Who Were Tristan and Iseult In Arthurian Legend and What Did King Mark Do When He Discovered Their Affair?

Tristan and Iseult were two lovers in Arthurian legend whose tale ends in tragedy.

Tristan went to Ireland to woo the beautiful Iseult on behalf of his friend and king, Mark of Cornwall. Tristan approached Iseult’s father, and he gave his blessing to the marriage.

But Iseult was not enthusiastic about marrying King Mark. To help her daughter, Iseult’s mother concocted a special love potion.

She instructed Iseult’s maid to give Iseult the potion on her wedding night. After drinking the potion, Iseult would fall passionately in love with King Mark and enjoy happiness for the rest of her life.

While on the voyage to Cornwall, however, Tristan and Iseult accidentally drank some of the potion. They glimpsed at each other and fell madly in love.

Iseult still married King Mark, but she and Tristan met secretly. One day, King Mark discovered Tristan and Iseult asleep with Tristan’s sword between them. Instead of killing them, King Mark felt pity and exchanged his sword for Tristan’s.

When Tristan awoke and saw the sword, he knew instantly that King Mark was aware of his affair with Iseult. Overcome with guilt, Tristan left Cornwall and settled in France.

He married another woman but remained unhappy.

Tristan fought several battles while in France. During one fight, he suffered a greivous wound. Desperate, he sent for Iseult, who had cured a similar wound long before.

In a letter, Tristan instructed Iseult to hoist a white sail to indicate her arrival. But Tristan’s wife, jealous of Iseult, opened the letter and changed the instructions.

When Iseult’s ship was sighted, it was flying a black sail. Shattered by his grief, Tristan threw himself on his sword. Iseult arrived just as he gasped his last breaths. Iseult could not live without Tristan, and she died soon afterward of a broken heart.

In an illuminated, or painted, manuscript created in the late 1400s, Tristan accompanies Iseult on their ill-fated journey to Cornwall.