Monday 3 June 2019

#HistoricalFiction author, Chris Thorndycroft, is taking a look at the story of Drustan and Esyllt. Chris is also giving away 2 eBook copies of his upcoming #Arthurian novel — Sign of the White Foal @cthorndycroft

Drustan and Esyllt – The Lost Romance?
By Chris Thorndycroft

Tristan and Isolde, John Duncan, 1912

Few romances of the middle ages resonate as much as the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult. Preceding the illicit love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere of later Arthurian legend, there are many different versions of the Tristan and Iseult story but most conform to a basic outline.

Tristan of Lyonesse journeys to the court of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. Impressed by the youth, Mark sends him to Ireland to fetch his bride-to-be; the princess Iseult. On the return voyage the pair inadvertently drink a potion and fall helplessly in love with each other. They continue their affair after Mark and Iseult’s wedding with tragic consequences involving King Arthur, lepers, burning at the stake and trial by red hot iron depending on which version you read.  

There is no single source for this medieval precursor to Romeo and Juliet. The story was wildly popular from the 12th century onwards with different versions popping up everywhere from Scandinavia to Italy and it is difficult to know where the story came from or what its original form was.

Cornwall of the post-Roman period was part of Dumnonia; a kingdom that also covered Devon and bits of Somerset. Named after the pre-Roman Dumnonii tribe, it was eventually cut off from the other British kingdoms in the 6th century by the expansion of the West Saxons (who formed Wessex). The Saxons swallowed up swathes of Dumnonian territory leaving only the tip of the kingdom to the Britons. This area (variously known as Cerniu, Cernyw, or Kernow) may have been named after a sub-tribe called the Cornovii and came to be called Cornwall by the Anglo-Saxons (literally meaning ‘the Welsh of the horn’).  

The characters of the Tristan and Iseult legend are unique among Arthurian characters in that there may be some archaeological evidence for them. Near Fowey in Cornwall there is a menhir (a tall standing stone) with a Latin inscription so worn by the elements that its translation has long been a matter of debate. (D)RVSTA/NVSHICIACIT | CVNO(M)ORIFILIVS ('Drustanus lies here, of Cunomorus the son') is the popular translation (1) although the D is backwards and may in fact be a C and an I which would make ‘Drustanus’ something like ‘Cirustanus’.

The 'Tristan Stone' near Fowey, Cornwall. Image capture: May 2018 © 2019 Google.

Even if we accept that the name is Drustanus, it seems unlikely on the face of it, that this Drustanus has any relation to the Tristan of later romance. The name of Tristan’s father is usually given as Rivalen or Melias (probably based on Rhiwal and Meliavus – historical rulers of Brittany). However, the Life of St. Pol de Leon by the Bretton monk Wrmonoc refers to a king in southwest Britain called Marc ‘whom they call by another name, Quonomorius…’. If Cunomorus was King Marc then did his son, Drustanus become his nephew Tristan in later legend?

Cunomorus may be the same person as Conomor, a 6th century ruler of Brittany attested to in History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours and the lives of various saints such as Samson, and Tugdual. His name means ‘hound of the sea’ and by all accounts he was a nasty piece of work. As well as murdering several of his wives, he apparently earned his crown by murdering his predecessor and marrying his widow before forcing her and her son into exile. It is possible that a ruler like Conomor controlled territories on both sides of the English Channel. Brittany is so named for the large number of Britons who settled there in the post-Roman period (presumably fleeing the Anglo-Saxon expansions). Just as Dumnonia and Kernow made up the southwestern toe of Britain, there sprang up areas called Domnonea and Kernev (now Domnonée and Cornouaille) in Brittany, suggesting a transferral of tribal names to lands across the channel.

But there is a problem. The Marc of the Tristan and Isolde story also appears in some early Welsh sources but is referred to as ‘March son of Meirchion’ and there is no mention of a Cornish connection. In fact, the evidence seems to point to a northern source for the legend. The Welsh Triads (fragments of folklore grouped in threes) call him one of the three ‘fleet owners’ of the island of Britain while Tristan appears as ‘Trystan/Drystan son of Tallwch’ and Isolde as ‘Esyllt’.

