Tristan and Iseult – a timeless love story
Our Fal Estuary haven has a plethora of stories to tell, but none are more compelling and intriguing than those set in the 6th century in the years following the fall of the Roman Empire and before the rise of Saxon England, the age of our Celtic saints. The golden thread of this, ultimately tragic, tale weaves through the fabric of the Fal as it binds together the characters and landscape of Cornwall in the early Dark Ages.
The earliest surviving versions were written independently by two Gaulish poets Beroul and Thomas (the Briton) around 1155 AD. They were contemporaries of Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the famous “History Regum Britanniae”, which provided the first popular accounts of legendary King Arthur. Versions of Tristan, written later in the 13th Century, linked the story ever more closely with King Arthur and fusion was completed within Sir Thomas Malory's publication “Le Morte d'Arthur” written in c.1469. This version cemented the foundations for our popular modern Arthurian phenomenon. The themes explored in all these stories became a treasure trove for later generations, repeated time and again within the pantheon of English and European literature.
The enduring qualities of the Tristan and Iseult story lie in its relentlessly honest exploration of human emotions; love, trust and loyalty, which, when entwined with the legend of King Arthur, became the blockbuster popular fiction of the medieval age. The story has been retold many times, perhaps most famously by Richard Wagner in his opera Tristan and Isolde reputed to be possibly one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. Most recently Tony and Ridley Scott produced the film, Tristan and Isolde in 2006.
Some argue that to use these stories as an historical guide to the 6th Century is akin to suggesting that the modern equivalent “Harry Potter” is a guide to the history of 20th Century Britain. Nevertheless their study provides a tantalising puzzle in teasing out likely strands of ancient “Celtic” oral tradition, allowing time travel back to a pivotal period in Cornwall's history.
Tristan and Iseult – the story in brief:
Full translations are available free on the internet.
Tristan's father Rivalen was a lord of Brittany, who, as a young man travelled to Cornwall joining King Mark's court near Fowey. Rivalen fell in love with Mark's beautiful sister Blanchfleur, and unknown to Mark they became lovers. Rivalen was forced to return to Brittany to defend his lands against the neighbouring Lord Morgan and Blanchfleur, who was by now carrying his child, joined him.
Tragically, Rivalen was soon killed in battle by Lord Morgan, leaving Blanchfleur alone. Desperate at the death of her lover and having endured a difficult three day labour she named the baby Tristan, meaning 'sorrow', in keeping with the circumstances of his birth. Blanchfleur herself died shortly afterwards leaving Tristan as ward of the king's marshal Roald de Foytenant who brought him up as his own. Tristan was a lively lad and excelled in his studies of languages, art and music under the loyal tutor Governal who also instructed him in arms and courtly skills.
One day when Tristan was fourteen he was at the port with Governal when some departing Norwegian merchants saw a chance and kidnapped him, thinking to sell him as a slave in Ireland. [An echo of the fate which befell St Patrick patron Saint of Ireland] When in the channel a violent storm overtook the ship, the captain, taking it as an omen, ordered Tristan to be put ashore at the first opportunity, which was the coast of Cornwall. Tristan found his way to King Mark's court with his identity hidden, however his winning personality and courtly skills soon made him a favourite of the king.
Roald had meantime been searching for his ward and eventually reports led him to Cornwall, reunion with Tristan, and revelation of the truth. Tristan was given his rank at court and also provided both with knights and funds to attempt regain his full title in Brittany. He engaged in campaign and was victorious, himself killing Morgan in battle, however Tristan did not stay in Brittany but rather left his lands and title to Roald, preferring to return to the King's court in Cornwall.
Tristan rose to become Cornwall's champion and was soon busy in defence of its honour, no more so than in its dealings with Ireland which continued to harry the north coasts. He determined to challenge the powerful knight Morholt, brother to the Irish king, in single combat. They met on the island of St Samson and after a hard fought contest Morholt lay dying from a mortal wound.
Although Tristan's wounds were slight, Morholt told him that he also would die because the spear that pierced him had been dipped in poison. Only Morholt's sister Queen Isolde of Ireland could cure the resulting wound. Sure enough Tristan's wounds began to suppurate and give off a smell that even his friends could not abide. No doctor could assist him. Tristan decided to travel to Ireland and somehow find a way to to have Isolde save him.
