Lyonesse was Lindinis
It is curious that sometimes people get such a fixation with one notion as to wholly miss a conflicting one that is obvious. The idea of Lyonesse as west of Cornwall and now in the ocean is just such a notion.
The legend of Lyonesse declares three basic things of it. It was:
- a kingdom;
- adjacent to Cornwall; and
- lost and/or drowned (perhaps soon after the time of King Arthur).
Also, it is often said to have had 140 drowned churches.
There are indications that as recently as Roman times the Scilly Isles, or most of them, were joined as one. There is an apparent drowned forest in Mount’s Bay. There are some rocks between Cornwall and the Scillies known as the Seven Stones. There is a Cornish story of a horseman named Trevilian escaping a flood. There is a Welsh legend of the drowned cantref of Gwaelod in Ceredigion. And of course, large areas of land sank below the sea between seven and ten millennia ago as sea levels rose after the last ice age. Modern minds have woven all this together, occasionally adding a hint of Atlantis as an extra spice, to fill out the legend of Lyonesse into an imagined land that included the Scilly Isles, the Seven Stones, and perhaps Mounts Bay.
There is no evidence of the existence of such a land, either factually (only of a much larger land bridge between Britain and France during the ice age) or in pre-modern legend.
There is, by contrast, evidence of a genuinely drowned land in the Westcountry, one that was drowned within the proto-medieval period. The Romans maintained sea defences to protect the Somerset Levels. Sometime in the fifth century, the sea overcame these defences. The Levels became flooded. They remained substantially marsh, mere, and brackish, well into medieval times.
True, the separation of the Scilly Island into the Scilly Isles may also have happened in the fifth century – of this, nothing is known. St. Gildas reports that in 446 the Britons, appealing to Rome for military aid similar to that which she had sent in 429, said “the barbarians drive us to the sea, and the sea drives us back to the barbarians”, which suggests that rising sea levels and coastal erosion were occurring – and not just in one locality where the upkeep of sea walls could no longer be afforded.
The poet Tennyson, a man of deepest intuition as some of his poems such as “The Ancient Sage” prove, was clear that Lyonesse was not west of Cornwall but, rather, was Somerset. He poetically inverted the ‘Summer Land’ which lies behind the Somer in the name ‘Somerset’, into the ‘winter sea’, writing in Morte D’Arthur “Among the mountains by the winter sea / Until King Arthur’s table, man by man / Had fall’n in Lyonnesse about their Lord”.
Modern Somerset does not abut present-day Cornwall. But in King Arthur’s time, as I am showing in other posts on this blog, Somerset was part of his kingdom of Lindinis, which also included north Devon (east of the Taw), Dorset north of the North Dorset Downs, and a part of Wiltshire approximately the same as the present West Wiltshire District. And the word Cornwall is English for the Celtic name Kernow, the kingdom which in those days comprised Cornwall and the rest of Devon. Somerset was therefore indeed a kingdom adjacent to Cornwall in their sixth-century incarnations as Lindinis and Kernow.
It is not so surprising after all, therefore, that, according to “Drew and Hitchin’s Cornwall”, the family of the horseman who in the Cornish legend successfully fled the flooding of Lyonesse, with the genuinely Cornish name of Trevilian, were at the time of its writing “now residing in Somerset”!
Tennyson returns to Lyonesse later in Morte d’Arthur:-
“…. pushed Sir Modred league by league
back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse
where fragments of forgotten people dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”
The first part seems straightforward. The “sunset bound” is obviously a poetic way of saying the western edge. As I will show in another article, the Battle of Camlann was fought in SE Somerset, so if Lindinis be Lyonesse it was clearly possible for stronger forces to push Sir Modred westwards towards the kingdom’s western margin.
The four later lines that I quote seem more obscure. Yet…. does one more readily on any other coast in all of Britain, I ask myself, stand on the sand of the seashore freshly shifted by the just six hours’-gone high tide, and yet see but faintly as if indeed a phantom, and hear in distant “moaning” the oceanic tone, than at the long, grey retard of low tide at Weston-Super-Mare? Can any measuring-rod invalidate Tennyson’s perception, if he is seeing the arc of the Mendips as mountains that end hard by the coast at Uphill on the southern rim of Weston Bay? And as for “fragments of forgotten people”, could Tennyson have been imagining Sir Modred encountering among the coastlanders some descendents of the builders of Glastonbury Lake Village? Or maybe, his voice was alluding more to the pre-Christian Celtic religion, faded indeed in Somerset/Lindinis by the time of Camlann, yet recalled by the name of the Summer Land and faint and doctored stories of the people of Annwn who lived in Glastonbury Tor?
It is not necessary to assent to the proposition that Modred’s defeated forces fled Camlann in the direction of Glastonbury and/or Weston-Super-Mare in order to assent to there being truth in Tennyson’s poetic insight on Lyonesse: that it was Lindinis, or anyway Somerset including the site of Camlann, Glastonbury, and the Mendips.
