Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia


Liones, Lyoness, Lyonnesse

Lyonesse is a legendary land that features in Arthurian folklore and medieval romance literature. Lyonesse is not a well-defined or historically documented place but rather a mythical and mystical land with various interpretations.

Location and Nature
The exact location of Lyonesse is not specified in the Arthurian legends. It is typically described as an island or a coastal region, often situated off the southwestern coast of Britain, near Cornwall. Lyonesse is often depicted as a beautiful and enchanting land known for its lush landscapes, castles, and rich culture.

Role in Arthurian Legends
In some Arthurian tales, Lyonesse is mentioned as the homeland of several knights of the Round Table, including Tristan and Isolde. It is where Tristan is said to have been born. In some versions of the Arthurian legend, Lyonesse is associated with King Arthur’s court and is depicted as a realm of chivalry and romance.

Submersion and Legend
One of the most famous aspects of Lyonesse’s legend is its submersion beneath the sea. According to legend, Lyonesse gradually sank into the ocean due to a great catastrophe or natural disaster. The idea of a submerged land is a recurring theme in folklore, and Lyonesse shares similarities with other legendary submerged lands like Atlantis.

In the days when King Arthur ruled over England, the island nation 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.

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

In Literature
Lyonesse appears in various medieval romances and poetry, including Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the Tristan and Isolde legends.

Symbolism and Interpretation
Lyonesse is often seen as a symbol of the mythical and the unattainable. It represents a lost and idealized world of chivalry, romance, and heroism. The concept of Lyonesse has captured the imaginations of writers and artists for centuries, making it a recurring theme in literature, poetry, and art.

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 (called Leoneis). Later confusion identifies this fabled realm with a region of Brittany (called Leonais).

See also
Lyonesse Castle | The Legend of King Arthur

Tristrant | Eilhart von Oberge, 1170–1190
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886