Where are the Lost Lands of Lyonesse?

April 30, 2013

Gustav Dore 1868 Illustration from 'Idylls of the King'

Gustav Dore 1868 Illustration from ‘Idylls of the King’

The idea of a lost city under the sea is an enduring and captivating myth! Atlantis has caught our collective imagination for a long time. Despite its status as a ‘myth’ there are always those who seek a reality to underpin it – and most would usually (deep down) want it to be true as well. So the lost land of Cornwall … are there really submerged towns and villages between Cornwall and the Scillies? We would love to think so….

During the reign of Alfred the Great (9th century) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were started (we know they were still being updated in the 12th century) and they detailed the history of the Anglo-Saxons (no surprises there). It is here that we get the first glimpse of a lost land. It was recored that on the 11th November 1099 the lands that bordered Cornwall were sunk beneath the waves during a terrible storm. Only one person survived (a Trevelyan) and he escaped by riding a white horse that rose from the waves. However, historical truth is a fickle and fragile thing and people have used the legend, forgotten it, resurrected it, changed it and generally made of it what they wish. Was the mainland connected to the Scillies? Did the sea levels change significantly over the centuries (or on one night as legend has it)? The Seven Stones Reef lies in the artea of Lyonesse and some refer to it as ‘The Town’ in memory of the many towns that were lost. In Mounts Bay there is said to be the remains of a sunken forest that can be seen at low tide. Fishermen occasionaly get parts of old building in their nets when trawling the area. And, of course, many have heard the muffled sounds of church bells ringing (there were said to have been 140 villages and churches) beneath the waves.

Tennyson made Lyonesse the location for King Arthur’s last battle with his bastard son Mordred in his epic poem ‘Idylls of the King’. His verse seems to indicate that Lyonesse emerged from the depths just for this battle and would then sink back afterwards.

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.

Whatever the truth, legends like this create a magical air around the places they inhabit and they feed our curiousity … what lies beneath?



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Offbeat Theatre writer of plays for adults, youth theatres, schools and anyone else! Loves to write, blog and visit Cornwall....