View Full Version : Historical basis for King Mark of Cornwall

14-12-11, 20:14
King Mark of Cornwall figures prominently in the Tristan and Iseult (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_and_Iseult) legend, in which Mark sends his nephew and adopted son, Tristan, to Ireland to fetch his wife-to-be, Iseult. Tristan falls in love with Iseult, usually told as being due to a love potion, and a complicated love triangle ensues. Mark is an interesting character in that different versions of the story give him different temperaments.

The origins of the legend are shrouded in mystery, with the oldest complete versions dating to the 12th century, over 500 years after the events supposedly happened. This leaves the question: How likely is it that the characters are historical?

I want to focus on Mark in particular for a few reasons. For one, as a king, he is the most likely to have historical attestation. And also, he plays prominently in Cornish history, despite the uncertain status of his existence! Due in no small part to the legend, he is easily Cornwall's most famous king.

The Evidence

Wrmonoc of Landévennec. He mentions in his Life of St. Pol de Leon, written in the 9th century, that St. Pol de Leon evangelized in Cornwall in the 6th century, and while there, he met with "King Marc whose other name is Quonomorus." This is the earliest evidence we have for any variant of "Mark" having been a king of Cornwall, and what's more, the alias matches with a known king of Dumnonia, which contained Cornwall.

Welsh Dumnonian king lists. Welsh king lists of Dumnonia (non-Arthurian), although offering few details and stopping before completion, give the following list: Gurvor, Tudwal, Cynvor, Custennin Gorneu, Erbin, Gerent. We're interested in Cynvor, and I will get back to Custennin as well. "Cynvor," which in modern English would translate to "Seahound," is rendered in Latin as "Conomorus." Bingo.

The Drustanus Stone. This is a memorial stone (quite a large one (http://www.cornwalls.co.uk/photos/img828.htm)) that exists near Fowey and Castle Dore. It can be dated to the 6th century, within range for both the Tristan and Iseult legend, and for the reign of King Cynvor. It reads: "Drustans hic iacet Cunomori filius," or "Here lies Drustanus son of Cunomorus." "Drustanus" could well be connected to "Tristan" and "Cunomorus" is certainly "Cynvor." Its size and position near Castle Dore, which probably was no longer operational but did have an apparently important longhouse near it at the time, makes it quite likely that this "Cunomorus" is King Cynvor. Whether or not Drustanus is Tristan is more difficult to judge, but it would make sense. Although the legend records Tristan as Mark's nephew, not son, it could be that (1) the legends are wrong or (2) the legends are right when they say that Mark treated Tristan as his son, and this proves that.

The Welsh Triads. These are Arthurian, which makes me uneasy. They mention a King Mark ap Merion of Cornwall, who is unattested prior to Arthurian legend. Probably, he is based on Cynvor, but Cynvor also appears as this Mark's great-grandfather. I am fairly convinced that this is just confusion on the Triads' part, splitting the historical figure into two. The most likely reason they did this was to make the chronology correct for the aforementioned King Custennin of Dumnonia, the real successor of Cynvor, which Arthurian legend elevated to a King of Britain.

Breton legend of Prince Conomor. This Conomor/Cynvor appears most importantly in Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks, where he is remembered as an evil conqueror. This has made some historians think that King Mark has a Breton connection, or figure that he's a conflation with a Breton figure. I'm not so sure. There was undoubtedly a connection between the ruling families in Dumnonia and in Britanny, and these are likely two related, but distinct, individuals.

Welsh legend of King Merchwyn. Merchwyn Vesanus ("the Mad") is a legendary minor king or warlord in South Wales around the same time period. He is said to have had the ears of a horse and to have murdered his barbers to keep it secret. Legends of St. Illtud recount him in particular, and conflation with Mark of Cornwall occurred later ("Mark" in Welsh is close to "Merch"). I don't think tales of Merchwyn offer anything here, other than to point out that he may also influence the legend of King Mark that got persisted to the Tristan and Iseult legend. He may have also been conflated at times with Myrddin Wyllt, the inspiration for Merlin, meaning that he may be a minor source for two major legends.

Gildas. Gildas never mentions a Mark or Cynvor, but he does mention Custennin by the Latin version of his name, Constantine. The approximate date of this reference (540) helps anchor when Cynvor lived, and corresponds with the Drustanus stone.

My Conclusions

Although I've been skeptical of the existence of a historical King Mark in the past, I've decided that there's suffient evidence that the character of King Mark of Cornwall of Tristan and Iseult fame is informed by a real, historical person. However, if I'm correct, "Mark" wasn't his primary regal name, and he wasn't king of just Cornwall. He was King Cynvor of Dumnonia, as recorded by the Drustanus stone and early Welsh king lists, who ruled in the first half of the 6th century. He also wasn't a direct descendant of Constantine, King of all Britain, as the Welsh Triads suggest. Constantine/Custennin was actually his successor (son?), who himself influenced later legends of a Cornish St. Constantine (inevitably conflated with a Scottish saint of the same name) and of a Constantine, King of Britain.

Other historical and mythological figures probably also went into the creation of King Mark in the legend, but King Cynvor is probably the primary source. We know little more, other than that Fowey was apparently an important location during his reign. Other places, like Tintagel and Exeter, may have been important as well, but they're less clear.