If Lyonesse be Lindinis, and if its being recalled as a drowned kingdom be a reference to the Somerset Levels, the presence in the Lyonesse of legend of 140 drowned churches has a partial foundation in mundane fact, for in this kingdom, one of the first two in independent post-Roman Britain to adopt Christianity as its official religion (the other being Gwent), there will have been a few “churches”, or more likely preaching crosses, swamped by the inundation of the Levels when the sea rose above the dykes. But the number 140 needs its packaging snipped with the scissors of a small piece of ex-esoteric knowledge. The clue to its meaning is the legendary identification of the 140 churches with the Seven Stones Reef. Seven is a much more familiar number in Celtic mythology, never more prominent than in the seven verses of Taliesin’s sixth-century poem Preiddeu Annwn (a title which I translate as “The Treasures of Heaven, Hidden Within”) with its refrain nam seith ny dyrreith (save seven, none rose up from). The once-esoteric number seven is, as is now generally known, the number of chakras in the human body; ancient references to ‘seven’ are often allusions to this fact.
But what’s so special about 140? The point of 140 is that 140 divided by seven is 20, and the Druids were said to be qualified to receive initiation after twenty years of training. Twenty years that included developing the ability to cause their inner energies to “rise up” through the seven chakras in their bodies. No wonder the 140 “churches” were in a drowned or lost kingdom, for indeed in Lindinis (and all too soon afterwards in all Britain) the experiential wisdom-knowledge of the seven chakras acquired by twenty years of training was drowned by the rising tide of Christianity. And no wonder that a text called Whitaker’s Supplement to Polwhele’s History of Cornwall says the people of a “tract”, in that text identified as Lyonesse and placed in a location that includes the Seven Stones, the inhabitants are called the Silures and said to be “remarkable for their industry and piety”, for the intensity, length, and purpose, of Druid training by any standard demands both those qualities.
Legend blurs Lyonesse’s disappearance between it being a “drowned” kingdom and a “lost” kingdom. Lindinis is of course a “lost kingdom” in the plain sense that by the ninth century all of its land had been conquered by Wessex and it, as a Celtic political entity, ceased to exist. (It is possible that it in fact ceased to exist in the eighth century. It could be that the part of Lindinis west of the Parrett, not under English rule, merged with Kernow. There is no evidence either way on this.) The legend of Lyonesse appears to have begun in Brittany and/or Cornwall, lands which remained Celtic in language and culture long after the Anglicisation of Somerset. By the time legends from those Celtic fastnesses were spread by Breton minstrels early in the second millennium, thence to flourish in French, Latin, and English translations and adaptations, the lands of the Lindinis that King Arthur ruled between Stonehenge and the Taw were most definitely, from a Celtic point of view, a kingdom lost long ago.
The word-form “Lyonesse” is not in the earliest writings of the legendary kingdom. These speak of Liones (according to the scholar Mary Jones), or Lodones, or, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, of Leonais. Both Liones and Lodones sound like possible intermediate modifications of Lindinis, closer to the original than Lyonesse – and allowing that a written ‘nd’ could well, as sometimes in Greek, have been pronounced ‘d’; and also that linguists say the ‘d’ could have disappeared over time (c.f. my post on King Arthur’s second to fifth battles). As for Leonais, its plain meaning is as the adjective from Leon, a city and district of Brittany. Pertinently, the founding Christian Bishop of Leon in the sixth century was St. Pol Aurelian. A link of allegiance between St. Pol and Lindinis is evidenced by his substantial contribution to Glastonbury Abbey. William of Malmesbury recorded that St. Pol strengthened the first church of the Abbey (that later became famous as the Vetusta Ecclesia – Old Church), which had been built as a simple wattle church, with a layer of wooden boards, and had it covered with lead. Two of the early-named parts of Brittany have obvious name connections with the Westcountry – Cornouaille, and Domnonia. Perhaps the third, Leon, has an equivalent parent in Lindinis, from which both Leonais and Liones descend; and thence the more recent word-form, Lyonesse.
 Storytellers of Ceredigion detached this from Somerset, and relocated it in Ceredigion where Seithenyn lived. In due course I will add an article here about Seithenyn’s Tale.
 William, writing in Latin, recorded the saint’s name as Paulinus – and misinterpreted him as being the Paulinus who, two centuries later, was the first Archbishop of York. St. Pol’s second name, Aurelian(us) shows that he was of the family lineage from Ambrosius Aurelianus, the leader of the Britons praised by Gildas for achieving fairly effective resistance to the English in the period immediately prior to King Arthur’s; and a relative of King Cynan of Powys, his and Gildas’s contemporary, whom Gildas names as Ambrosius’s grandson.