As part of the first ever digital Doors Open Days, archivist Dr Alison Rosie looks at ink sketches of national symbols found in an Exchequer record from the 1530s and explains their significance…
Household Book of James V: E31/6
The accounts of King James V’s pantry, kitchen, buttery and cellars for the years 1525-1539 survive in eight large household books. One particular volume, covering the year 1534 to 1535, is distinguished from the others by the drawings which decorate a number of its pages.
The ink sketches are lively and assured with no apparent pencil underdrawings. Today, I will look more closely at the page depicting a Tudor rose, a thistle, a unicorn and Roman heroine Lucretia.
The legend of how the thistle became Scotland’s national emblem dates back to the battle of Largs in 1263 when the Scottish army were woken by one of their Norse invaders who had stepped on the plant.
Its association with royalty is more evident from the 15th century on, when it appears on coins, royal seals and textiles. Groats (worth about 12 silver pennies), incorporating the image of the thistle and hence known as ‘thistle headed groats’, were minted in 1474.
An inventory of the effects of Margaret of Demark, wife of James III, describes a rich purple silk bed cover embroidered with thistles and a unicorn (‘A covering of variand purpir tartar browdin with thrissillis and a unicorne’).
The Treasurer’s Accounts reveal that James V, during his visit to France in 1536/7 in search of a wife, purchased 34 gold thistles from a local goldsmith for decorating his bonnet and a further 20 for applying to one of his gowns.
The Thistle and the Rose
The rose depicted in the household book is the Tudor rose, that combination of the red and white roses of Lancaster and York adopted by Henry VII of England after his marriage to Elizabeth of York.
The marriage of Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor to James IV marked a cessation of hostilities between England and Scotland and witnessed the increased use of the motifs of the thistle and the rose combined.
The Treaty of Perpetual Peace, which in 1502 cemented the marriage, was a natural opportunity to use these symbols: the borders of the Scottish copy of the treaty sent to London, depict the thistle and the rose, together with the marguerite, a play on Margaret Tudor’s name.
On her entry into Edinburgh on 7th August 1503, riding pillion behind the King, she passed under a gate on which was mounted a unicorn holding a thistle and a rose entwined.
The marriage was celebrated in an allegorical poem, ‘The Thistle and the Rose’, by the court poet William Dunbar, wherein Margaret is the rose ‘of cullour reid and quhyt’ while James is depicted heraldically as the lion, eagle and the ‘awfull thistle’ protected by its prickles, a ‘busche of speiris’. The poem may have been performed as part of the wedding celebrations though there is no evidence for this.
The unicorn has been associated with Scottish crown since at least the early 15th century when James I created the heraldic office of Unicorn Pursuivant. James III had golden coins called unicorns struck which showed the unicorn alongside a shield of the royal coat of arms.
The Treasurer’s Accounts in the reign of James IV record payments for gold unicorns for hanging from chains of gold for presentation to favoured members of the court or foreign visitors. Some historians have claimed that these are indications of Scotland’s first order of chivalry, though they were more likely to be livery badges. James IV also owned a suite of tapestries depicting the Hunt for the Unicorn – a modern version of which you can now see at Stirling Castle.
More generally, the unicorn was the symbol of purity, chastity and courtly love, a mythical wild beast which could only be tamed by a young virgin. The unicorn’s horn was reputed to have magical properties and could be used to detect poison and cleanse water of impurities. It was extremely expensive but was actually the tusk of the narwhal.
‘An unicorne horne set in gold’ is listed among the contents of a chest belonging to the late Margaret of Denmark stored at Edinburgh Castle in 1488. Mary Queen of Scots also owned a piece of unicorn horn hung on a silver chain – useful for dipping into liquids.
The unicorn on this page, like those depicted as supporters on the royal coat of arms, is represented with a crown round its neck with a long chain tying it to the ground, demonstrating that it had been tamed by the power of the Scottish crown.
The thistle, rose and unicorn all had close symbolic connections with the Scottish crown. It is harder to explain why the portrait of Lucretia appears alongside them.
Lucretia, or Lucrece, was the Roman noblewoman whose rape at the hands of Tarquin incited the rebellion which overthrew the Roman monarchy. Overcome with the shame she had brought on her family, she committed suicide by stabbing herself in the heart.
The story first appears in Livy’s History of Rome and went on to be hugely popular in medieval and renaissance literature and art. Lucretia was held up as an exemplar of the virtuous married woman, despite suicide being deemed sinful in the medieval church. Her story makes an appearance in Dante and Chaucer and in art, as in the illustration here, she is routinely depicted stabbing herself,.
John Bellenden (or Bannatyne) was commissioned by James V to translate the first five books of Livy, the first translation in the British Isles. The Treasurer’s Accounts shows he was paid £8 in July and again in August 1534 for his work. From 1515-1522, Bellenden had been a clerk of expenses in the household of James V, involved in keeping the accounts and preparing them for inspection by the Exchequer.
We do not know exactly when the artist added these images to the accounts, nor who he might have been, though we might surmise that he was a clerk in James V’s household who may have known Bellenden and been familiar with his translation.
Dr Alison Rosie
National Register of Archives for Scotland
National Records of Scotland