, a place said to be all that is left of the City of Lions, one of the Lyonesse towns.

According to legend, Lyonesse disappeared beneath the sea and this has led to its sometimes being identified - or confused with - Atlantis. The country is frequently mentioned in Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur written in the 15th century and by other authors of this period, although there is no mention of its inundation. It does not, however, feature in any of the earlier sources written between the 6th and the 11th centuries, sources that were extensively quarried by later authors in the creation of the Arthur and Tristan stories. The earliest mention I have so far tracked down is in a 13th century French poet called Beroul who refers to it as Loenois.

Lyonesse (sometimes spelt, particularly by 19th C authors, as "Lyonnesse" and by Malory and others as "Liones") was a large place with many towns and 140 churches. This latter idea has given rise to various folk tales of muffled church bells chiming under the sea off Land's End and so on. There is an account of it in Camden's Britannia of 1586 and he is said to have got much of his information from Carew's A Survey of Cornwall. In the revised and enlarged edition of Britannia published by Edmund Gibson in 1695 the Lyonesse entry is as follows:

Mr Camden mentions a Tradition that this promontory (Land's End) stretched itself farther towards the West; to which, these hints may perhaps contribute something of probability: That about the middle way between Land's End and Scilly, there are rocks call'd in Cornish Lethas, by the English Seven-stones; and the Cornish call that place within the stones Tregva, i.e. a dwelling, where it has been reported that windows and other such stuff have been taken up with hooks (for that is the best place of fishing;) that from Lands-end to Scilly is an equal depth of water; that St. Michael's Mount is call'd in Cornish Careg cowse in clawse, i.e. the hoary rock in the wood; that 'tis certain, there have been large trees, with roots and body, driven in by the sea between St. Michael's Mount and Pensance of late years. To these add the tradition, that at the time of this inundation, Trevilian swam from thence, and in memory thereof bears Gules an horse argent issuing out of the sea proper.

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1999 Dr. Patrick Roper


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