The Unicorn in Heraldry

[Scotland’s National Animal Contents]

Now we come to the crux of our investigation. Heraldry and how the unicorn made it into ours becoming our national animal.  

Shepard’s ‘Lore of the Unicorn’ which has given us so much of the information related so far, annoyed me with it’s anglo-centricity, especially as it was written by an American. We may as well begin with the note which caused me most pain. He writes, 

“Admirable examples of the Scottish unicorn are given on the title-page of the edition of Hector Boëthius published at Paris. Many characteristics of the English [he means British] unicorn – the crown on the neck, for example, and the chain – are to be seen on the coins called “unicorns” struck for James III of Scotland about 1480, but there the animal is “seiant” [sejant – sitting upright]. There is dispute regarding the origin of the Scottish unicorn, but apparently it came from the arms of the Dukes of Somerset and entered Scotland when Jane [Joan] Beaufort of that house married James I, the poet-king. If this is true, the English [he means British] unicorn originated in England. (Cf. Seton’s Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1863, p. 274.) At the time of the union [of the crowns], 1603, a royal crown was added to the unicorn, but this was removed after the accession of the Hanoverians. The unicorn has always had the sinister [left hand] position in England, but Scotland proudly kept it dexter [right hand] until 1766 and for a long time refused to remove the crown. In 1853 Scotland petitioned for the retention of the crown. The petition failed.” – Note, pp.283-284.  

I was not prepared to believe the origin of the unicorn to be English, and this assertion was apparently borne out in my researching of the Arms of the Beauforts, or Dukes of Somerset, where I was unable to find a single unicorn. Not one. Not within the arms, nor as a supporter of the arms. What they did have were lions, angry looking two-horned goats, and dragons (showing a family link to Wales). So, I appealed to the Lyon Court of Scotland; 

to which they very kindly gave an answer. 

Their answer was; 

To which I responded; 

“If the Unicorn is first recorded as a supporter of her arms in 1439, could this not be due to her connection with Lorn, & Scotland, generally? Might she have adopted it due to her spouse(s)? I’ve seen lions, dragons, & goats for the Beauforts of Somerset, but no hint of a unicorn.” 

Their response came too late for the video round-up of our Unicorn information but it reads;

Now, I am not enough of an authority on the matter to be able to debate this point as succinctly as I might want to with THE authority on Scottish heraldry. But, you see, it makes sense to me, that if James I. had already decided on the unicorn as a supporter of Scottish arms, even though it wasn’t yet official, that after her marriage to him, she would be aware of his intentions in that regard, and her family coat of arms would have had a unicorn supporter to indicate her connection with Scotland, in the same way as previous members of her family had had dragons to indicate an association with Wales. In 1439, 2 years after the death of James, she married the Black Knight of Lorn, maintaining her Scottish connection, thereby retaining her unicorn. What I am prepared to outright refute, due to hours of looking through the arms of Somerset Beauforts, is that it DID NOT originate “from the arms of the Dukes of Somerset”. 

Lord Pursuivant Badge

Also, the high position of Unicorn Pursuivant, the Lyon Court mentions, the first being John Fraser, in 1426, 2 years after James I. married Joan, surely suggests that, for it to have been created under this name, James, who was in full control of his court on his return to Scotland, had been thinking this one over for a while. This is a time of religion being integrated into every aspect of life and we’ve seen that with religion came the unicorn. It seems that a future king of Scots had the means, even in captivity, where, by all accounts he was treated respectfully, to obtain literature that dealt, even in part, with the subject of this fabulous “Christian” animal. We’ve already seen how much of it was out there being read and regurgitated by academics throughout the countries of the world for centuries, prior to James I. being even a glint in his faither’s ee. 

I read a cute wee tradition regarding James & Joan meeting when James saw her petting, or attending to, a unicorn, and he, knowing unicorns are attracted to purity, knew he was onto a winner with Joan and courted her, before wedding her and adopting the unicorn as his armorial supporter. But, even in this obviously fictional story, we’re told James already knew the nature of the unicorn and its association with purity. I feel like, probably after the union, the claim was made that the unicorn was originally English in a further attempt at centralization. But English centralization has been, and is, so pervasive through Scottish society and institutions that I feel like a conspiracy nut when discussing it, so I’ll stop this tangent. 

