Mark of Cornwall

‘The Cuckold King’
Breton: Marc’h | Cornish: Margh | Latin: Marcus | Welsh: March
Marc, Marco, Markaes, Marke, Markes, Markis, Marko, Markos, Mars, Mórodd

King of Cornwall in the Tristan legends. He was Tristan’s uncle and Isolde’s husband, thus playing the inconvenient third part of the TristanIsolde-Mark love triangle.

The story of Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) appears in the romances of many countries, and so, by association, does the character of Mark. His family tree, however, differs greatly. That most commonly reffered to is the pedigree given by Sir Thomas Malory. The Italian romance Tristano Riccardiano gives a version that has great similarity to the details given by Sir Thomas Malory. The Dream of Rhonabwy tells us that he was Arthur’s cousin while, in the Triads we learn that Tristan was his swineherd.

Prior to his marriage to Isolde, he took his young nephew into his court and was greatly impressed by his prowess, particularly when Tristan defeated Morholt of Ireland, thus freeing Cornwall from a tribute. Mark appointed Tristan his steward or chamberlain, and his heir-apparent. He later assigned Tristan the task of bringing Isolde, his betrothed, from Ireland, and on their return trip, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank a love potion and began their notorious affair, which destroyed the relationship between uncle and nephew. Over the course of years, Mark sometimes banished, sometimes sentenced the lovers, but usually relented – either through their pleas or through pressure from his peers. In the tragic finale of some of the romances, he slays Tristan.

King Mark slew the noble knight Sir Tristram as he sat harping before his lady La Belle Isolde.
N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Mark’s character varies greatly from one legend to the next. Far from the evil King Mark portrayed in the romances of Tennyson and Malory – who calls him “bad King Mark”, capabel of almost any ruse or treachery, both by violence, when he had the strength and advantage, and by craft, even to forge letters to purportedly from the Pope, ostensibly commanding Mark himself to go on crusade, this being a ploy to put down the rebellion in his own neighborhood and get Tristram away to the Holy Land.

Mark’s early appearances generally present him as a sympathetic or even noble king who acts fairly towards his wife and nephew, against whom he has a legitimate grievance. Unaware of the love potion, he gives Tristan and Isolde every benefit of the doubt until circumstances compel him to act against them. In some versions, when he later hears of the source of their love, he laments and professes that he would have relinquished his wife had he known.

His character begins to degrade in the Prose Tristan, but even here he is a complex figure who, although motivated by lust and pride and insecurity, finds himself tortured over his treatment of Tristan and Isolde. After sentencing them on one occasion, he runs sobbing to his chambers, calling himself

the most worthless king to ever have worn a crown.

Meanwhile, the Post-Vulgate introduces an episode in which Mark destroy’s Arthur’s kingdom, securing his fate in later literature as a certain villain. Malory and Tennyson both present him as an utter tyrrant.

The Prose Tristan and Malory relay that Mark’s rift with Tristan began not over Isolde, but over the wife of Sir Seguarades, some time before Isolde and Mark were married.

Like Arthur, Mark on occasion sallied forth dressed as an ordinary knight, keeping his true identity secret – especially if he heard his companions-for-the-nonce talking against Mark of Cornwall. Faced with combat, Mark often turned poltroon – though at least once he defended himself competently in trial by combat, winning even though he was in wrong. Malory comments that Mark won by chance, but at least Mark had sufficient honor to show up at the battleground, having given his word to do so. For all his villainy, Mark fails to become a commanding figure, frequently seeming more of a butt and buffoon.

Mark was a

fair speaker, and false thereunder.

Lancelot called him “King Fox”, and it was a long time before he was compelled to swear fealty to Arthur. The knights Mark killed, both Arthur’s men and his own (in rage, etc.) and presumably knights-errant and knights of other courts as well, may equal or outnumber the victims of Breuse Sans Pitie. Mark is a cowardly knight who always avoids combat or attacks by surprise. His tolerance of Tristan – when he does tolerate him – is spurred not out of magnanimity, but out of fear that his own knights – most of whom are friends with Tristan – will revolt.

Nonetheless, the reports by certain traitorous knights (most notably his nephew Andred) lead him to imprison Tristan three times, to banish him twice, and to try to execute him once. In several of these instances, Arthur and his knights intervene, forcing Mark to relent. Mark develops a hatred for Arthur and at various times plots to murder Yvain, Kay, and Gaheris.

Very curiously, it was Mark who, finding Sir Lanceor and Lady Colombe dead, stopped to bury them and erect a rich romb over them, apparently for no other motivation than kindliness and pity. In other versions of Tristram, earlier as well as later, Mark is shown as a more sympathetic, or at least less malicious, characters. Perhaps Malory put so much emphasis on Tristram and integrated his saga so thoroughly with Arthur’s in order to play up the parallel between the two great love trianels: ArthurGuenevere-Lancelot and Mark-Isoud-Tristram. Having done so, Malory might have been constrained to make Mark as bad as possible in order to present a contrast with the comparatively good Arthur.

The writer Wrmonoc says Cunomorus was also called Mark and he may have thought him identical with March, son of Meirchiaun (Meirchyawn), King of Glamorgan. He is a cousin of Arthur, and leader of the Norwegian warriors commanded by Arthur. March means “horse”, and Béroul tells us that he had horse’s ears – a characteristic he shares with other legendary personages.

The origin of his name is probably the Roman “Marcus”. There is evidence for his actual existense. A historical king named Kynvawr ruled Cornwall in the early sixth century. The name, which in Latin form is “Cunomorus” appears on a sixth-century tombstone in Cornwall, at Castle Dor, marking the grave of

Drustans hic iacit cunomori filius

[Here lies Tristan, son of Cunomorus
]

Drustanus is often accepted as the origin of Tristan. Mark is connected with Cunomorus in the Life of Saint Paul Aurelian, whose author says that Mark’s full Latin name was Marcus Cunomorus. If these facts are true, then the historical Mark was Tristan’s father, not his uncle. Interestingly, a Welsh Triad does list “March” as the father of “Drystan,” but seems to be the only source to do so.

