Tales of lands lost off the coasts of Britain and France abound in local tradition; the most famous, Lyonesse, was said to link Land’s End and St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall with the Scilly Isles. Medieval tradition describes a former land beyond southwest England. Is there any factual truth in this? What connection does Lyonesse have with King Arthur or the Celts?
In the Bay of Douarnenez off Brittany, there is reputed to lie the sunken city of Ker-Is which may once have had links with Mont-St-Michel. Legends also tell of a district called the Bottom Cantred off the west coast of Wales. A land of 16 great cities between Bardsey Island and the mouth of the River Teifi, the Bottom Cantred was defended from the sea by dykes which, it is said, can be plainly seen under the waters of Cardigan Bay.
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. Moreover, midway between Land’s 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 fisherman reported drawing up pieces of doors and windows.
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 Cornwall’s lost land had been identified with Lyonesse, it became bathed in the glow of Arthurian legend. New connections were made. Alfred Lord Tennyson placed Arthur’s court of Camelot there, and mystics expected to see Lyonesse rise again from the waves or to behold it off Land’s End in vision.