Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Isolde of Cornwall

Isolde the Beautiful, Isolde the Blonde, La Beale Isoud
Essyltt, Isalde, Isaldt, Isall, Isalt, Isaota, Isaotta, Iseo, Iseult, Iseus, Iseut, Ísodd, Ísól, Isoldt, Isolt, Isönd, Ísot, Isotta, Isoud, Isoude, Ixolta, Izonda, Izota, Yseult, Yseulte, Yseut, Ysodd, Ysolde, Ysolt, Ysonde, Ysot

Tristram meets Isoud

Daughter of King Anguish of Ireland (or Gurmun) and the niece, on her mother’s side, of Sir Marhaus. La Beale Isoud was already a “noble surgeon” when Tristram came to Ireland, disguised under the name Tramtrist, to seek a cure for the wounds he had sustained fighting the Irish king Moraunt (Marhaus) and his ally, the giant Sir Morholt. Marhaus had wounded him with a venomed spear in a combat between Ireland and Cornwall. Isoud healed Tristram, who fell in love with her during the process and taught her to play the harp,

and she began to have a great fantasy unto him.

About this time Palomides also visited Ireland and began to court Isoud. The legends disagree as to the extent of Tristan and Isolde’s attraction prior to the consumption of the potion; in Gottfried’s version, for instance, she hates Tristan for slaying her uncle, while in the Prose Tristan, they both feel an initial attraction.

She sponsored Tristram in a tournament against Palomides – curiously, the winner of the tournament was to recieve the Lady of the Launds in marriage, but Tristram clearly declined the prize, contenting himself, as the winner, with forbidding Palomides to wear armor for a year. Chased from Ireland by the anger of Isoud’s mother, who finally realized he was Marhaus’ killer, Tristram had a rivalry with King Mark for the love of Sir Segwarides’ wife, but this affair ended by the time Mark sent his nephew back to Ireland to fetch Isoud the be the king’s wife. (Mark had heard of her beauty and goodness from Tristram himself, but Mark’s true purpose in sending for her was to get Tristram slain on the mission.)

On his way, Tristram had the fortune to represent King Anguish in a trial by combat, which made Tristram welcome again at the Irish monarch’s court despite the death of Marhaus.

The Love Potion

Isoud’s mother gave the princess’ favorite handmaiden, Bragwaine (Brangain), a love potion meant for Isoud and Mark to drink on their wedding night. On the ship Tristram and Isoud happened to find it and drink it under the impression it was innocent wine, thus cementing a love which had already been burgeoining and began their affair.

Tristram and Isoud drinks the love potion
Tristan and Isolde | Artist: John William Waterhouse

On the way back to Cornwall they halted at Castle Pluere where, in defense of Isoud and himself, Tristram killed Sir Breunor and his lady and ended their evil customs; Breunor’s son, Duke Galeholt, came to avenge his father, with the King with a Hundred Knights for his ally, but after a fight both became Tristram’s friends.

Morgan Le Fay’s Magical Drinking Horn

Isoud married King Mark as arranged, but if by that time she had not already consummated her love for Tristram, she must have wasted little time in proceeding to do so. Malory tells us that on her wedding night, Isolde substituted Brangain in Mark’s bed in order to hide her loss of virginity. She later tried to have Brangain killed to hide the secret, but the attempt failed and she and Brangain were able to reconcile.

Some little while later, Tristram met Sir Lamorak when the latter was weary with jousting down thirty knights. Lamorak, feeling slighted because Tristram refused to give him a good fight under such unequal circumstances, waylaid a knight was taking Morgan Le Fay’s Magical Drinking Horn, designed to test the loyalty of wives, to Arthur’s court, and made him take it to Mark’s court instead.

Thus Mark learned that Isoud, along with 96 out of 100 other court dames, was an unfaithful wife, and would have burned them all had not his barons sensibly opposed the mass execution and saved their ladies. Tristram’s cousin Andred, however, played the spy until he caught Tristram and Isoud. Tristram was taken bound to

a chapel that stood on the sea rocks

and there condemned to death, but he broke his bonds, fought off his captors, and at last jumped down and fell upon the crags.

Isoud, meanwhile, was sent o a “lazer-cote”, or house of lepers. Gouvernail, Sir Lambegus, and Sir Sentraille de Lushon (Sentrayle of Lushon) pulled Tristram from the rocks, he rescued Isoud, and they spent a loving interlude in a fair manor in the forest until Mark learned where they were, came one day when Tristram was out, and fetched Isoud home again. She sent her lover a message, by way of a cousin of Bragwaine’s, that he should seek help in healing his latest wound – an arrow in the shoulder, given him by a man whose brother he had killed – from Isoud la Blanche Mains, Howell’s daughter.

