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Lyonesse: Exploring the Origins of the Flood Myth

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2021

Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2021

The Isles of Scilly

Twenty-eight miles off the coast of Cornwall in the British Isles, the Isles of Scilly rise above the waves of the Atlantic. Lying southwest from the tip of Land’s End, they are counted as part of the Duchy of Cornwall, one of the "Celtic" kingdoms of Britain.

The Isles are steeped in history, having been inhabited since the Stone Age, with many remains from ancient times still visible. Consisting of around 140 islands, they include five larger ones which are inhabited: St Mary’s Tresco, St Agnes, Bryher, and St Martin’s.

From time to time the islands suffer from great Atlantic gales as the winds sweep in from the west over a vast expanse of ocean. These can cause devastation, but also uncover relics from the past that were previously hidden beneath the sand.

These same sea winds and maritime climate mean that it is rare for frost and snow to appear, and this makes it possible for the islanders to grow crops that would be sown much later in the year on the mainland. The islands benefit from a mild climate with palms and tropical plants featuring in many gardens.

The islands are famed for their wildlife and are a haven for birdwatchers, as well as being one of the last places in Europe to see an elm forest after Dutch Elm disease caused mass destruction of this tree in the 1970s on the mainland and on the continent.

The islands can be reached by ferry in a two-hour crossing from Penzance on mainland Cornwall.

Myth tells of a lost kingdom beneath the waves off Cornwall’s coast, with the sounds of church bells heard faintly from beneath the waves on a calm day off the coast of Land's End.

With Cornwall's strong links with Arthurian legend, is it possible that the Isles of Scilly could be the remains of the legendary kingdom of Lyonesse?

Image showing the Isles of Scilly, and Cornwall, the most south-westerly point of the British Isles.

Image showing the Isles of Scilly, and Cornwall, the most south-westerly point of the British Isles.

Lord Tennyson famously wrote about this mysterious land in his Arthurian epic, “Idylls of the King”, describing the land of Lyonesse as the site of Arthur’s final battle with his rival Mordred;

“Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse–
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”

Mythology tells of this land being positioned off the coast of Cornwall, with many placing this as being lands lost between the mainland and the Isles of Scilly.

Some even speculate that these islands and Seven Stones Rock are all that remains of Lyonesse, being the hilltops of a long drowned world.

William of Worcester in his fifteenth-century “Itinerary” wrote of the lost lands, describing, “foods and fields and 140 parochial churches, all now submerged, between the Mount and the Isles of Scilly”.

In 1584, the topographer John Norden, named this undersea realm in his “Description of Cornwall”: “It is lefte vnto this age by tradition, that a great parte of this Promontorie is swalloews vp of the deuowring sea, namelye the Countrye of Lioness and other Lande sometime lying between the present Landes end and the Iles of Scillye.”

Chambered Cairn on Sampson Isle

Chambered Cairn on Sampson Isle

Clues From History

The sea levels of the Isles of Scilly certainly have changed over the years, with tantalising remains beneath the waters visible around the coast.

Neolithic burial mounds decorate the landscape, and evidence of ancient peoples can be seen when the tide is low.

The Romans wrote as late as the fourth century, how the Isles of Scilly consisted of one main island, and during the strong tides of the spring and autumn equinoxes, it is still possible to walk from isle to isle over the flats revealed at low tide.

The antiquary William Borlase studied remains on the Isles of Scilly, in particular lines of stones running from the shore in Samson Flats of the Isle of Samson. He wrote in 1753 that he believed they were manmade. Later studies of the site in the 1920s concluded that these were field boundaries from the Bronze Age, and this evidence added to the belief that land once stretched out much farther than it does today.

Ariel photograph of the underwater archaeological features of the Samson Flats. Image courtesy of CISMAS

Ariel photograph of the underwater archaeological features of the Samson Flats. Image courtesy of CISMAS

The Great Melt

Modern oceanographers have suggested that the sea level must have risen more than 4 metres in the last 3,000 years and suggest that the remains off the shore of Samson were instead fish traps, as these changes in sea level do not match with more widely-known sea-level changes in the British Isles.

Yet another factor that comes into play is submergence. As the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted, the southern coast of Britain started to sink, a phenomenon that is still happening today [1].

Historically, we know that there was a great flood at the end of the Ice Age, with much of the land mass between modern Europe and the British Isles being lost beneath the waves.

Image shows European Land Mass, up to 15,000 years ago. The lands off the coast of Cornwall would have been above sea level at this point.

Image shows European Land Mass, up to 15,000 years ago. The lands off the coast of Cornwall would have been above sea level at this point.

Looking for Evidence

We need stronger evidence to pinpoint this lost land of Lyonesse on the map, and prove indeed that it did exist. Richard Carew wrote in detail in 1586 [2] about a geographical location for this lost land:

“… that such a Lioness there was, these proofs are yet remaining. The space between the Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, being about thirty miles, to this day retaineth that name, in Cornish Lethowsow, and carreith continually an equal depth of forty or sixty fathom (a thing not usual in the sea’s proper dominion), save that about the midway there lieth a rock, which at low water discloseth his head… (named) by the English, Seven-Stones.”

This account of Lethowsow seemed attestable by the accounts of local fishermen. Around Seven-Stones Rock was an area which the Cornish named Tregva, which means in their native tongue, “Dwelling”. Stories were told of how fishermen would catch pieces of doors or windows in their nets and on their fishing hooks, proof surely of a civilisation gone beneath the waves.

