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Tristan, of Tristan and Isolde fame, was a prince of Lyonesse, a country that is sometimes written of as the birthplace of the Arthurian Guinevere and even of King Arthur himself. There are several genealogies of the royalty of Lyonesse from this period derived from stories and legends rather than reliable historic documents.

It is often argued that Lyonesse must have been somewhere, maybe in Brittany, Spain, or the Leominster district in Hereford & Worcester, UK (all have areas currently or formerly called "Leon") or, more plausibly, the former Celtic kingdom of Lothian in Scotland (known in Old French, the language of many Arthur/Tristan stories as Loenois, often spelt "Leoneis") and the supposed inundation has been invented to explain the fact that Lyonesse is plainly not in, or near, Cornwall. (It is important here to appreciate that in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Lyonesse is pronounced "lioness" as in the name of the animal and not "leon-ess" as people generally seem to prefer (perhaps by inference from "Lyons" in France. The long "i" sound after an "l" as in "lie" is not all that common in British place names and does not seem to occur in Cornish or Welsh).

Another interesting possibility is that Lyonesse is related to Caerleon in Gwent, Wales or Carlyon near St. Austell, Cornwall. Caerleon was a Roman fort and subsequently attracted many Arthurian legends. "Caer Leon" (or "Caer Llion" in Welsh) derives from the Latin Castrum Legionum, "Fort of the Legions", while "Car Lyon" is said to come from the Cornish Car Leghan, "Slab Fort". Malory refers to a Castle of Liones as well as a country of Liones and places it within reasonable riding distance of Tintagel which would fit Carlyon. Someone coming from a place called "Lyon" or "Lion" would be called in Latin "de Lionis".

The inundation idea seems partly to be based on historical facts that have been muddled up together. During the last 5000 years many parts of western Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have sunk below sea level. As Camden says, there are the remains of a drowned forest in Mount's Bay off Penzance, St. Michael's Mount at Marazion was once said to be in the middle of a forest, rather than the island it is today, and many of the larger islands of the Scillies formed one land mass. In the latter case the lines of ancient walls have been found on the sea bed between the islands. Some of these events would have taken place during the period when Cornwall and the Scillies were populated by the people who built many of the prehistoric stone monuments and their folk tales relating to this could well have passed into Celtic culture and then have been "updated" to make a better story of later events. Lyonesse has almost certainly, in common with other ancient places and people, attracted many events that were widely spaced in time and place and condensed them into a brief, but catastrophic, episode.

One well-known legend, used by Tennyson at the start of his poem Morte d'Arthur, is that King Arthur was killed in battle in Lyonesse. It is also said that the ghost of Merlin caused Lyonesse to vanish beneath the waves. Mordred and his army were drowned, but Arthur's remaining troops survived on the Isles of Scilly. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives Arthur's death as 542 AD, which thus provides one potential date for the inundation.

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1998 Dr. Patrick Roper


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