The Lost Land of Lyonnesse

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It is said that once there was a beautiful land stretching from the western tip of Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly some 30 miles away. This land was inhabited by a race of strong and handsome people who worked its fertile plains. Here they built many churches, 140 in all, and the beautiful city of Lions. The crowning glory was a great cathedral, or some say a castle, set atop what is now the Seven Stones reef half way between Land’s End and the Scillies. The land was Lyonnesse and legend states that it was all swallowed by the ocean in a single night. Many myths and stories surround this lost land and it is oft said that on a calm day one can still hear the bells of the many churches softly ringing in the seas off the west Cornish coast.

Tresco - Isles of Scilly

Likened to Cornish Sodom and Gomorrah the dreadful crime Lyonnesse’s people committed is unknown but the vengeance was swift and terrible. In the dead of night there came a terrible storm followed by a huge wave which engulfed all before it. In that one night the Land of Lyonnesse disappeared below the waves never to be seen again. Legend has it that a single man escaped from Lyonnesse, furiously riding his white horse ahead of the gigantic wave. The rider had been out hunting in the day and had fallen asleep under a tree. Awoken by the terrible noise he raced across the land eastward and to the higher ground that is now Land’s End. During the flight his horse lost one of its shoes. The name of the man is thought to have been Trevelyan or Trevilian and the three horseshoe motif has been claimed as a crest by more than one local family. Another family, the Vyvyans have a white horse on their crest claiming they are descended from the sole survivor.

The origin of the legend of Lyonnesse is uncertain. There are links to Arthurian legend with Lyonnesse being the kingdom of Tristan’s father. Lyonnesse also has analogues in Celtic mythology. A further possible source is the flooding of the Isles of Scilly and Mount's Bay near Penzance as sea levels rose as long ago as the Bronze Age. There is certainly evidence for this. For example, the Cornish name for St Michael's Mount (Karrek Loos y'n Koos) translates to 'the grey rock in the wood' suggesting the bay was once a forest. There are also many traces of Bronze Age settlements in the areas between the islands on Scilly which were once above sea level. Was it the sight of these submerged villages that might have inspired fishermen to tell the tale of Lyonnesse?