It all may be a moot point, as in the Rothesay Chronicle, 7th October, 1876, we’re given a 

“DESCRIPTION OF ROTHESAY CASTLE. 

In connection with the royal visit, the following particulars about this “ancient palace-home of kings” will be interesting to those of our readers who either have not seen the venerable ruin or heard much of its eventful history:-“ 

And it’s correct, it is a very interesting article on the history of the castle, which I may type up for RSH followers at some point, but for now we’re going to just take a couple of sentences; 

“It originally consisted of a circular court, about 140 feet in diameter, surrounded by a wall 9 feet in thickness and 17 feet high, afterwards raised 9 feet higher with battlements; four round towers upon the flanks at nearly equal distances; and an erection which is ascribed to King Robert II., and which projects, on the north-east side, between two of the towers… The principal gate was at the north end, having the royal arms placed over it, cut in stone, and was approached by a drawbridge…” 

The royal arms aren’t described but if you have a look at them, they look to be clearly supported by a unicorn on either side. But, are they dated from Robert II. (1316-90)? 

blog.appletonstudios.com

This was noted in Robert Brown’s 1881 publication, ‘The Unicorn: A Mythological Investigation,’ where a portion of a letter from Thomas Dickson Esq., dated 1st July, 1880; 

“The earliest extant example of the unicorn as a supporter in the royal arms of Scotland, appears to be that which occurs in the royal achievement carved above the gateway of Rothsay Castle. The Lyon king of arms, who examined it carefully last summer, told me that this carving appeared to him to be contemporaneous with the part of the building in which it is inserted, which, considering the style of the architecture and various entries in the Exchequer Rolls relative to the building of Rothsay Castle, he was disposed to assign to the time of Robert II. or III. [1380-1400].” 

It turns out the Scotsman ran an article, a year ago, 9th April, 2021, in which it states; 

“In the coat of arms approved by Robert III (1337-1406), two unicorns support a shield with the oldest surviving example of this heraldry found above the gateway of Rothesay Castle.” 

Meaning, the latest they could have been there would have been 20 years prior to James and Joan, destroying that origin completely. 

The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 27th October, 1906, tells us; 

“ABERDEEN. 

————— 

THE UNIVERSITY AND KING’S COLLEGE. 

————— 

HERALDIC SHIELDS ON THE CHURCH. 

… 

… unicorns being Scripture animals were very likely early adopted as supporters of shields. Unicorn, one of the pursuivants of the Lord Lyon, is mentioned in 1420; and gold coins showing unicorn with a crown on his neck and supporting the royal shield were struck by James III. in 1486, and by James IV. in 1496, one of which he may have sent to Margaret. The coverlet of his bed was embroidered with thistles and unicorns.” 

This makes it seem as though they were associated and used as symbols super quickly, almost as if there was already a consensus of thought behind it. Again, I believe the Scottish nobility would already have been well aware of the “existence” of unicorns and their symbology for a long time prior to 1426. Robert I. (1274-1329) was super religious, as evinced by his impassioned plea to Pope John XXII, in the form of the Declaration of Arbroath, in 1320, pleading Scotland’s case as a Christian nation, over which England had no right or claim. With religion, came a belief in unicorns, as we’ve seen. 

Scotland’s national animal became the supporter of the British Royal coat of arms in 1603, as related in the North British Agriculturist, 10th October, 1860; 

“THE LION AND THE UNICORN. – James [VI.] was the first who united the lion and unicorn heraldically, adopting the latter beast from the supporters of the Scottish sovereigns. The conjunction of these animals on an ecclesiastically vestment of the period of the Reformation must be attributed to religious symbolism rather than to any heraldic arrangement: the lion typifying fortitude and strength, while the unicorn is emblematical of fortitude and chastity. As such the former may have reference to our Lord “the lion of Judah,” and the latter may be an emblem of the blessed Virgin Mary. The tradition with regard to the unicorn, that it would never be caught, except by a virgin, and that if its skin was at all defiled it pined away and died, is well known. Its capture was a favourite subject with the mediæval artist.” 