King Mark suspected the two lovers, having received intelligence from his vassals, but through a number of tricks and ruses, the lovers managed to instill in the king a sense of doubt as to their guilt, which created an uncomfortable situation at court but managed to keep them together. Though Mark often banished them or sentenced them, he was generally persuaded to recieve Isolde as his queen again before long.

Tristram Marries Isolde of the White Hands

Traveling to Brittany, Tristram not only gave Howell some welcome help in Howell’s war against Earl Grip, but also fell in love with and married his new surgeon, Isolde of the White Hands; conscience-smitten on the marriage night, however, he refrained from taking her maidenhead, and she was too innocent and untaught in the ways of love to recognize the omission.

Lancelot, learning of Tristram’s marriage, denounced him as untrue to his first lady, while La Beale Isoud (Isolde of Cornwall) sent a letter of complaint to Guenevere, who returned her a letter of comfort. La Beale Isoud then sent Bragwaine to Brittany with letters in which she begged Tristram to return, bringing his wife,

and they should be kept as well as herself.

Tristram at once headed back to Cornwall, bringing his brother-in-law Sir Kehydius, along with Bragwaine and Gouvernail, but leaving La Blanche Mains in Brittany.

After various adventures, the party arrived at Mark’s court, where the affair gained a new dimension when Kehydius fell in love with La Beale Isoud and began writing her poems and letters. Though not returning his love, she pitied him and tried to comfort him in another letter, which Tristram found and misinterpret. In the rage of accusations that followed, Isoud was driven into a swoon, while Kehydius jumped from an upper window to escape Tristram’s sword and landed, much to Mark’s astonishment, in the middle of Mark’s game of chess. Fearing repercussions, Tristram fled to the forest, where he brooded until he went mad, so that even Palomides, who had all this while been his rival for the love of La Beale Isoud, pitied him.

Isoud Finds Tristram Mad

With an eye to Tristram’s lands, Andred fomented a rumor that Tristram was dead. This drove La Beale Isoud almost mad, so that she propped a sword up breast-high in a plum tree in her garden and tried to run against it. The attempt was stopped by Mark, who

bare her away with him into a tower; and there he made her to be kept, and watched her surely, and after that she lay long sick, nigh at the point of death.

Mark now found but did not recognize Tristram, who was naked and wild but had recently slin the giant Tauleas (Taulas). Admiring his deed, Mark had the naked madman carried to his castle, where eventually La Beale Isoud and Bragwaine recognized him by means of their pet bratchet, the gift of King Faramon’s daughter to Tristram. Isoud’s love restored Tristram to his wits. Unfortunately, Mark and Andred recognized Tristram the same way, and Mark would have sentenced him to death but, on the insistence of his barons, banished him from Cornwall for ten years instead.

Isoud sent Bragwaine after Tristram with letters. After a long search, Bragwaine found Tristram and attended the tournament at the Castle of Maidens with him, expecting to return from there with his answering letters to his lady. Tristram, Palomides, and Dinadan left the tournament early and privately, however, Tristram with a wound from a joust with Lancelot.

This left Lancelot, nine other knights, and Bragwaine to search for Tristram, while Isoud learned how well her love had done at the tournament from Gaheris and others of Arthur’s knights who visited Cornwall, and who got into a free-for-all of battle and treachery with Mark and Andred.

Meanwhile Tristram, Palomides and Dinadan fell into the hands of one Sir Darras (Damas), who threw them into his prison because Tristram had killed three of his sons in the tournament. Eventually Bragwaine headed back for Cornwall, and Sir Darras repented when Tristram fell deathly sick and released his captives. Tristram and Palomides began appointing days to do battle with each other, one or the other of them consistently missing the appointment due to wounds or imprisonment.

Isoud Spying on Tristram

After various adventures, Lancelot brought Tristram to Arthur’s court, where he was welcomed into the company of the Round Table. Both Mark and La Beale Isoud had their spies to report on Tristram’s fame, he for hate and she for love and pride in their paramour.

Finally Mark took Sir Amant and Bersules (Berluse) and went into Logres with intent to slay Tristram. Amant and Bersules revolted and ended up dead, while Mark only got into plenty of trouble, but finally Arthur made thruce between Mark and Tristram and they returned to Cornwall together. Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenevere kept up a correspondence with Tristram and Isoud, Lancelot warning them to beware of Mark; the damsel who carried the letters was also in Mark’s confidence and shared them with him, causing him to return letters of such a nature as to call down a satiric lady of Dinadan’s upon his head.

