Friday, August 19, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Lion and the Unicorn



"You are now subjects of King George. God save the King!"

These words started our journey into the past, Colonial Williamsburg. If you take the kids, we loved the candlelight ghost tour and RevQuest.

Included in your tickets for Colonial Williamsburg, RevQuest is part treasure hunt, part historical mystery that requires cell phone (my 14-year-old was in charge of texting answers to the clues and receiving the next clue on his phone) and a little bit of LARP. The mystery was based on a true event, fictionalized in the chapter book Phoebe the Spy.

In the print shop, I learned that we get the phrases "upper case" and "lower case" in the alphabet from the way the individual letters that newspaper printers used were stored -- in an actual storage case with an upper portion and lower portion.

I love learning about word and phrase origins. Which is why, when we came upon this crest at the Governor's Palace...


I ended up heading to my laptop to do some research. As soon as I saw the crest, this rhyme from my childhood popped into my mind:



The lion and the unicorn
were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn

all around the town.
 

Some gave them white bread,
and some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake

and drummed them out of town.

I could only remember the first two lines. My kids had never heard the poem. That makes sense. My mother is from Nottingham. One of the things I remember reading is a book of traditional British nursery rhymes. Is this poem even included in current nursery rhyme books?

I did remember that the nursery rhyme had something to do with the British crown and succession issues. But I couldn't tell my junior history buffs any more than that.

Here is what I found out.

Most online sources say the poem reflects the heraldic crest of Great Britain, which was a new country in 1603 (when the rhyme dates to) -- a joining of Scotland and England when Elizabeth I chose King James VI of Scotland to be her successor. New country, new crest. From England's double-lion crest and Scotland's double unicorn, we get the compromise -- a single lion representing England and a unicorn for Scotland.

Of course, what I remembered from my childhood picture book was the fighting part and the people getting fed up and drumming the creatures out of town.

The website Scottish at Heart says the crest, "symbolized the union of the two countries, but the actual union was less than friendly, and this conflict was immortalized in the well-known British Nursery Rhyme 'The Lion and the Unicorn.'"

This unicorn friendly site writes that the fighting and fed-up public I that we see in the rhyme were based in history.

"This was a potent bit of symbolism, for both the lion and the unicorn had long been thought to be deadly enemies: both regarded as king of the beasts, the unicorn rules through harmony while the lion rules through might, it came to symbolise a reconciliation between the Scottish unicorn and the English lion that the two should share the rule. The effectiveness of the sentiment, unfortunately, is placed in some doubt by the famous nursery rhyme."

I'm off to do more research.

You might enjoy checking out  this site , which traces the two heraldic animals back to kings of the Bible.


For those of you who grew up -- like me -- with traditional British nursery rhymes, The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery explains many of the Tudor rhymes I remember from my early reading days.

Let's wave goodbye to the gates of the Governor of Virginia's palace and head back to the future. Much as I love my British heritage, I didn't love being a "subject" of the King.


I hope you went on some literary rambles this summer. We learned so much on our trips to Concord and North Bridge, MA and Williamsburg, VA.

Dori Reads is our host blogger today. Stop by her blog to find more poetry posts. Enjoy the end of summer and back to school prep, everyone!

5 comments:

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

This is such a rich post - filled with research and photos to boot! Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

Diane Mayr said...

Don't you love all the stuff you can find if you take the time to look! Thanks for sharing it.

jama said...

Wonderful post. Loved reading all the backstory about the Lion and the Unicorn.

Haven't been to Colonial Williamsburg in ages. Thanks for sharing another of your summer adventures :).

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Myra, Diane and Jama, for visiting. I bet you're all fans of "The History Detectives" on PBS, too. I love a good back-story.

Doraine Bennett said...

My goodness, texting treasure hunts! Williamsburg has changed a lot since I was there as a child, and even since I was there with my children. I enjoyed reading up on the heraldry. There are so many political allusions in those old nursery rhymes that we totally miss.