A tale from Arthurian
legend, this tragic love story
has been sung by the bard
s, told and retold by word of mouth
and finally written down on manuscripts. As with most legend
s the true story may never be known, but the main characters and events almost certainly existed, probably some time between 700 AD - 850 AD, and it is one of the few authentic Celtic British
tales from the days before the Anglo-Saxons
There are probably as many versions of this tale as there are tellers of it; this one is a summary taken from a variety of sources. Let's call it The Everything Tragedy of Tristan and Iseult.
Princess Iseult (sometimes written Isolt or Isolde), daughter of King Angwish of Ireland, was betrothed to the King of Cornwall, King Mark. The King sent his nephew, Tristan, over the sea to Ireland to escort Isolde back to Cornwall.
Tristan (whose name means sorrow), was a noble knight, a great leader and warrior in his own right, as well as being the King's nephew.
Iseult's mother, fearful that her daughter might have her heart broken if the marriage was not a success, gave a love potion to Iseult's handmaiden, Brangraine, with strict instructions to keep it safe until they reached Cornwall. The potion would cause whoever drunk it to love each other for all eternity and was to be given to Iseult and Mark on their wedding night.
During the voyage back to Cornwall Tristan became thirsty. Not realising the nature of the bottle's contents he drank some of the love potion and offered some to Iseult. The young couple then fell hopelessly and deeply in love with each other.
Bound by duty, Iseult did marry Mark of Cornwall, but her heart was given to Tristan. On the wedding night Brangraine secretly took Iseult's place in the King's bed, and for several months the two lovers kept their affair a secret.
Eventually the love affair was found out. When Mark discovered this, he forgave Iseult, but Tristan was banished from Cornwall (in some variations Tristan banishes himself through shame). Tristan moved to King Arthur's court and later went to Brittany, at that time another Celtic land.
In Brittany he met another Princess Iseult, known as Iseult of the White Hands. He was attracted to her because of the similarity of her name to his true love. The pair were married but the marriage was never consummated as Tristan could not hide his feelings for his "real" Iseult back in Cornwall.
After being wounded in battle, he sent for Iseult in hopes that she would be able to cure him, as she had a reputation as a healer. If she agreed to come, the returning ship's sails would be white, but the sails would be black if she did not agree.
Iseult of the White Hands, jealous of her husband's love for the Cornish Queen, saw the ship arrive with white sails, but lied to Tristan and told him that the sails were black. Heartbroken and weakened by his battle wounds, Tristan died before his Iseult could reach him. When she finally arrived, upon finding her soulmate had died, her own heart broke and she too passed away.
Thus ends the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, and their doomed love for each other.