Tristram’s Imprisonment and Escape

Tristram saved Mark from a Saxon invasion led by Elias. For thanks, when Mark learned of a plot afoot to slay Lancelot at the Surluse tournament, the Cornish king planned to send Tristram in disguise, hoping he would be mistaken for Lancelot. Tristram was badly hurt and Mark, pretending great love, spirited him away secretly to prison. Isoud appealed to Sir Sadok to learn where Tristram was; the upshot of this move was that Sadok, joined by Mark’s former seneschal Sir Dinas, raised the country of Lyonesse for war with Mark, while Percivale came and made Mark free Tristram and promise him safety.

Mark forged letters to make it appear that the Pope was ordering him to go on crusade, and thus, arguing

this is a fairer war than thus to arise the people against your king,

tricked Dinas and Sadok into disbanding their rebellion. Mark then threw Tristram back into prison.

Now Tristram sent La Beale Isoud a letter requesting her to ready a ship for their escape. She reacted promptly and capably, preparing the ship and enlisting Dinas and Sadok to put Mark himself into prison until she and Tristram was safely in England.

Lancelot gave them a home in Joyous Garde. Here

they made great joy daily together with all manner of mirths that they could devise, and every day Sir Tristram would go ride a-hunting,

but even here Isoud prudently insisted he ride armed, in case of “perilous knights” or further efforts on Mark’s part.

Tristram and Lancelot

Malory records other episodes, such as how Tristram and Isoud left Joyous Garde for a time to attend the tournament at Lonazep. The pair remained in Joyous Garde and Isoud continued in at least occasional correspondence with Guenevere, during the period when Guenevere’s jealosy of Elaine of Carbonek drove Lancelot to madness.

Lancelot being found, Tristram proposed they go to court to help celebrate. Isoud’s answer seems to be a model of lady’s love for a knight. She would not go herself,

for through me ye be marked of many good knights, and that caused you to have much more labour for my sake than needeth you,

but she insisted he go, to prevent the accusation that she was keeping him in idle dalliance to the rusting of his honor. She also sent four knights with him, but within a half mile he sent them back. On this journey he met Palomides and they finally had their battle, ending in their reconciliation and Palomides’ baptism. The feast they attended at Camelot saw the beginning of the Grail Quest, but Tristram returned to Joyous Garde and Isoud rather than seek the holy vessel.


Here Malory, or his early editor, simply drops the tale of Tristram and Isoud, remarking,

Here endeth the second book of Sir Tristram that was drawn out of French into English. But here is no rehersal of the third book.

Much later, Malory remarks that Mark finally slew Tristram as he sat harping before Isoud, but does not go into particulars, not even to tell us where it happened. Presumably Isoud did not long survive Tristram.

La Beale Isoud was not without a sense of humor; once she invited Dinadan into Joyous Garde and chid him gently for his stand against love. At his quipping refusal to fight against three knights for her, despite her beauty, “Isoud laughed, and had good game at him”, not neglecting hospitality, however.

Bleoberis and Ector de Maris once described Isoud to Guenevere in the following terms:

[S]he is peerless of all her ladies; for to speak of her beauty, bounte, and mirth, and of her goodness, we saw never her match as far as we have ridden and gone. O mercy Jesu, said Queen Guenever, so saith all the people that have seen her and spoken with her. God would that I had part of her conditions...

It is worth remarking that these two women, who would seem to have had every case of jealousy of each other except a man, never displayed such jealousy, but remained friends and admirers of one another. Phyllis Ann Karr have recapped Malory’s version of Isoud’s story at length because the books of Tristram are notoriously the most rambling portion of Le Morte d’Arthur, capable of bogging down the most interested reader, and the thread of narrative often becomes difficult to follow. I have found no other early version so conscientiously dovetailing Tristram’s story with Arthur’s.

An early form of her name, Esseylt, is found in a list of ladies in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, and her character may be Celtic in origin. Her counterpart in Irish folklore is called Gráinne. The origins of the Tristan and Isolde legend is covered under the entry for Tristan.

Although she is said be the daughter of the King of Ireland, her name derives from the ancient British Adsiltia, meaning “She who is gazed on”. Attempts to associate her with Chapelizod, Dublin, are due to a false derivation of that place name.

La Beale Isoud’s Family and Relations

King Anguish of Ireland

King Mark of Cornwall

Tristram (Tristan)

Uncle (maternal)


Brother Ogrins

See also
Enide | The Legend of King Arthur
Morgan’s Drinking Horn | The Legend of King Arthur