More evidence of changes in sea level appears in Mount’s Bay, near Penzance, where the remains of a submerged forest can be seen at low tide. The Cornish name for St Michael’s Mount which rises sharply up from the bay suggests a different view to the one which greets the modern visitor. “Carrack Looz en Cooz” translates as “the grey rock in the wood”.

There is also an account from the 1860s by Robert Hunt who described how as a schoolboy, he would wander out into the bay during low tide with his school friends to see the petrified forest in Mount’s Bay, and gather leaves and beechnuts embedded in the sand.

Whether nuts and leaves remained by the nineteenth century or not, to this day, pieces of wood and tree stumps can still be seen at the site now known as Longrock Foreshore.

Trevillion flees the Flood

Trevillion flees the Flood

The Legend of Lethowsow

It is in legend however, that we hit a problem.

Lethowsow and Lyonesse may have been brought over by the Benedictine monks that settled in a monastery on St Michael’s Mount. These monks had strong links with their French mother-house, Mont-St-Michele, in Finistère, Brittany, France.

A "Celtic" kingdom, located on the northwest coast of France, this region has its own distinct culture, dialect, and folklore.

Breton myth tells of a drowned city in the Bay of Douarnenez, named Ker-Îs.

The Breton tale describes how the city was destroyed by a great flood, with only one survivor, King Gradlon, escaping the deluge on his horse. The Cornish tale describes how a man named Trevilian escaped the flooding of Lethowsow by galloping on a white horse ahead of the waves.

One should note that “Finistère” means “Land’s End”.

The Breton tale describes how Ker-Îs would one day return. The first person to see the cathedral spire emerge from beneath the waves and hear the bells ringing, would become king of the city. Lyonesse too, is said to one day reappear, and there are accounts in its mythology of how the church bells of the lost land can be heard ringing from beneath the waves.

It seems that these are both regional variations of the same story.

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

Whilst populated from early times, the area now known as Brittany was called Armorica by the Romans.

In the 4th century, troops from Briton were counted amongst an army that settled in the area after being withdrawn from the British Isles.

A second wave of Briton settlers arrived in the 5th century to escape invading Anglo-Saxons and raiding Irish.

Whilst this has been documented by Welsh authors Gildas, and Nennius; the earlier account recorded in the Historia Brittonum, modern archaeology has proven that these migrations occurred.

The Britons then became known as Bretons as their culture took hold. It is important to note that their language “Brezhoneg” has many similarities with Welsh and Cornish, and falls within the Brythonic umbrella of languages.

Did the legend of Lyonesse travel with them from Cornwall, or was the concept of this lost land carried from Brittany by the monks that settled in Cornwall?

Mont St Michel, Brittany

Mont St Michel, Brittany

A final factor to consider is that medievalists believe that the identification of Lethowsow as Lyonesse, sprang from a mistake.

In Arthurian romance, the hero Tristan was the nephew of King Mark, and the lover of his uncle’s younger wife, Iseult. The earliest versions of “Tristan and Iseult” call his native land “Leonois”, the Old French name for Lothian, Scotland.

Tristan himself bears a Pictish royal name. He was perhaps a Pictish prince of the eighth century, whose story was drawn south when Loenois was confused with Leonois in Brittany; the Breton district of Cornouaille was then assumed to be Cornwall.

Another reason for locating Tristan in Cornwall may have been the Drustan Stone, a listed ancient monument presently standing beside the A3082 leading into Fowey.

According to its Latin inscription, it originally marked the grave of “Drustanus, son of Cunomorus”. “Cunomorus” might be Cynfawr, the sixth-century British ruler of Dumnonia (which included Cornwall).

Though sometimes regarded as the grave of the legendary Tristan, the conflict with the Scottish evidence has not been satisfactorily explained [5].

The Tristan (or Dustan) Stone

The Tristan (or Dustan) Stone

Putting the Myth to (the Sea)Bed

Whilst there is unmistakable evidence that there was once a land between mainland Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, it is highly unlikely that it was swallowed by a sudden flood.

Geological and archaeological evidence has given weight to the tales told by fishermen, and are likely to have influenced further elaboration in the legends written to explain their existence.

In the future, we are likely to see further exploration of the underwater sites between the Isles of Scilly, and the prospect of finding remains of sites unspoiled by the plough or the hands of looters is quite exciting.

I would suggest that whilst there is a land beneath the seas, it is unlikely that the Scilly Isles are the hills of the lost land of Lyonesse.

If such a place existed, I would place it somewhere between Cornwall and Brittany.

However, it gives the area beneath the Cornish waters notoriety in Celtic mythology, and illustrates how through folk memory, geographical changes have been noted by local people throughout the ages.

References and Further Reading

[1] Gray, Louise. (2009). "England is sinking while Scotland rises above sea level according to new study." The Telegraph

[2] Camden, William. (2017). Britannia. Forgotten Books: London

[3] Legend Land, Vol. 2 (1922). Project Gutenberg. Uploaded 2007

[4] The Megalithic Portal

[5] Westwood, Jennifer, & Simpson, Jacqueline. (2006). Lore of the Land. Penguin: London

© 2021 Pollyanna Jones


Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on August 01, 2021:

Thank you, DreamerMeg. I really love to see how folklore and mythology tie in to real-life events.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on August 01, 2021:

Very interesting. It's always exciting to see archaeological discoveries from beneath the waves.