A Great Duel
Mark, king of Cornwall, was under threat. King Anguish of Ireland wanted to rule Cornwall, and was determined to make it his. A war was coming. In order to spare his people the inhumanities of a battle, Mark challenged Anguish to a duel instead – if Ireland were to win, Anguish would have Cornwall and anything else he wanted. If, however, Cornwall were to win, Ireland would have to relinquish any claim and make no more trouble.
King Anguish agreed to the terms and chose his brother-in-law, Morholt, to be Ireland’s champion. Mark chose his nephew, Tristan, to do battle against the main. And so it was decided. The fight was intense, a spectacle, with both men battling as though each had nothing to lose; they had the weight of their kingdoms on their shoulders, and it would be a fight to the death – of that there was no doubt.
It was a long and bloody battle, but Tristan emerged the victor, killing Morholt. Celebrations were held; Cornwall was safe. But there was a problem. Tristan had received a potentially fatal wound, and he needed a healer to save him. The good news was that he could be saved. The bad news was that the only person who could do it was in Ireland, a country in which he would be immediately killed if he were to tread. Desperate to save himself, Tristan put on a disguise and made the dangerous journey.
A Healing Hand
When he reached Ireland, Tristan was weak and dying. He didn’t have long. But a kindly young woman, a woman with healing powers, found his as he lay by the side of the road, and took him in to help him. This was Iseult, a beautiful maiden who just happened to be King Anguish’s daughter. Iseult did not know who Tristan really was (and perhaps, even if she did, she would still have looked after him), and the paid become friends as the man slowly heals. This is how all the most beautiful of loves begin, and the Cornish Love Pendant is a gorgeous reminder of this. This friendship grew stronger, and Tristan, when he was feeling more like himself, taught Iseult how to play the harp.
When Tristan was strong enough to leave he received word that a fearsome dragon was destroying villages nearby, and that Anguish, so terrified by what was happening and unable to stop it himself, has offered his daughter’s hand to anyone who can slay the beast. Of course, Tristan accepts the challenge. He has no interest in marriage, but he wonders – ever the diplomat – whether a marriage between Anguish’s daughter and King Mark might stop the feud between the kingdoms, and strengthen Cornwall.
Tristan is a valiant hero, and the dragon is dispatched quickly. It is then that Tristan realises exactly who Iseult really is, and she him. She is angry, and refuses to go with him to marry Mark, but Anguish insists that she goes. He is an honourable man, and he will not renege on his promise.
The Love Potion
Iseult has to obey, but she refuses to go quietly. On the eve of her journey to Cornwall – and subsequent marriage to King Mark – she engages a witch to make a love potion. If she is to be married, she wants to go willing. This is the only way. The witch tells Iseult that both she and her intended must drink the potion together.
On the journey to Cornwall, Iseult finds that she does still like Tristan. He is kind and generous, and tries to comfort her. So decides on a plan. She will trick Tristan into taking the love potion with her, and her friend and companion on the journey, Branwen (who looks very similar to Iseult) will marry the king instead. It sounds like an ideal way to get out of a situation no one wants to be in.
Iseult pours half of the potion into Tristan’s wine glass and half into her own, and they drink together. By the time they have finished, they are completely and utterly in love, and both keen for Branwen to marry Mark – which is exactly what happens when they arrive in Cornwall.
Happiness is theirs, or so they think, but the king discovered his nephew’s treachery and banished him from Cornwall. The one-time knight travelled across the sea until he reached Brittany, and from there he wandered, performing many heroic deeds, always thinking of his beautiful Iseult and determined to get back to her. During this time he meets a woman named Isolde of the White Hands. He marries her, even thought he is still in love with Iseult.
On one of his brave encounters, Tristan is once again mortally wounded. He knows that the only person who can save him is the one who saved him once before – Iseult. He sends a friend, Sir Kahedin, across the sea to Cornwall to retrieve Iseult, as long as the king will let her come. He tells Kahedin to use white sails on his return if the news is good, and black if it is bad. Tristan will be able to see the ship before it lands and will know the answer.
Mark, perhaps softened by time, allows Iseult – who is now his wife – to journey across the sea to save Tristan. The white sails are raised. However, Isolde of the White Hands is not pleased that this is happening when she sees the ships, and tells Tristan that the ships are sailing with black sails.
Believing that he is abandoned, Tristan gives up, and begs for death to take him. He dies of a broken heart, mere moments before Iseult can be by his side. When she realises what has happened Iseult collapses across the body of her lost love, and dies with him.
This story, so moving, so tragic, but also so beautiful has inspired jewellery such as the St Justin Sterling Silver Engraved Cornish Love Pendant for centuries. These pieces are a reminder of what love is, and what it can be, and a promise that, even when you are apart, you will never stop loving one another.