The world is full of human-made wonders, and to take them all in would probably require way more free time and money than most of us have at our disposal. But if you’re OK with seeing a fast-track, kinda mockbuster version of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, you could do worse than a trip to England: sure, you won’t see the Pyramids of Giza, but you can go gawk at Stonehenge; there’s no Great Wall of China, but Hadrian’s Wall is still (just about) standing.
In fact, England even has knock-off versions of places you can’t visit. Off the coast of Cornwall, the southern- and westernmost county of mainland England and one of the six Celtic nations that still survive in Northwestern Europe, there lies – or rather, doesn’t – the country’s very own version of the Atlantis myth: a legendary ancient kingdom known as Lyonesse.
Lyonesse in legend
The earliest English mention of the lost land of Lyonesse dates back to 1485, with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. As the name suggests, the book is a collection of tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; as the name does not suggest, it’s a vast tome spanning the legendary monarch’s story from years before his birth to well after his death.
There, in amongst all the tales of Camelot and Swords in Stones and suchlike, you will find the story now usually known as Tristan and Isolde. It’s kind of the original Romeo and Juliet: a tragedy featuring star-crossed lovers from warring kingdoms who, after a brief period of happiness together, are forced apart by their families until eventually, they suffer a romantic but ultimately pointless death in each other’s arms.
As heartrending as the legend is, however, there’s one detail that is probably going to change how you imagine the entire story. It’s Tristan’s voice: he’s usually described as being from Cornwall, meaning our tragic hero would probably sound more like Long John Silver than Leonardo Di Caprio in any blockbuster version of the tale.
But despite making his name as a Cornish knight, Tristan was actually born even higher: he was, according to the legend, the son of the King of Lyonesse – or Liones, as Malory’s Middle English spelled it.
It was, local tradition says, a rich and prosperous land, with large, beautiful towns, fertile plains, more than 140 churches, and, perhaps perched atop what is now the Seven Stones Reef some 29 kilometers (18 miles) west of Land’s End, its own cathedral, towering like a castle above the lands below.
And then, one night, it disappeared.
Although he was born the heir to the Lyonessian throne, Tristan would never take his place as King of the supposedly Eden-like land. That’s because, in 1099 – or perhaps 1089, or maybe as far back as the sixth century, depending on which version of the legend you read – the country was supposedly swallowed whole by the sea in a single night.
It was, the story goes, divine recompense – a punishment against the people of Lyonesse for a crime against God so egregious that the whole country was wiped off the face of the map. The grievance is never specified in text, so we can only speculate as to what was going on in this churchy farmland that could inspire such wrath – but whatever it was, it must have been bad. Lyonesse was lost forever, leaving no trace and no survivors.
Well – almost none. According to local lore, there was one person who escaped the storm that fateful night – a hunter, riding a white horse, by the name of Trevelyan.
The precise identity of this lucky refugee is the subject of some inter-familial squabbling today. Legend has it that Trevelyan’s horse threw a shoe during the dramatic escape, and multiple families in Cornwall now include the horseshoe motif in their coats of arms as a link to this, let’s face it, likely fictional ancestor.
Ask local fishermen, meanwhile, and they may tell you of the bells they can sometimes still hear, ringing softly from the fathoms below their boats.
Did Lyonesse ever really exist?
When you read references to Lyonesse from before the 19th century or so, you may notice something peculiar. For such a mystical and legendary land, you might think, nobody really seems to think it’s all that special – Malory barely mentions it, short of noting that Tristan was born there, and references to the place from the 16th and 17th centuries are similarly prosaic.
“The encroaching sea hath ravined from it [Cornwall] the whole country of Lionesse, together with divers[e] other parcels of no little circuit,” reads Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, from 1602. “The space between the land’s end and the Isles of Scilly, being about thirty miles, to this day retaineth the name, in Cornish Lethowsow, and carrieth continually an equal depth of forty or sixty fathom… [it] now is at every flood encompassed by the sea, and yet at some low ebbs roots of mighty trees are described in the sands about it.”
In short, it’s not presented as particularly controversial that Lyonesse may once have existed – perhaps because of the “evidence” that local sailors claimed to have found for the lost country.
“This Promontorie heeretofore ran further into the Sea, and by the rubbish which is drawen out from thence the Mariners affirme the same,” reads Camden’s Britannia, from 1586 – while Carew similarly would note that “Fishermen… casting their hooks thereabouts have drawn up pieces of doors and windows.”
But is there any more evidence for the existence of a mythical lost land than ancient tales of mysterious recovered relics? Well – it’s complicated.
In 2009, following the discovery of a submerged forest in Scilly – the isles west of Cornwall which would, theoretically, have formed the coast of Lyonesse – archeological groups from England and Wales embarked on a joint seven-year project investigating the history and evolution of the local landscape.
And when the results of the Lyonesse Project, as the research was dubbed, were published, they seemed to confirm that the legends may not have been as farfetched as they seem. Kind of.
“A notable aspect of Scilly's historic environment is the presence of stone walls and other remains below high water, the result of low-lying land being submerged by the gradual rise in sea-level,” confirmed a 2014 overview of the project. “The timing and nature of changing land areas and the separation of the individual islands has, in the past, been the subject of much conjecture and debate.”
But do those stone walls come from some 11th-century Arthurian lost land? Definitely not, the researchers concluded.
“The new data shows that the 500-year period between 2,500 and 2,000 BC saw the most rapid loss of land at any time in the history of Scilly — equivalent to losing two-thirds of the entire modern area of the islands,” noted Charlie Johns, Archaeology Projects Officer at the Cornwall Archaeological Unit, at the time.
“After this, the rate of change slowed significantly so that by circa 1500 BC the pattern of islands was approaching that of today.”
All of which makes it pretty unlikely that Lyonesse was ever a real place – at least the version of it passed down through legend. After all, being entirely submerged underwater for more than 2,500 years would make it difficult at best to build 140 churches and a castle, don’t you think?
Are we even looking in the right place?
Of course, there is one more possibility: we might have been looking in the wrong place all along. According to some researchers, the name Lyonesse may in fact be a mistake – a corruption, by French authors influenced by Brittonic placenames such as Le Léonais, of the name Lothian.
If so, then Lyonesse isn’t near Cornwall at all. In fact, it’s not even lost: you wouldn’t need any medieval manuscripts or radiocarbon analysis equipment to visit; it’s not underwater (often), and the locals are more likely to talk about Greyfriars Bobby than Prince Tristan.
That’s because Lothian is in Scotland – the county of Edinburgh, in fact, some 500-plus miles north of Land’s End. And while we admit this theory is unlikely to overtake the mysterious legend of the Arthurian kingdom lost to the sea forever – wouldn’t it be embarrassing if it turned out to be true?