A story tells that this Cunomorus had been warned that one of his sons would kill him, so he murdered his wives when they became pregnant. One wife, Trephina, daughter of Warok, chief of the Venetii, actually gave birth before Cunomorus had her decapitated. However, he performed this task after the birth and her son (Judval or Tremeur) was left to die. Gildas restored Trephina to life. They went back to the castle (Trephina carrying her head) and the battlements fell on Cunomorus, killing him.

At a more prosaic historical level, we are told that Cunomorus supported Chramm, son of the Frankish King Clothair, in a rebellion in which both he and Chramm fell, at AD 560. However, M. Dillon and N.K. Chadwick state that Cunomorus fell while fighting people who had rebelled against him.

In the Prose Tristan, Mark’s father’s name is Felix, and he is given a brother named Pernehan, whom he murders. Malory similarly tells us that he slew his brother Bodwyne, whose popularity and success in battle Mark envied, and, later, Bodwyne’s son Alexander. While in the early romances and the Prose Tristan is the son of Mark’s sister (Blanchefloour or Elyabel), Italian romance contends that Meliadus, Tristan’s father, was Mark’s brother. According to the Post-Vulgate, Mark raped his niece and had a son named Meraugis, who became a Knight of the Round Table.

Various tales tell what befell him after Tristan’s death, and the earliest legends do not describe Mark’s death. Tristan and Isolde perish in Brittany, and Mark simply disappears from the story. The Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal and Mort Artu tells us that he invaded Logres and besieged Camelot during the Grail Quest. Arthur’s knights defeated him, but he returned after Arthur’s death, laid waste to Arthur’s kingdom, destroyed Camelot, and desecrated the tombs of Lancelot and Galehaut. He tracked down Arthur’s remaining knights at a hermitage, murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was himself killed by Arthur’s Sir Paulas.

One version of the Prose Tristan has Mark slay Tristan with a poisoned lance provided by Morgan Le Fay, while another version recounts a more traditional tale of Tristan’s death at the hands of a lord named Bedalis. After Tristan’s death, Mark is exiled to the Redoubted Island, but he eventually escapes and reclaims his throne. In still another manuscript, Mark is taken prisoner by the sons of Dinas (his former seneschal), is tied to a tree, and is eaten by a bear.

According to the La Tavola Ritonda, Arthur, King Amoroldo of Ireland, and King Governal of Lyonesse invaded Cornwall after Tristan’s death, and besieged Mark in the castle of Tintagel. Mark was eventually captured and was locked in a tower overlooking Tristan’s grave. His captors fed him fattening food and drink until Mark died of gluttony after 32 months.

Malory tells us that he was killed by Bellangere, his great-nephew, who was avenging the deaths of Bodwyne and Alexander the Orphan. In the Italian La vendetta che fe messer Lanzelloto de la morte di miser Tristano, Lancelot invaded Cornwall and killed Mark in revenge for Tristan’s death. Elsewhere it is said that Tristan the Younger overcame him; or that he was placed in a cage and from there had to view the graves of Tristan and Iseult; or that, when Lancelot died, he invaded Logres and subsequently destroyed most of Camelot and the Round Table, but himself fell at the hand of Pamlart, a descendant of Ban; or that Bellangere, son of Alisander the Orphan killed him.

Finally, in the Icelandic Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd, he gives England (his kingdom) to Kalegras, Tristan’s son, and lives out his days in a hermitage in Jerusalem. Jean D’Outremeuse gives Mark a son named Galopes who avenges Mark’s death at the hands of Arthur by inciting the Roman Emperor to invade Britain.

King Mark lives on in Breton tradition. He is thought to ride a winged horse (mormarc’h) when the sea off Penmarc’h (Mark’s Head, a headland in Brittany) is stormy.

Spence identifies King Mark with “March, son of Mairchion” [“Horse, son of Horses”], as a figure from British mythology, wherein horses held a high place, as evidence, for instance, by the white horses on the hills of Uffington and Bratton.

In Wagner’s opera he is a noble older man, in the tales around Arthur he is sly and unchivalry.


See also
Amant | The Legend of King Arthur


King Mark’s Family and Retainers

Wife
La Beale Isoud (Isolde)

Brother
Prince Boudwin of Cornwall

Sister
Queen Elizabeth of Lyonesse (Eliabel or Blanchefleur)

Brother-in-law
King Meliodas of Liones

Sister-in-law
Anglides

Bastard son
Meraugis de Porlesquez

Nephews
Tristan (by Elizabeth), Alisander le Orphelin (by Boudwin)

Grand-nephew
Bellengerus le Beuse (by Alisander)

Kinsman (unspecified)
Dinas

Seneschal
Dinas

Retainers
Andred (also Mark’s nephew?), Amant, Berluse, Sadok, Lady Leech of Cornwall (?)

Ally (?)
Morgan Le Fay


Sources
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Tristan | Thomas of England, 1170-1175
Tristan | Béroul, late 12th century
Tristrant | Eilhart von Oberge, 1170–1190
Tristrams Saga ok Ísöndar | 1226
Breudwyt Rhonabwy | 13th century
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
Tristano Riccardiano | Late 13th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Saga af Tristram ok Isodd | 14th century
La Vendetta Che fe Messer Lanzelloto de la Morte di Miser Tristano | 14th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886


Image source
“King Mark slew the noble knight Sir Tristram.” | N.C. Wyeth, 1922