THE TRADITION OF THE LYONESSE OR LETHOWSO W.
THOSE who may stand on the extreme point of the Land's End, and, looking over that space where the waters of the Atlantic mix with those of the British Channel, see in the far distance the Scilly Islands, will have to call upon their imagination to conceive that these broad waters roll over a country which has existed within historic time.
A region of extreme fertility, we are told, once united the Scilly Islands with Western Cornwall. A people, known as the Silures, inhabited this tract,--which has been called the Lyonesse, or sometimes Lethowsow,--who were remarkable for their industry and their piety. No less than 140 churches stood over that region, which is now a waste of waters; and the rocks called the Seven Stones are said to mark the place of a large city. Even tradition is silent on the character of this great cataclysm. We have only one hint--and we know not its value--which appears to show that the deluge was comparatively gradual. One of the ancestors of the Trevilians is said to have had time to remove his family and his cattle; but at last he had to fly himself with all the speed which a fleet horse could give him. From this it might appear that, though gradual at first, the waters, having broken down the barriers, burst over the whole at last with uncontrolled fury. A small, but very ancient, oratory, "Chapel Idne," or the "Narrow Chapel," formerly stood in Sennen Cove. It is said to have been founded by one Lord of Goonhilly, who owned a portion of the Lyonesse, on the occasion of his escape from the flood. By this war of waters several large towns were destroyed, and an immense number of the inhabitants perished.
In the absence of full traditional evidence, it will not be uninteresting to gather together the fragmentary statements which exist in the writings of historians and others -
"The number of parish churches lost is so astonishingly great as to baffle the power of evidence, to preclude the possibility of conviction. I, therefore, take upon me to reduce the number from 140 to 40, -- to cut off what any dash of Worcester's pen might casually have created, the first figure."--Whitaker's Supplement to Polwhele's History of Cornwall.
The Saxon Chronicle says the Lionesse was destroyed on the 11th of November 1099.
"On the third of the Nones of November (1099) the sea overflowed the shore, destroying towns and drowning many persons and innumerable oxen and sheep."--The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, translated by Thomas Forester, A.M. Bohn, 1854.
Solinus (cap 22) applies Siluria to the country lying west of the Land's End. His words are, "Siluram quoque insulam ab ora quam gens Britanna Dunmonii tenent, terbidumn fretum distinguit."
"There is a tradition that there formerly existed a large track of land between the Land's End and the Scilly Islands, called the Lioness, which was destroyed by an inundation of the sea. One of the family of Trevilian now residing in Somerset, but originally Cornish, saved himself by the assistance of his horse at the time of this inundation; and it is reported that the arms of this family were taken from his fortunate escape, to commemorate his providential preservation. "--Drew and Hitchin's Cornwall.
"A cave is pointed out in Perranuthnoe, where the ancestor of the Trevelyans is said to have been borne on shore, by the strength of his horse, from the destruction of the Lionesse country west of the Land's End. The Trevelyan family are too old, too honourable, and now too much distinguished by science, for them to covet any addition of honour through the medium of fabulous history.
"It is recorded in the Saxon Chronicle that, in the year 1099, there was so very high a tide, and the damage so great in consequence, that men remembered not the like to have ever happened before, and the same day was the first of the new moon. Stow, who wrote his History of England about the year 1580, notices the great tide of 1099, when he says, 'The sea brake in over the banks of the Thames and other ryvers, drowning many towns and much people, with innumerable numbers of oxen and sheepe; at which time the lands in Kent, that sometime belonged to Duke Gociwyne, Earle of Kent, were covered with sandes and drowned, which are to this day called Godwyne Sandes.' On the slender foundation of these alluvial, catastrophes, Florence of Worcester either invented, or, with more than monkish credulity, received the tale of a whole district being engulfed, not at some remote geological period, but in what may be considered as the recent times of authentic history, after the existence of systematic registers and records; a district covered, as he states, by a city and by a hundred and forty churches, with their accompanying villages, farms, &c., an event that must have shaken the whole of Europe; and, to increase the wonder, a gentleman, accidentally on horseback, is carried by this animal to the neighbouring shore of Whitsand Bay, or twenty miles further off, to Perranuthnoe, through a sea which had swallowed an entire country, and from which the largest of modern vessels could not possibly have escaped. This idle tale, related by one writer after another, has almost reached our own times. The editor remembers a female relation of a former vicar of St Erth who, instructed by a dream, prepared decoctions of various herbs, and, repairing to the Land's End, poured them into the sea, with certain incantations, expecting to see the Lionesse country rise immediately out of the water, having all its inhabitants alive, notwithstanding their long submersion. But
'Perchance some form was unobserved,
Perchance in prayer or faith she swerved.'
No country appeared, and although the love of marvellous events, and of tales exciting the passions, seems not to have diminished in recent times, yet the editor is unaware of any subsequent attempt having been made to rescue those unfortunate people from their protracted state of suspended animation."--The Parochial History of Cornwall, by. Davies Gilbert, vol. iii.pp. 109, 110.
"Although a sweep of ocean, twenty-seven miles in breadth, separates at present the Land's End from the Scilly Islands, there can yet be little doubt of their having been heretofore united to each other by the mainland. The records of history indeed do not rise so high as the era when this disjunction was first effected; but we have documents yet remaining which prove to us that this strait must have been considerably widened, and the number of the Sciilly Islands greatly increased within the last sixteen or seventeen centuries, by the waters of the Atlantic (receding probably from the coast of America) pressing towards this coast of Britain, accumulating upon Bolerium, and overwhelming part of the western shores of Cornwall.
