The Tristan stone
This intriguing ancient inscribed & historic monolith from the 6th century is located somewhat randomly on a grass verge beside the A3082 on the approach to Fowey. Not an ideal spot for such an important stone if Arthurian legend is to be believed.
The story suggests that this monolith once marked the grave of Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall; however the stone no longer sits in its original location having been moved at least once over the past 200 years. The earliest records from the 16th century infer it was located much closer to Castle Dore a couple of miles away, which is believed to be the site of King Mark’s stronghold, known as Lantyan.
Whether verifiable or otherwise, this stone carries with it some fabulous thought provoking Cornish history, legend and romance, as well as being the inspiration for a novel by the famous author Daphne du Maurier, an Opera and a film!
While researching the history it has been amazing to find so many artistic connections and historical links to the name and legends that surround Tristan, as such there is no apology for the deviation on occasions from the history of the stone!
Tristan Stone Inscription
The stone itself has two distinct inscriptions; a “T” shape carved in relief and a line of weather worn Latin text.
The T is likely to be the Tau cross which is believed to be an early form of Christian cross.
The text is interpreted to read ‘CIRVSIVS HIC IACIT CUNOWORI FILIVS’, which is generally believed to mean “Here lies Drustanus, the son of Cunomorus”.
“This great pillar stone, 2.7m high and set on a modern plinth, was formerly called the long stone. Originally it stood closer to Castle Dore, 2 miles to the North. High on the back of the stone is a Tau cross, carved in relief; on the front, running vertically down the stone, is a two line inscription interpreted as ‘Drustanus Hic Lacit Cunomori Filius’ (Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus). This has been dated to the sixth century AD. The two names have been equated with the famous Tristan and King Mark of Cornwall; indeed, a ninth century manuscript speaks of ‘Marcus, also named Qunonomorius’ who ruled over both the British and Breton regions of Dumnonia and Domnoneee. Unfortunately, the first name of the inscription is now almost ineligible” (Weatherhill, 2011)
It is certainly conceivable, that the individuals referred to are Tristan, the nephew of Mark – Drustan being a recognised derivative of the hero’s name and Cunomorus being a Latinisation of Cynvawr. Cynvawr, in turn, is said by the ninth-century author Nennius, who it is suggested compiled the best historical account of Arthur, to be identified with King Mark.
If this was a memorial to the hero Tristan, who was he?
It is said that; Sir Tristan, was of the time of King Arthur and a Knight of the Round Table. He was the nephew and champion of King Mark of Cornwall, he became his uncle’s champion after defeating and killing Marhaus of Ireland in a duel. Tristan was the son of Meliodas, King of Lyoness, a land apparently bordering Cornwall. Suggestions to its actual location have including northern France and the Isles of Scilly. Tristan was taken into the service of his uncle King Mark after the death of his mother. Tristan later fell in love with Isolde his Uncles Queen to be! There are several endings to Tristan’s life from living happily in exile to death from a poisoned dagger at the hands of King Mark.
The love story
Tristan and Isolde hold a place in medieval legend equal to that of Lancelot and Guinevere. Its even suggested that Lancelot and Tristan were referred to by Merlin as the two greatest knights and greatest lovers.
The torment over love and loyalty between Tristan and Isolde and King Mark is a typical tale of ancient storytelling.
The story line is one of accidental love; with Tristan, the trusted champion and hero, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall.
Dispatched to Ireland to escort and protect the Irish king’s daughter, the beautiful Isolde, to Cornwall to become King Mark’s bride.
It is during the voyage to Cornwall across the Irish sea that Tristan and Isolde accidentally consume a love potion which was meant to be taken by King Mark and Isolde! Naturally they then fall in love, as the wedding must go ahead, the two lovers then have to decide their future and where their loyalties lie.
Intriguingly from here the story has as many potential endings as the sliding doors movie with Gwyneth Paltrow! This tale of potion induced passion has proven to be captivating to artists from all walks of life, hence the deviation of this blog from the stone’s history to art, films, books, opera and even a ship!
Mostly the different versions of the legend revolve around the romantic love and loyalty, though excitingly no accounts are the same!
‘Castle Dor’ by Daphne Du Maurier & Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Written by not one but two literary heavyweights
At the time Daphne du Maurier lived near to where the Tristan stone stood near Castle Dore.
She wrote her own version of the Tristan and Isolde story and some would say Arthurian legend.
‘Castle Dor’ is a retelling of that story but set in Cornwall in the 1840s. It was originally begun by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famous British novelist and also from Fowey.
He had left the novel unfinished and in mid-chapter; Years after his death, his daughter Foy, asked Daphne du Maurier to complete it.
The story of Tristan and Isolde is a complex tragedy and whilst any links the stone has to the tale are fairly tenuous, they do exist.
2006 film ‘Tristan and Isolde’ set in the middle ages!
In the Dark Ages, following the end of the Roman Empire, Britain is divided into several tribal areas, meanwhile Ireland, left untouched by the Romans is powerful and decimates the British tribes.
Mark is a just and noble tribal leader and tries to unite the country, but they are attacked and slaughtered by the Irish and their leader Morholt!
Years later Tristan in the service of Mark, kills Morholt and ends the terror but is seriously injured. He is nursed back to health by Isolde unaware who she is he falls in love with her.
Later when Princess Isolde is offered to Mark so as to make him king and unify the clans, Tristan realising it’s actually his love, has to decide between his friendship and loyalty for Mark or his love for Isolde!
The Opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’ Composer-Robert Wagner 1859
The three acts of the opera are set, respectively, aboard ship on the Irish Sea, in Cornwall and in Brittany.
The many versions of this story all pay homage to the Celtic ambience and possible origin of the legend, involving Tristan, Isolde & King Mark…
King Arthur and the knights of the round table
Tristan, or (Tristram)in Old English, was a contemporary of King Arthur and a Knight of the Round Table.
He was the nephew and champion of King Mark of Cornwall and the son of Meliodas, King of Lyoness.
Tristan’s mother died when he was born, and as a young man he took service with his uncle, Mark. Tristan became the champion of his uncle after defeating and killing Marhaus of Ireland in a duel, so the tale goes…
A British Navy support ship as well!
RFA Sir Tristram L3505, (Tristram is the Old English spelling for Tristan) is a former Logistics Landing Ship “Round Table” class. She was taken into British Army service in 1967 and transferred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1970. The ship saw service in the Falklands in 1982where she was badly damaged at Fitzroy on 8 June from enemy bombardment. After an extensive refit she was involved in the Gulf War and Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. She was decommissioned in 2005,and is currently berthed at Portland Harbour and used for training purposes by UK forces.
So what can we conclude, now? Since all of these people and places are part of the legend of King Arthur, and since some of these places do exist and have valid connections with the people of the legend, does this offer us proof that the legend is actual history? Probably not but it is a fabulous story, the evidence is evocative, to say the least, inconclusive would be an under statement!
Notwithstanding the evidence, the consensus is that we may never know and perhaps we shouldn’t worry about the truth as this legend is far more exciting and romantic.
The stone however is proof that someone was really important in Cornwall around the 6th Century, possibly a knight of the round table, friend of Lancelot and follower of King Arthur…
So come and visit Lostwithiel the ancient stannary capital of Cornwall, check the historical sights out for yourself while staying at Mellingey, which incidentally is right next door to the historic 13th century Restormel Castle home to the first Duke of Cornwall!