There’s also the famous poem of the pair, as given in the Southern Reporter, 13th October, 1921; 

“THE LION AND THE UNICORN. 

The lion and the unicorn 

Were fighting for the crown; 

The lion beat the unicorn 

All round the town. 

Some gave them white bread, 

And some gave them brown, 

Some gave them plum cake, 

And sent them out of town.” 

Shepard mentions the debate over “the retention of the [Unicorn’s] crown” and there are numerous newspaper articles devoted to this subject from 1853 onwards. The most interesting I found was an open letter penned by then Lyon King of Arms, David Lindesay, published in the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, 10th December, 1853; 

“… as a consummation of this assumed imperial dominancy our poor old unicorn was shorn of its crown, and thereby deprived of its imperial character. Suppose that I am told by an English authority that the Imperial Crown is not significant of Royalty, but that it is the rank of the wearer alone which confers such high distinction?  

If this is consistent with English heraldic usage or law, then why retain the Crown upon the Lion? Such doctrine, however, is not admitted or understood, so far as I know, among Scottish Heralds.  

Now,.. let me ask if justice was then done to Scotland – the free, united, but NOT MERGED kingdom?  

Again, in regard to the Unicorn, I may be told that it was not crowned before the time of James VI. But look before that period, and you will find the Crown displayed by way of surtout on the Scottish national banners, and from thence it appears to have been transferred to the heads of the Unicorn and Lion (for the first time,) upon England falling under the dominion of a Scottish King… This mark of Royal dignity having remained for subsequent reigns, might justly have been continued after the Union, without incongruity or inconvenience.  

I am afraid to trespass on your limits; but there is one thing I am anxious to know. Whether the words “Scotland and England,” and “the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George,” appear to be so embodied in the English copy of the Articles of Union deposited in London? If so, they would strengthen our Scottish claim to precedency in the entire arms of Great Britain. On the other hand, if they are there transposed, to “England and Scotland,” and “the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew,” then we can only arrive at one conclusion – viz., that it was, and still is, the intent and meaning of the Treaty, that within Scotland, the Scottish Insignia shall have precedence, and within England the English shall have precedence, to every article, building, banner, standard, and tabard whereon those united Arms appear.  

We demand that our national supporter, the Unicorn, be again crowned and gorged with an open crown. Its restoration would be but an act of justice, which is in accordance with our national honour, and the strictest heraldry. But if this Royal distinction is still withheld from the Unicorn, why retain the crown on the head of the English Lion? The English heralds have robbed us of what our Kings gave us, and what our Lyon Court had neither the sense nor the courage to defend; but her Majesty the Queen can restore both crown and banner, and they shall be restored, if there is yet spirit in the Scottish people… 

We do not care a straw for the SECRET AND ILLEGAL act of the English Privy Council, which was passed BEFORE THE UNION; neither do we care for the sophistry of the Scotsman, or the quack antiquarianism of the Courant. The cause of Scotland shall flourish in spite of all opposition; for hers is the good cause, on whose side are Justice, Right, and Truth. – I remain, Sir, yours, &c.  

DAVID LINDESAY OF THE MOUNT, 

Lyon King of Arms. 

     Cupar-Fife, 2d Dec., 1853.  

P.S. – In Westminster Abbey (upon the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots) the Imperial Arms of Scotland take entire precedence of, and are paramount to those of England, as any man may see.  

D. L.”              

From what I can see from the government records it is worded in the opposite way with regards the English copy of the Treaty of Union

An article I felt combined many of the aspects we’ve learned about the unicorn is this from the Dundee Evening Telegraph, 1st November, 1904; 

“THE UNICORN IN HERALDRY. 

