The tale of Tristan and Isolde became a popular Arthurian tale during the 12th century, though it is believed to go back much further, having connections to Celtic legends. It is a tragic romance that tells of the adulterous relationship between Tristan, and Isolde, the wife of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, making a classic love triangle that sooner or later must be broken by death. In many ways it mirrors the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, though it is believed to be older. The spelling of the names and the names of some characters vary and there are many different versions, but all hold to the same basic structure and storyline. Presented here is a shortened version of their story created from the sources below.
Tristan and King Mark
Tristan was the son of the King Meliadus and Queen Isabella of Lyonesse, but sadly, his mother died giving birth to him. Meliadus loved his son greatly but remarried an evil woman who was jealous of his affections and plotted to kill the boy. Tristan had a devoted servant named Gouvernail, who becoming aware of the plot, took him over the sea to the court of the King of France where he was given sanctuary. As the years passed, Gouvernail sought a place where Tristan could complete his education and took him to the court of King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark was Tristan’s uncle and welcomed him and educated him in all of the knightly manners and fighting skills, at which he soon excelled.
Each year King Mark was obliged to pay tribute to King Argius and Queen Isolde, the rulers of Ireland. To collect this payment, they sent their strongest and most feared knight, Moraunt, the brother of Queen Isolde. Tristan went to his uncle, offering to fight Moraunt if he could be fully knighted. King Mark was very fond of Tristan and feared for him, but his nephew persisted until he reluctantly agreed, and Tristan challenged Moraunt to a duel to the death. After being wounded in the thigh, Moraunt told Tristan his sword was smeared with a deadly toxin and the only one who could save him was his sister, Queen Isolde, who was a skilled healer. In reply, Tristan struck a blow to Moraunt’s head, incapacitating him and notching his own sword in the process.
The servants of Moraunt carried him back to his sister but he died on the way. When his body was finally brought home, his sister found a splinter from Tristan’s sword embedded in his skull. Removing it, she studied it carefully and kept it.
Healing in Ireland
For Tristan, the initial wound was not that bad but the poison was now spreading through his body and the best healers could not find a cure. He decided to seek out Queen Isolde hoping she would heal him. Arriving at the Irish court, and aware of the queen’s relationship with Moraunt, he told them his name was Trantis. Not knowing his true identity, Queen Isolde agreed to heal him, and using special herbal baths and potions she gradually began restoring him to health.
The King and Queen of Ireland had a beautiful daughter, who they had named after her mother. She was known as Princess Isolde the Fair. While Tristan was there, they held a tournament and a knight named Sir Palamedes won the honours on the first day. On seeing Princess Isolde for the first time, he was so smitten he could not take his eyes off her, making no secret of his feelings. Seeing this, Tristan grew jealous and decided he would enter the competition the next day despite still not being fully fit.
In every fight he was victorious and when he fought Sir Palamedes he defeated him and was named champion. Despite Tristan’s triumph, the extraordinary physical effort caused his wound to open and he began to bleed profusely. Princess Isolde took over his care and nursed him back to health, growing to love him more and more every day.
One day while cleaning Tristan’s sword, a servant noticed that it was notched. He had been present when Queen Isolde removed the metal splinter from the head of Moraunt and took the sword to her knowing she still had the splinter. On examination, she found it fitted perfectly together and realised that this was the weapon that had killed her brother. She took the sword and the splinter to the King and, telling him of her suspicions, demanded the death penalty for Tristan. Instead the King decided to spare him and banished Tristan from his realm. Now healed, Tristan left Ireland and Isolde the Fair and returned to the court of King Mark.
King Mark was delighted at the return of his nephew and insisted that he tell him every single detail of his adventures. Tristan told him everything, but when he spoke of Princess Isolde he spoke in such glowing terms that his uncle fell in love and became infatuated with her and asked him for a boon.
In the chivalric world a boon was a solemn and serious promise to fulfil whatever was requested, and, because his uncle was his benefactor, Tristan readily agreed. Had he only known what the boon would be he might have refused, because Mark asked him to return to Ireland and bring back Isolde the Fair to be his wife. Bound by the boon and heavy in heart, Tristan changed his armour to disguise himself and set sail for Ireland.
Camelot and Return to Ireland
On route, a storm forced his ship to shore near Camelot where King Arthur was holding a tournament with many of his Knights of the Round Table. Without revealing his true identity, Tristan took part in the tournament, winning many jousts and contests of arms. Coincidently, Argius, the King of Ireland, was at the court to answer allegations of treason against King Arthur made by a knight named Sir Blaanor. Argius maintained he was innocent but cases like this were often settled in combat between the accuser and the accused. Argius was too old to face Blaanor in single combat and sought a champion who would fight for him.
He did not recognise Tristan in his new armour but seeing how well he fought he approached him asking him to be his champion and swearing his innocence. Tristan believed him and revealed his true identity. Despite this, Argius still wanted him to fight for him and promised to grant him a boon should he succeed. Tristan agreed and defeated Blaanor, clearing Argius, who was so pleased he invited him to accompany him back to Ireland, lifting the banishment.