"Strabo expressly tells us that the Cassiterides (so called from the Greek name of tin, there produced) were in his time only ten in number; whereas they are now divided into a hundred and forty rocky islets. Solinus also makes mention of a large and respectable island, called Silura, evidently the Scilly of present times, lying on Damnonian or Cornish coast, and separated from the mainland by a strait turbulent and dangerous--a character which sufficiently marks the compression of its waters. And William of Worcester, an author of our own country, thirteen centuries after Solinus, states, with a degree of positive exactness, stamping authenticity upon its recital, that between Mount's Bay and the Scilly Islands there had been woods, and meadows, and arable lands, and a hundred and forty parish churches, which before his time were submerged by the ocean. Uninterrupted tradition since this period, which subsists to the present day vigorous and particular, authenticates his account, and leaves no doubt upon the wind that a vast track of land, which stretched anciently from the eastern shore of Mount's Bay to the north-western rock of Scilly (with the exception of the narrow strait flowing between the Long-ships and Land's End), has, since the age of Strabo and Solinus, and previous to that of William of Worcester, been overwhelmed and usurped by the waves of the sea. . . . The depth of the water at the Land's End is about eleven fathoms; at the Long-ships, eight; to the north of them, twenty; to the south, thirty; and twenty-five, twenty, and fifteen fathoms between them and the north-west of Scilly. The shallowest water occurs in the mid-space between Cornwall and the Isles. "--A Tour through Cornwall in the Autumn of 1808, by the Rev. Richard Warner.
"Yet the cause of that inundation, which destroyed much of these Islands (the Scilly Islands), might reach also to the Cornish shores, is extremely probable, there being several evidences of a like subsidence of the land in the Mount's Bay. The principal anchoring-place, called a lake, is now a haven, or open harbour. The Mount, from its Cornish name, we must conclude to have stood formerly in a wood, but now, at full tide, is half a mile from the sea, and not a tree near it; and in the sandy beach betwixt the Mount and Penzance, where the sands have been dispersed by violent high tides, I have seen the trunks of several large trees in their natural position."-- Borlase, Phil. Trans., vol. xlviii. part I.
"That Cornwall once extended further west may be inferred from hence, that about midway between the Land's End and Scilly are rocks called in Cornish Lethowsow; by the English, Seven-stones.
"The Cornish call the places within the stones Tregva, -- i.e., a dwelling;--and it has been reported that windows and other stuff have been fished up, and that fishermen still see tops of houses under water. From the Land's End to Scilly, a tract of thirty miles, is an equal depth of water, and the bottom of the sea a plain, level surface. St Michael's Mount is called in Cornish, Careg cowse in clowse--i.e., the hoary rock in the wood. Large trees with roots and bodies have been driven in by the sea of late years between St Michael's Mount and Penzance; and tradition says that at the time of the inundation which made the separation, one Trevelyan swam from thence on horseback; and in memory thereof the family, now in Somersetshire, bears gules a horse argent, from a less wavy argent, and azure, issuing out of a sea proper,"--Gough's Camden, vol. 1. p. 15.
"The flats, which stretched from one island to another, are plain evidences of a former union subsisting between many now distinct islands. The flats between Trescaw, Brêhar, and Sampson are quite dry at a spring-tide, and men easily pass dry-shod from one island to another over sand-banks (where, upon the shifting of the sands, walls and ruins are frequently discovered), upon which, at full sea, there are ten and twelve feet of water. From the southern side of St Martin there stretches out a large shoal towards Treacaw and St Mary's; and from St Mary's a flat, called Sandy-bar, shoots away to meet it; and between these two shoals there are but four feet of water in the channel called Chow Sound,--all strong arguments that those islands were once one continued tract of land, though now, as to their low lands, overrun with the sea and sand. 'The Isles Cassiterides' (says Strabo, Geo., lib. 5) 'are ten in number, close to one another. One of them is desert and unpeopled; the nest are inhabited.' But see how the sea has multiplied these islands; there are now one hundred and forty. Into so many fragments are they divided; and yet there are but six inhabited."--An Account of the Great Alteration which the Islands of Scylley have undergone, &c., by the Rev. Wm. Borlase, M.A., F.R.S., Phil. Trans., vol. xlviii. part i.
"The Cornish land, from Plymouth, discovers itself to be devoured more and more to the westward, according to the aforesaid tradition of the tract of the Lionesse, being encroached upon above half the present distance from the Land's End to Scilly; whence it is probable that the low isthmus once joining Scilly and the Lionesse was first encroached upon in the same manner. The projecting land being exposed to the concurrence of the tides from the Irish, the Bristol, and British Channels, by whose violence and impetuosity, increased by the winds, the loose earth of the Gulf-rock might be worn away, leaving the resistible substance behind, standing as it is in the middle way betwixt Scilly and Cornwall."--A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly, by Robert Heath.
The following notices are gathered from other local traditions:
"From Rame-head to the two Looes very fertile valleys are stated to have extended at least a league southwards, over a tract now covered with sea; and around the coast in many places, we are assured, in twelve feet of water, trees are to be seen in the sea."
"The Black Rock in Falmouth Harbour is stated to have been a large island, which was surrounded by the sea only at high-water."
"Six miles south of St Michael's Mount waved, from Clement's Isle to Cudden Rock, a wood."