An imaginary creature which figures largely in Royal heraldry is the unicorn. Two examples of this are the supporters of the Scottish arms, while one replaced the red dragon of Henry VII. when James I. came to the throne. It is noteworthy, however, that in the arms of Jane Seymour [a century after James I.], by a coincidence, the lion and unicorn had previously done Royal duty together. At a very early period the unicorn was borne as a device by the Scottish Kings – “not only for his strength, courage, and particular virtue of his horn in dispelling poison (as writers tell us), but as the emblem of unconquerable freedom.” The unicorn became even a religious symbol, while chemists and goldsmiths adopted it as their sign; the first because of the medicinal virtues of the unicorn’s horn, the second owing to its great value. A Florentine physician has recorded that this material sold in the shops for more than ten times its weight in gold. The import duty in the time of Queen Mary was twenty shillings on the ounce, and in an inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (preserved in the library of Pepys), a unicorn’s horns forms the first and most important item. One of the uses of the ivory was the making of knife handles for the tables of the great, who used it because it “sweated” upon the approach of poison. Whatever may have been the prototype of the unicorn itself, there is no doubt that the horn, on account of its great length and the spiral grooving shown upon it, is the tusk of the narwhal, one of the whale-like creatures or cetaceans. Two tusks are developed at first, but owing to the unsymmetrical growth of the head characteristic of the animals in question, only one, as a rule, grows to any length.” 

Scotland is not the only country, even in the small list of British countries, to have a mythical animal as its National Animal. Wales has the equally fantastic Dragon, as does Bhutan in the form of the Druk. The Greeks have also chosen the excellently symbolic Phoenix. 

There is definitely still a cloud over the specific origin of Scotland’s national animal. I had previously asked my late friend Harry about Scotland’s having taken on the unicorn as the national animal. He was a heraldry professor & fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, but couldn’t tell me definitively why the unicorn was adopted. I know he’d sent me a letter with his scant findings but I’m unable to put my hands on that just now. He had given me, at a later a point, a scrap of paper with some books he wanted me to track down for him, which I found later found in a notebook and happens to have some of his notes from his wee bit of research. They don’t help us with our problem. The unicorn is likely the symbol of Scotland due to the idea that it would rather die than be captured, which was a feeling strongly possessed by those patriotic Scots as they attempted to prevent varying incursions from the country to the south. 

We’ll finish with a poem from the Scotsman, 21st April, 1936, there always seem to be a subject-appropriate verse for these episodes; 

THE UNICORN 

————— 

[BY LEWIS SPENCE] 

ON the Scots blasoun ramps the Unicorn, 

Chainyeit is he for that so wild and wud 

Men knaw him that hes horrour of his horn, 

Yit kynd is he to thame of Scottis blude. 

Of auld our rivers did him rathely breed, 

Now doth he sort with kelpies and with geists, 

Yit is he aye the symbol of our seed – 

Suthely is the Unicorn the roy of all beasts! 

– 

Herauld nor pursuivant nor trumpettour 

Luiks upon him withouten meikle awe; 

To Scotland’s faes he is of grit dolour 

What he amang the baneirs raiks on raw. 

His milky hide proclames his purité, 

On honour and on glore his huifis reists, 

Of knights and campiouns approved is he – 

Suthely is the Unicorn the roy of all beasts! 

– 

Men tell that in the desarts Pers and Ynd 

He hants the gowden raxters of the sand, 

Yit in our regioun is he ill to find, 

As thouch he did not luve this farrach land. 

But this is fauset; Whan the mune she blaws 

Out of the siles of shaddaw and she keists 

Her leaves on mirkness, than he staiks the shaws – 

Shuthely is the Unicorn the roy of all beasts! 

– 

Nor sall the Unicorn, our symbol, dee, 

On ylka hert that is auld Scotland’s maik 

Stampit as on a gowden piece is he, 

And men sall luve him for his honour’s saik. 

O Caledonia, lowss thy hornit horss 

Whylk thy defens bears on his siller creists, 

That endit be this nacioun’s remorse – 

Suthely is the Unicorn the roy of all beasts! 

“To anyone not instructed in comparative anatomy the unicorn is so credible a beast that it is difficult to understand why anyone should ever have doubted him. Compared with him the giraffe is highly improbable, the armadillo and the ant-eater are unbelievable, and the hippopotamus is a nightmare.” – p.191.  

2 thoughts on “The Unicorn in Heraldry

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