Princess Isolde was also delighted to see Tristan. She was even happier when she learned that her father had granted him a boon, thinking he would ask for her hand in marriage. However, as he gazed upon her radiant face and shining eyes he remembered the boon he had granted to his uncle and benefactor and was torn in two. One selfish part of his soul desperately wanted Princess Isolde for his wife, yet he was bound by the boon. As his trembling voice asked for the gift of the Princess Isolde to be the bride of King Mark, he felt a part of him shrivel and die, watching the radiance drain from her face and her shining eyes fall into darkness.
King Argius agreed and it was decided one of her favourite maids named Brengwain would accompany her. Tristan would escort Princess Isolde the Fair to King Mark to be his bride.
The Love Potion
Before they left, Queen Isolde called Brengwain to her and told her that she still believed Tristan and her daughter were in love. Then she gave her a potion instructing her to secretly administer it to Princess Isolde and King Mark on their wedding night, saying it would make them feel deep love for one another.
Queen Isolde was right. Tristan still loved her daughter and she loved him but she was destined to be the bride of King Mark. On their voyage, the weather was warm and sunny and the two became thirsty. Looking around for something to drink Tristan found the bottle containing the love potion that Brengwain had neglectfully left in view. Taking the bottle to Isolde they both drank from it. When she found out, the shocked Brengwain revealed the truth to them.
King Mark of Cornwall married Princess Isolde and many days of celebration followed. However, they had not taken the love potion as intended; Isolde and Tristan had drunk it instead, and the love they already had was greatly magnified. Tristan could not bear to be part of the wedding celebrations and instead roamed the countryside alone until they were over.
One day Tristan visited Isolde in the privacy of her chamber. They sat at a table with a game of chess in front of them but were more intent on talking to one another. Outside in the passage, a sly knight named Andret passed by. Hearing them talking he looked through the keyhole. He went to King Mark, exaggerating and twisting the words he had heard, words making the King suspicious and jealous. Mark followed Andret to the door, and, looking through the keyhole, flew into a rage at what he saw and banished Tristan from his kingdom. Tristan reluctantly left Cornwall, roaming wherever whim took him. Wherever he went he found danger and adventure and gained great fame and renown, but for all the glory, he yearned deeply to be with Isolde.
Back in Cornwall, Isolde passed her time in sadness and misery pining for her absent lover. She wrote a letter setting out her feelings for him, and gave it to Brengwain, begging her to find and deliver it to Tristan. On receiving the letter, Tristan was overjoyed. He asked Brengwain questions about Isolde and how she fared. He begged her to remain with him until a tournament held by King Arthur at Camelot was over. He intended entering and wanted her to take news of his victories to Isolde.
On the day of the tournament Tristan excelled, and none could match his courage, strength and skill. As a result, King Arthur asked him to join the Knights of the Round Table. This pleased Tristan because Brengwain returned to Isolde telling news of this honour and of his great victories.
The Jealousy of King Mark
Back in Cornwall, King Mark was suffering a brooding depression, fuelled by a most soul-destroying jealousy. Brengwain returned and told of the deeds of his nephew and the great prestige he received at King Arthur’s court. Isolde, on hearing news of Tristan, confessed to Mark her love for his nephew and his jealousy burned hot.
Mark resolved to disguise himself and go to Camelot and kill his nephew, choosing two of his longest serving knights to accompany him. Fearing to leave Isolde behind, he took her with him, along with her servant, Brengwain.
The King had said nothing of his murderous plan to anyone, but when they drew near to Camelot he took his knights aside to reveal his plot to them. They were horrified and told him they would have no part in it, leaving his service there and then. Leaving Isolde and her servant in a nearby abbey, Mark rode on alone.
At the abbey, Isolde took to walking in the forest with Brengwain. Not far from the abbey she found a beautiful fountain where she would rest and think of her missing lover. An evil knight named Breuse the Pitiless was riding nearby and hearing her sweet voice singing, dismounted and crept up and hid behind bushes to spy.
Leaping from his hiding place he grabbed Isolde who screamed and fainted. As Brengwain screamed, Breuse dragged Isolde back to his horse. A passing knight heard the screams and spurred his horse towards them to see what the cause was. Breuse had to leave Isolde and quickly mount his horse. The knight lowered his lance and charged: Breuss was unhorsed and lay flat upon the ground as if he was dead. The knight then left off the fight to attend to the stricken ladies. With his adversary’s back turned, Breuse jumped up and quickly mounting his horse, rode off.
As the knight approached, Isolde looked up and saw it was none other than her beloved Tristan, who was overjoyed to see her again. The two then spent three days in happiness together at the abbey and then Tristan escorted her to Camelot to meet up again with her husband.
The two knights of King Mark had reported the plot to King Arthur who had placed Mark under arrest and in prison. Mark had confessed to his intended crime but because it had not actually been committed, Arthur did not impose a punishment, on condition that he ceased all further hostility towards Tristan. He also made Mark promise this before the entire court of Camelot before he would allow him to depart for Cornwall, taking Isolde with him, while Tristan remained.
