Lyonesse is a country in Arthurian legend, particularly in the story of Tristan and Iseult. Said to border Cornwall, it is most notable as the home of the hero Tristan, whose father was king. In later traditions Lyonesse is said to have sunk beneath the waves some time after the Tristan stories take place, making it similar to Ys and other lost lands in medieval Celtic tales, and perhaps connecting it with the Isles of Scilly.
Lyonesse in Arthurian legend
In medieval Arthurian legend, there are no references to the sinking of Lyonesse, for the simple reason that the name originally referred to a still-existing place. Lyonesse is an English alteration of French Léoneis or Léonois (earlier Loönois), a development of Lodonesia, the Latin name for Lothian in Scotland. Continental writers of Arthurian romances were often puzzled by the internal geography of Great Britain; thus it is that the author French Prose Tristan appears to place Léonois contiguous, by land, to Cornwall. In English adaptations of the French tales, Léonois, now "Lyonesse", becomes a kingdom wholly distinct from Lothian, and closely associated with the Cornish region, though its exact geographical location remained unspecified. The name was not attached to Cornish legends of lost coastal lands until the reign of Elizabeth I of England, however.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Arthurian epic Idylls of the King, describes Lyonesse as the site of the final battle between Arthur and Mordred. One passage in particular references legends of Lyonesse as a land fated to sink beneath the ocean:
Deriving from a false etymology of Lyonesse, the 'City of Lions' was said in some later traditions to be the capital of the legendary kingdom, situated on what is today the Seven Stones reef, some eighteen miles west of Land's End and eight miles north-east of the Isles of Scilly.
Analogues in Celtic mythology
The legend of a sunken kingdom appears in both Cornish and Breton mythology. In Christian times it came to be viewed as a sort of Cornish Sodom and Gomorrah, an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living, although the parallels were limited in that Lyonesse remained in Cornish thought very much a mystical and mythical land, comparable to the role of Tir na nÓg in Irish mythology.
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