In old Welsh and Gaelic legends, and Wagner’s opera, she’s Tristan’s lover. Ysolde, or Isolde, or Iseult, cuts a tragic and romantically beautiful figure of womanhood, loyalty and courage in the bleak world of the Arthurian and Wagnerian mythologies, the latter partly inspired by an old tale by Gottfried von Straßburg.
“The Irish princess, Iseult of Ireland (also La Belle Iseult, Iseult “the Fair”), is the daughter of King Anguish of Ireland and Queen Iseult the Elder. She is a main character in theTristan poems of Béroul, Thomas of Britain, and Gottfried von Strassburg and in the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.
Iseult is first seen as a young princess who heals Tristan from wounds he received fighting her uncle, Morholt. When his identity is revealed, Tristan flees back to his own land. Later, Tristan returns to Ireland to gain Iseult’s hand in marriage for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. She is betrothed to an evil steward who claims to have killed a dragon, but when Tristan proves he killed the dragon Iseult’s parents agree to marry her to Mark. On the journey back to Cornwall, Iseult and Tristan accidentally drink a love potion prepared for her and Mark by Iseult the elder and guarded by Brangaine, Iseult’s lady-in-waiting. The two fall hopelessly in love, and begin an affair that ends when Mark banishes Tristan from Cornwall.
In the verse tradition, the lovers do not meet again until Tristan is on his death bed (see below), but in the later Prose Tristan and works based upon it, Tristan returns from Brittany and they resume their affair. Mark is much less sympathetic in these versions, and the adulterers eventually flee from his wrath. Lancelot gives them refuge in his estate Joyous Garde, and they engage in many further adventures. Additional episodes are integrated into the earlier sections of the narrative as well, including several involving the great Saracenknight Palamedes‘ unrequited love for Iseult, and in some versions, the two even have children. In the prose versions, the lovers’ end comes when Mark finds them as Tristan plays the harp for Iseult beneath a tree. The cruel king stabs his nephew in the back, and Tristan, at Iseult’s request, fatally crushes his beloved in a tight embrace as his final act.
One of her rumored burial sites is Chapelizod in Dublin, Ireland…
After King Mark learns of the secret love affair between Tristan and Iseult, he banishes Tristan to Brittany, never to return to Cornwall. There, Tristan is placed in the care of Hoel of Brittany after receiving a wound. He meets and marries Hoel’s daughter, Iseult Blanchmains (Iseult “of the White Hands”), because she shares the name of his former lover. They never consummate the marriage because of Tristan’s love for Iseult of Ireland.
During one adventure in Brittany, Tristan suffers a poisoned wound that only Iseult of Ireland, the world’s most skilled physician, can cure. He sends a ship for her, asking that its crew fly white sails on the return if Iseult is aboard, and black if she is not. Iseult agrees to go, and the ship races home, white sails high. However, Tristan is too weak to look out his window to see the signal, so he asks his wife to check for him. In a moment of jealousy, Iseult of the White Hands tells him the sails are black, and Tristan expires immediately of despair. When the Irish Iseult arrives to find her lover dead, grief overcomes her, and she passes away at his side. This death sequence does not appear in the Prose Tristan. In fact, while Iseult of the White Hands figures into some of the new episodes, she is never mentioned again after Tristan returns to Cornwall, although her brother Kahedin remains a prominent character.
The plot element of the fatal misunderstanding of the white and black sails is similar to—and might have been derived from—the story of Aegeus and Theseus in Greek mythology.”
Image: La belle Iseult, William Morris, 1858, courtesy Tate Gallery:
“This is the only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. It is a portrait in medieval dress of Jane Burden, whom Morris married in April 1859. The picture has been identified in the past as Queen Guenevere, partly owing to the fact that Morris published his first volume of poetry,The Defence of Guenevere, in March 1858. However, recent research has established convincingly that the picture is intended to represent Iseult mourning Tristram’s exile from the court of King Mark.
Iseult appears to have recently arisen from her bed, where a small greyhound lies curled up among the crumpled sheets. In Le Morte d’Arthur (c.1470), the author, Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405-71), reminds us that ‘the queen had always a little brachet [bitch-hound] with her that Sir Tristram gave her the first time that ever she came into Cornwall, and never would that brachet depart from her but if Sir Tristram was nigh’ (quoted in Banham and Harris, p.115). She stands wistfully in her small chamber, her feelings for Tristram reinforced by the sprigs of rosemary, symbolising remembrance, in her crown, and the word ‘DOLOURS’ (grief) written down the side of her mirror.
The rich colours, the emphasis on pattern and details such as the illuminated missal reveal where Morris’s true talents lay. He was less at home with figure painting than with illumination, embroidery and woodcarving, and he struggled for months on this picture. He worked for much of the time at 17 Red Lion Square, the rooms he shared with Edward Burne-Jones. Many of the furnishings such as the Turkish rug, Persian embroidered cover and whitework hangings on the bed were probably in Morris’s personal collection. The background panel is close in style to the heavy tapestries designed by Morris for Red Lion Square and the table cover is of the type taken as a model by Morris and Webb for the firm’s church furnishings.
In 1874 the picture was claimed as his own by Ford Madox Brown’s son Oliver. Rossetti, who had a great fondness for Jane Burden, offered him £20 for it as ‘an early portrait of its original, of whom I have made so many studies myself’ (quoted in Parry, p.103). The picture eventually passed to Rossetti’s brother, William Michael. It lay forgotten in a cupboard until Rossetti’s death, when it was returned to Jane Burden.
Joanna Banham and Jennifer Harris (eds), William Morris and the Middle Ages, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1984, pp.114-6, reproduced pl.IV, in colour.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.169-70; reproduced p.169.
Linda Parry (ed.), William Morris, exhibition catalogue, Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1996, pp.102-3, reproduced p.89, in colour.