One of the triads cryptically states …Drystan son of Tallwch, tending the swine of March son of Meirchyawn, while the swineherd went with a message to Essyllt. Arthur and March and Cai and Bedwyr were (there) all four, but they did not succeed in getting so much as one pigling - neither by force, nor by deception, nor by stealth…

More flesh is given to this Welsh version in the form of the Ystori Trystan; a fragment dating from the 16th century (likely copied from earlier sources). In this story Trystan ap Tallwch and Esyllt, the wife of March ap Meirchion, flee into the forest of Clyddon. March appeals to his cousin Arthur to mediate. Arthur suggests the following settlement; that one of them shall have Esyllt while the leaves are on the trees and the other while the leaves are not (i.e. summer and winter). March, thinking he is being clever, chooses winter for the nights are longer but Esyllt has the last laugh by pointing out that the holly, the ivy and the yew keep their leaves all year round and therefore she is Trystan’s for as long as he lives.

The forest of Clyddon will sound familiar to anybody who has tackled Nennius’s notoriously vague list of 12 battles attributed to Arthur in his Historia Brittonum. The 7th battle was in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. Could we have in the Ystoria Trystan a literary echo of the cause of one of Arthur’s battles? Clyddon/Celidon almost certainly refers to the Caledonian Forest which once covered vast parts of Scotland inhabited by the Picts. In lists of Pictish kings variations of ‘Drest’ and ‘Talorc’ appear frequently. There was even a ‘Drest mac Talorgan’ in the 8th century; a possible (if late) inspiration for Drystan son of Tallwch.

We find even more support for a northern source of the legend when we consider Tristan’s homeland of Lyonesse (Loenois/Leonois in earlier versions). This could refer to the Viscounty of Léon which bordered on the aforementioned Cornouaille in Brittany but ‘Loenois’ was also the Old French name for Lothian; a kingdom in northern Britain that bordered on the Pictish territories (2).

It’s very difficult to figure out where the story originated. While it is certainly possible that elements of the continental version made their way into Welsh folklore (particularly after the Norman conquest), it is also possible that the story originated in Britain and made its way to Brittany with refugees fleeing the Saxon advances. It is not inconceivable that a northern legend of Drustan and Esyllt was known across Britain and Bretons naturally placed a tale that they knew to be British in the part of Britain where their forefathers hailed from, namely Cornwall.

The site of Tintagel Castle; the traditional location of the legend. But is it the original location...?


1.   Thomas, A. C. (1994) And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
2.   Rachel Bromwich, editor and translator. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, Fourth Edition, 2014
3.   Translations of the Welsh Triads can be found at
4.   A Translation of the Ystori Trystan can be found at

Drustan and Esyllt: Wolves of the Sea

An exiled prince,
An unwilling bride,
A love affair that tore a kingdom apart…

Defeated in battle by the warlord Arthur, Prince Drustan of the Picts is sent to the court of his uncle King March of Dumnonia as a political hostage. A cunning warrior, Drustan soon earns the trust of King March who sends him on a mission of vital importance.

When the Irish princess Esyllt learns of her betrothal to King March – a man she has never met – to seal an alliance between Britons and Gaels, she knows she is about to lose everything; her family, her home and her freedom. But when she meets the brash young Drustan who is to escort her to Dumnonia, she realises she has a chance of happiness and will stop at nothing to get it.

In a reckless romance that would become legend, Drustan and Esyllt plot to overthrow King March and rule Dumnonia for themselves. But in the chaos of 5th century Britain, things are never simple and both are ultimately forced to choose between love, ambition and family.

Drustan and Esyllt: Wolves of the sea is a spin-off novella of Chris Thorndycroft's upcoming Arthur of the Cymry trilogy. It is available for purchase from Amazon or you can pick up your free copy when you subscribe to ChrisThorndycroft's newsletter.


As the long grass whipped at Drustan’s bare legs and the sweat stood out on his naked back beneath the moonlight, he felt a freedom he had thought lost forever. Here he was, finally back in his element; a shadow within shadows, darting across bleak wilderness, the scent of war in his nostrils and a band of good fighters at his back.

The salty tang of the sea hung in the night air as the group of ten made their way towards the cliff edge. Drustan had sent the remaining twenty warriors to begin their assault on Din Tagel’s main gate. It was a diversion of course, much like the ongoing battle in the south was a diversion to keep March’s forces away from the peninsula fortress.

It had begun with Lord Branock assaulting the lands of his neighbour Colianus, stealing cattle, torching settlements and generally stirring up as much trouble as he could. It hadn’t taken long for March and his remaining allies to marshal their forces for battle and the Cornubians gladly met them between the rivers Fowydh and Camel. Drustan had sent Corbinal with them. He was a good fighter on horseback and besides, his stalwart companion was getting a bit long in the tooth for the type of assault he was planning.