With Isolde gone, Tristan now felt alone and hopeless, believing that he would never again find happiness. Therefore, to distance himself from his beloved, he crossed the sea to Brittany to the court of King Hoel. At the time Brittany was under attack and Tristan volunteered to lead the army of the Bretons. This proved a great turnaround in fortune for King Hoel, whose army was almost defeated. With Tristan’s might in arms and his courage and inspirational leadership the Bretons rallied behind him and achieved a great victory.
Isolde of the White Hands
In gratitude, King Hoel offered his beautiful daughter to him in marriage. She bore the same first name as Tristan’s first love, Isolde the Fair, but she was known as Isolde of the White Hands. Tristan found himself in conflict with his heart. Although he loved Isolde the Fair with all his being he knew they could never marry or live happily together. After much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion this was his only chance to fill the void in his soul and agreed to the marriage.
Indeed, it seemed that they had been destined for one another and they enjoyed many months in peaceful happiness in each other’s company. Yet even in happiness the world turns, and the enemies of King Hoel once again waged war against his kingdom. Tristan drove the enemy back, but as he led the attack on their last stronghold, he was caught a blow on the head by a rock that the defenders were throwing down on the attackers.
He was knocked insensible and fell to the ground but the battle was won and he was carried home to his wife, Isolde of the White Hands. Being skilled in healing, she would let no one other than herself attend and administer to him. Under her loving hands, Tristan slowly began to recover and with her caresses and kisses, his love for her grew. Her devotion and skill appeared to be returning him back to full health, but then a dark malady took hold of him. It could not be driven out or cured, and as it took hold, its grip could not be broken. With each passing day his health and vitality slipped away. At last in desperation he called his wife to him. He told her how Isolde the Fair had once cured him and that he believed in her lay his only hope and asked his wife to send for his former lover.
Isolde of the White Hands reluctantly agreed and sent Gesnes, the best mariner in the kingdom, to sail to Cornwall and request that Queen Isolde the Fair return with him to Brittany. Before he left Tristan called Gesnes to him and gave him his ring to give to her so she would know him, saying,
“If she agrees to come, before you return fit your ship with white sails and then we will be forewarned of her arrival. Should she refuse, hoist the mast with black sails for then my death will be near.”
As soon as Gesnes reached the Cornish shore he disembarked from his ship and made his way quickly to the court of King Mark. Showing the ring to Queen Isolde the Fair, he told her Tristan was near to death and she was the only one who could save him. Without question or hesitation she agreed to go to Tristan’s side. Therefore, as soon as they boarded ship Gesnes ordered the unfurling of the white sails and sailed with Queen Isolde to Brittany to her stricken lover.
During this time Tristan’s health continued to deteriorate rapidly. He charged a young girl servant with the task of looking out from a high cliff over the sea to report the return of Gesnes, hoping all the time that he would be displaying the white sails.
The Deception of Isolde of the White Hands
Isolde of the White Hands had known about the intimacy of Tristan and Isolde’s previous relationship and feared their passion would revive and wreck her own happiness. She still believed she had the skill to save her husband. When the girl on the cliffs saw the white sails of Gesnes on the horizon she ran to tell the news to Tristan. However, Isolde of the White Hands stopped her and, when told the sails were white, ordered her to tell her husband that the sails were black. When Tristan was told the sails were black, he believed his time had at last come and taking his last breath said, “so it comes to pass that we shall never see one another again, goodbye my love, goodbye.”
As Isolde the Fair set foot ashore, the news of the death of Tristan was given to her, and in grief, shock and sorrow she was taken to his body. Lying down next to him and taking him in her arms she too gave her last breath and died.
Before he died Tristan had asked that his body should be returned to Cornwall along with his sword and a letter he had written to King Mark. In the letter he explained about the love potion and reading it King Mark at last understood and was sorry. He commanded that the two should be buried in his own chapel.
A short while after the burials, from the grave of Tristan, there grew a most beautiful vine that spread along the wall and reached down to join with the grave of Isolde the Fair. No matter how many times it was cut down or pruned, the plant returned. Even in the coldest of winters or hottest of summers it retained its lustrous green colouring, and so ended the tale of Tristan and Isolde the Fair.
The story of Tristan and Isolde remains one of the great love stories of the Arthurian world, having been portrayed in many works of art, songs, poems and stories, opera and films, in many languages and many countries around the world. It is one of those evergreen stories that, like the vine that sprang from Tristan’s grave, returns again and again and does not die.
To read all the articles in this series, visit the British Legends Series page or select from the list below:
- British Legends: The Founding of Britain: Brutus of Troy and the Prophecy of Diana
- British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig
- British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion
- British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena: The Rule of Vortigern
- British Legends: The Origin of Albion and the Bloodlust of Albina and Her Sisters
- British Legends: The Lust of Uther Pendragon, Merlin’s Prophecy and the Making of a King
- British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons
- British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty
- British Legends: Beowulf and the Great Flame Dragon
- British Legends: The Divine Tragedy of Guinevere