He disguised himself as a travelling harpist and played so sweetly at the Irish court that the queen, not knowing who he was, was moved to cure him. During his convalescence Tristan spent much of his time with Isolde's beautiful daughter Iseult teaching her to play the harp. When fully recovered he returned to Cornwall, but in the meantime a faction had developed within Mark's court who were envious of Tristan's success. They were keen to counter his influence with the king or even do away with him completely. When Tristan described the beauty and virtue of the princess in Ireland they hatched a plan which might do either. They suggested that the king should make alliance with Ireland by asking for the princess's hand in marriage, moreover they proposed that Tristan should be tasked with winning this prize for his uncle, believing that he would either fail or be revealed in the attempt and killed.
Tristan returned to Ireland and his quest to win Iseult's hand for Mark indeed brought him close to death on a number of occasions. At the time the Irish countryside was being terrorised by a powerful dragon and the king had promised the hand of his princess to anyone who could kill it. Tristan achieved the task taking the beast's tongue as proof of success, however the tongue proved to be poisonous and its power overwhelmed Tristan on the return journey. It happened that the steward to the Irish court came upon the dead dragon and, thinking his luck was in, cut off it's head and took it back to court in order to show that he had killed the beast and claim the prize for himself.
The queen and princess had no liking for the steward and did not believe his story. They did not wish him either husband or son in law, so they went out together to find the truth. They found the unconscious Tristan together with sufficient evidence to allow them to gather the true facts. They brought him back and tended his recovery and after hearing his story determined to support his claim. This would be determined in trial by single combat. The night before the trial Iseult discovered Tristan's true identity and, understanding that he had been the instrument of her Uncle's death, was determined to kill him herself.
Whilst being held at a disadvantage, Tristan was nevertheless able to persuade Iseult that if he were to die not only would she be left with the steward but her own mother's life would be forfeit as she had sponsored Tristan's claim. Tristan was revealed to the Queen and he explained his suit on behalf of King Mark. The offer of a union between Cornwall and Ireland, which the marriage presented, won over the Queen and Princess and they agreed to put this to the King. All worked out well and the match was agreed.
Isolde could see that her daughter's marriage to an older man might not be easy on her, so she prepared a love potion in the form of wine, which she gave to Brangwain, Iseult's maidservant and companion. Brangwain was to see that Iseult and Mark drank the wine on her wedding night. On the sea voyage to Cornwall however the tragically inevitable happened, Tristan and Iseult came across the wine and sharing it, immediately falling in love together. Although Brangwain told them what had happened and the reason for their new feelings they could not resist the potions power.
The story unfolds with tangled intrigue and the continued deception of King Mark. The potion is a clever device allowing the exploration of the darker sides of Tristan and Iseult's thoughts and actions whilst retaining a degree of sympathy and regard for each of them.
Following the marriage of Mark to Iseult many at court were alive to the ongoing deceptions. Tristan and Iseult survived many trials, supported both by luck and guile and also with the assistance of an ever loyal Brangwain.
One critical trial is set firmly on the Fal and starts with the Bishop of Cornwall becoming suspicious. The matter was to be tested by ordeal by fire in which Iseult would be required to state her innocence whilst holding a hot iron. If her statement was true she would not be harmed, if false the iron would burn. Iseult was summoned to court in Blanchland by way of the Forest of Moresk, crossing the river at the Malpas ferry point. Iseult knew that she would have to swear her truth and also knew that the trial would reveal falsehood, so she devised an oath which would demonstrate her loyalty without being untrue. She had Tristan disguise himself as a peasant and wait by the ferry point. As she came ashore the tide was out and the waters edge was muddy. She picked out Tristan to help her ashore carrying her by piggy back. When tested later, she swore that none had been between her legs other than King Mark and the peasant who had carried her ashore earlier that day. Whilst her oath was a deception, her words were the truth and this protected her.
There were many further episodes, the lovers were banished to the forest of Morrois, surviving due to Iseult's quick wit and Tristan's heroic exploits, bound by each other's love and constancy. King Mark's character is ambiguous, at times he is depicted the fool but overall is portrayed with sympathy as one who wishes to see the best in his young friends, however the noose of fate slowly tightens around the lovers and finally Tristan is banished from Cornwall for good.
Again he returns to Brittany where he yet again becomes embroiled in conflict and fighting. After some while he marries but cannot be happy because he still loves Iseult in Cornwall. Eventually Tristan is again mortally wounded in battle with a weapon which once again has been poisoned, he knows that Iseult is the only one who can save him and sends a friend Kaherdin to ask for her help. He arranged that if the returning ship carried white sails then Iseult would be aboard but if they were black she would not.