Half of the warriors carried small coracles on their backs; simple constructions of sheep’s hide stretched over wicker frames. Drustan had instructed them in the making of them. It was the Picts’ preferred mode of transportation in the firths and rugged coasts of his homeland.

He led them to a point where the cliff dropped directly into the sea and no jagged rocks poked through the surf. It was a scheme born of madness or so Corbinal had put it. But, as Drustan had replied, in order to gain all, the true warrior risks all. 

The coracle bearers tossed their light craft over the cliff’s edge and they floated down like spiders in the night to land on the surf, some right side up, some overturned but all bobbed about and were quickly drawn out by the foaming waves.

They looked to Drustan, this wild Pict who was their leader, stripped to his waist, hair bound back, body adorned with pagan scrawls in woad. He sucked as much air into his lungs as they could carry and then dove from the clifftop.

He fell like an arrow, straight and lethal, to slip into the waves with a barely noticeable splash. Their courage bolstered by the daring feat of their leader, the Cornubians followed suit, paddles gripped in their fists like spears. One by one they broke the surface, spluttering for the air that had been crushed from their lungs by the impact of the dive.

“To the boats!” cried Drustan some distance ahead of them. “Quickly before the current takes them!”

The current was already dragging the small vessels out to sea and the warriors made for them with all haste. As they reached them they scrambled in, two per boat, and immediately began fighting the current that threatened to drag them halfway to Erin.

Coming Soon…. 

Sign of the White Foal
(Arthur of the Cymry trilogy Book 1)

A generation after Hengest and Horsa carved out a kingdom in the east, a hero of the Britons rises in the west...

480 A.D. The sons of Cunedag have ruled Venedotia for fifty years but the chief of them – the Pendraig – is now dying. His sons Cadwallon and Owain must fight to retain their birthright from their envious cousins. As civil war consumes Venedotia, Arthur – a young warrior and bastard son of the Pendraig – is sent on a perilous quest that will determine the fate of the kingdom.

The Morgens; nine priestesses of the Mother Goddess have found the cauldron of rebirth – a symbol of otherworldly power – and have allied themselves with the enemy. Arthur and six companions are dispatched to the mysterious island of Ynys Mon to steal the cauldron and break the power of the Morgens. Along the way they run into the formidable Guenhuifar whose family have been stewards of Ynys Mon for generations. They need her help. The trouble is, Guenhuifar despises Arthur’s family and all they stand for…

Based on the earliest Arthurian legends, Sign of the White Foal is a rip-roaring adventure of Celtic myth and real history set in the ruins of post-Roman Britain.

*Giveaway is now closed.

Chris Thorndycroft is giving away two eBook copy of
Sign of the White Foal (Arthur of the Cymry trilogy Book 1)”

All you need to do answer this question:

Do you think the '(D)RVSTA/NVS' on the Tristan Stone in 
Cornwall really refers to the Tristan of legend or to 
somebody else?

• Leave your answer in the comments at the bottom of this post.

• Giveaway ends at 11:59pm BST on June 11th.

You must be 18 or older to enter.

• Giveaway is only open Internationally.

• Only one entry per household.

• All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the system; any suspect fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.

Pre-order your copy of
Sign of the White Foal
(Arthur of the Cymry trilogy Book 1)

Chris Thorndycroft

Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer living in Norway with his wife and two kids. He mostly writes historical fiction although got his start writing short horror stories for magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. Drustan and Esyllt is part of a decade long project to bring the story of 5th century Britain to life. This began with the Hengest and Horsa trilogy and continues with the upcoming Arthur of the Cymry trilogy. Chris also writes Retropulp, Steampunk and B-movie-inspired fiction under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.

Connect with Chris: WebsiteNewsletterTwitterFacebookGoodreads.


  1. I should imagine the stone is a lot older than the inscription, which could have been added at any time. The words can mean whatever you want them to mean and if you can turn them into an interesting story, they have done their job.

  2. Beatrice Rivers4 June 2019 at 14:48

    Oh why not! Anything is possible in Arthurian Legend!!

  3. I am not sure, but it is certainly a romantic notion.

  4. Giveaway is now closed! Chris has made you all winners! Congratulations!! Drop me an email to claim your prize!

  5. I wish I would have known about this Giveaway ugh

  6. Me too, but I've only just found this blog. It seems really good and appeals to me as I'm obsessive about King Arthur as I'm ASD.

  7. I don't want to be down as unknown!


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Mary Anne xxx