Learning

Lions and Unicorns and their symbolism

Nursery rhyme

Human fascination with and admiration of the qualities of the lion and unicorn go back through history, and explain their use as potent symbols in royal heraldry.
Little needs to be said about the character of the lion which throughout the history of art has been recognised as the King of Beasts for his bravery, ferocity and proud bearing and as such is often associated with regal symbolism. The Unicorn is of course an imaginary animal, with the head and body of a horse, the legs of a hind (female deer), the tail of a lion and the single spiral horn. The Unicorn was known in Ancient China and India. In the medieval period, which saw the invention of heraldry, it was thought to possess great strength and fierceness, but was very small and so fleet of foot that no hunter could catch it. The only known means of trapping the Unicorn was described in a Norman Bestiary written by Guillaume le Clare in 1210.

"They that would ensnare it …….
go for a young girl, whom they know well to be a virgin.
Then they make her sit and wail at its lair …….
Straight to her it comes at once; in her lap it crouches down …….
With the girl it sports so much that in her lap it falls asleep,"

and so is caught.

The Unicorn in Captivity
The Unicorn in Captivity
A late medieval tapestry from the Southern Netherlands
dates c. 1500 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Traditionally the relationship between the lion and unicorn was antagonistic, and there is reference to this in Chaldean Art as early as 3500 B.C. The well known nursery rhyme reflects this, and is believed to tell the story of the amalgamation of the Royal Arms of Scotland with those of England when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. Two Unicorns were the supporters of the old Scottish Royal Arms and, with the Lion of England on the other side, one of them became a supporter of the Royal Shield and had a crown placed on its head. After the Hanoverian succession, the crown was removed. Strife between England and Scotland resumed, and this may well have been the period when the rhyme was invented for its earliest printed record dates from 1709. It was probably part of a popular song of the time, reflecting the contemporary political situation and is referred to as such by Lewis Carroll in the scene in 'Through the Looking-Glass' in which Alice, in the company of the White King, encounters the fabled Beasts.

Illustration from 'Through the Looking Glass' by Tenniel
Illustration from 'Through the Looking Glass' by Tenniel
Alice meets the Lion and Unicorn after a fight, and offer
them plum cake as referred to in the nursery rhyme.

This then, must be the interpretation of the way in which the Lions and Unicorns are depicted on the Spire of St George's. If the intention were simply heraldic they could have been represented in a more traditional way. The energetic and dynamic departure from the heraldic norm must surely reflect a further layer of meaning in which George I, shown above in the guise of a Roman Emperor, presides over a crown fought over by the competing interests of the traditional enemies, England and Scotland.

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Last updated: 26 January, 2008