Liones, Lyoness, Lyonnesse

An island nation once situated in the neighbourhood of the Scilly Isles, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cornwall. In the days when King Arthur ruled over England, Lyonnesse was a flourishing community which enjoyed a perfect year-round climate. The fertile orchards and farmlands gave several crops a year, the cows produced thick cream and the beehives oozed with the richness of their honey.

The men of Lyonnesse were strong, tall, and handsome: the women possessed of a serene and noble beauty. The castles of the Knights of Lyonnesse had a graceful splendour which concealed their inner strenght, and even the poorest folk lived in neat cottages set amidst charming gardens. There was considerable trade and traffic between England and Lyonnesse, especially since the island was favoured as a place of recuperation for lovelorn maidens or knights weary of long adventuring.

Some people of Lyonnesse were adept practitioners of white magic, but the black arts were unknown. Despite the virtue and nobility of the islanders, their nation sank beneath the waves at about the time of King Arthur’s death: Now, when the great Atlantic rollers sweep in from the west, the fishermen of Cornwall sometimes hear the church bells of Lyonnesse tolling mournfully beneath the waves.

Legend states that, following the death of Arthur at Camlann, Mordred’s forces pursued the remnants of Arthur’s army to Lyonesse. The ghost of Merlin appeared and the land sank, destroying Mordred’s army, but Arthur’s men reached what are now the Isle of Scilly. Local legend says this fabled land sank in 1099, but the bells of its churches are still said to be heard sometimes, ringing beneath the waters. Arthur’s men, however, reached what are now the Isles of Scilly and survived.

Reference is made to Lyonesse in William Camden’s Britannia (1586) and in George Carew’s Survey of Cornwall (1602). Before that the medieval Arab geographer Idrisi used the word Dns for a place that is perhaps the Scilly Isles, Dns possibly being a scribal mistake for Lns (Lyonesse). The origin of the legend seems to stem from Roman times, when the Isles of Scilly appear to have been a single island that was partially submerged by the sea. More recently, Lyonesse was mentioned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as the site of Arthur’s final battle.

P.A. Karr’s edition of Malory spells the land Liones throughout, employing the same spelling as for Dame Liones (Lyonors), Gareth’s love. To avoid confusion, I have gone to the more common modern variant spelling Lyonesse for the land, a now-sunken peninsula of which only the Scilly Islands remain. Some commentators have suggested that it is to be identified with Liones, though this may have originally been Lothian (Leoneis). Later confusion identifies this fabled realm with a region of Brittany (Leonais).

See also
Lyonesse Castle | The Legend of King Arthur