In Cornwall, on receiving the news of Tristan's impending death Iseult immediately agreed to sail back with Kaherdin. When the ship was in sight of Brittany Tristan's new wife is consumed with bitterness in the knowledge that her love for Tristan was not shared and so she tells him the sails were black.
Tristan thinking his true love had forsaken him declined and gave up his will to live. When Iseult finally arrived she found people already in mourning around Tristan's body and so she lay beside him with her lips to his and died herself, clasping his body in her arms.
The historical setting for the period
The settlement pattern of the 6th century was in the form of rounds which, in Cornwall, were relatively small enclosures created by raising earth banks and associated ditches. Many such structures were defensive in nature, taking advantage of the natural topography of hills and headlands, but often the defensive qualities were minimal. There is no shortage of such settlements around the Fal and a quick scan of an Ordnance Survey map may surprise even those who know their county well.
The area around Truro is ringed with settlement rounds, to the east lies the Roman camp of Carvossa near Probus and the impressive Golden Hill Fort nearby. To the north there are a further six rounds perhaps the most impressive lying in Bishop's Wood at Idless. To the south west in the parishes of Kea and Feock lie Goodern round at Baldhu and Roundwood Fort near Trelissick. The Goodern round has been associated with Lord Teudor (Theodoric) due both to its situation and similarity in name with his reputed Castle Gudrun. References to Lord Teudor abound within the various literary sources of the period and in the stories of the lives of Local Celtic Saints.
Roundwood Fort, in contrast with some of its neighbours, can boast no references in literature or tradition, which is somewhat surprising taking account of its remarkable position. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect site for a fortified merchant trading emporium, situated as it is on the Fal an arterial route linking Cornwall's sister provinces of Brittany and Wales leading onwards to Ireland. The site has not been excavated and currently there is little physical evidence to support any important role in such trade or traffic, however its position alone must promote it as a likely candidate for more detailed evaluation.
A large part of Feock and Kea parishes was known as Woderan in the Domesday Book. It was also known as Blanchland or Landeblanche, this name, meaning white-heath, may have derived from an abundance of white spar quartz in the area. The whole area was extensively covered by forest and given the name Morrois from which the current name Moresk was derived.
The Roseland contains four rounds the most famous being Dingerein Castle at Trewithian near Gerrans. This has been associated with a King Geraint, who, in legend, was a close lieutenant of King Arthur, dying in battle with the Saxons in 480AD. Gilbert Doble stated, “there is reason for believing that the Parish of Gerrans contains the site of a residence of a former king of Cornwall who made an impression on his contemporaries since numerous stories were told about him long after his death, not only in Cornwall but also in Wales and Brittany”. There remains no definitive list of Cornish kings, however reference is made to Cato, a son of Geraint, who continued in his father's footsteps and also grandsons Constantine, Seleven and Just. By this generation Christianity was becoming embedded in Cornwall and a growing tradition had developed involving kings and nobles giving up their privilege to follow the church. All three grandsons of Geraint appear to have taken this route and were considered Saints in various parts of the County.
King Mark, otherwise known as Cunomorus, has numerous references in history. He may be identified on the so called Tristan stone near Fowey, the inscription reads “DRVSTANVS HIC IACIT / CUNOMORI FILIVS" translated as "Here lies Drustanus, son of Cunomorus". King Mark probably lived in the first half of the 6th century and ruled both in Cornwall and parts of Brittany. It was said that his kingdom was so large that four languages were spoken and although his main court was at Castle Dore near Fowey he also held a castle at Carhaix in Brittany.
To find out more about the archaeology of rounds visit the Cornwall Council website “Historic Enviroment of Cornwall: Enclosed Settlements”
Latest DNA genetics mapping carried out by Oxford University has shown the geographic spread of British tribes in 600AD to be almost identical to charts showing the genetic make up of communities today, suggesting that these communities have stayed put for the last 1,415 years. From this research, the most striking genetic split can be seen between people living in Cornwall and Devon. People living on either side of the Tamar having different DNA. The research shows a remarkable consistency over large areas of southern England, associated with the Anglo Saxon kingdoms but the different Celtic nations do not show the same consistency and are among the most different from each other in the whole of the UK.
Painting by John Waterhouse depicting the two drinking the potion
Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton depicting King Mark overhearing the two talking
Written by Phil Allen