Heartsease (viola tricolour) – Elizabeth I’s flower

“There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”.  Ophelia

Detail of pansy on hemline of Hardwick Portrait

The regular post has moved to a midweek time to accommodate the weekly history challenges. Let’s hope I can stay organised.

I’ve been doing some gardening today, making the most of the lovely weather. At this rate I’ll have the tidiest garden ever. Today I did some weeding and planted some seeds that I’ve found lurking in the back of a cupboard. Apparently heartsease populate walls, rockeries and paths easily. Time will tell. Anyway, heartsease as I know it has many different names including Jack-behind-the-garden-gate; kiss-behind-the-garden-gate; Kit-run-around; godfathers-and-godmothers; herb trinity and herb constancy to name but a few.

The name heartsease comes from the days when if you were suffering from a broken heart you could take an infusion of the pretty little plant to treat your woes. I don’t suggest that you try it. In Victorian times when courting couples couldn’t speak openly the flower represented happiness and if you gave it to someone the meaning might be that the recipient occupied the giver’s thoughts – presumably leading to the kiss behind the garden gate.

Gerard’s herbal reveals other medicinal uses for the pansy or heartsease:

It is good … for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’

So back to the history – the pansy was Elizabeth I’s favourite flower, and as a consequence it was everyone else’s as well. For Elizabeth the humble heartsease was not linked with kissing behind gates, it represented chastity- an important facet of being the Virgin Queen. In medieval times, prior to the Reformation, it was linked with the Virgin Mary. The colours of the heartsease, white, yellow and purple relate to purity, joy and mourning respectively which relate in turn to the Virgin’s life. 

The Stowe Inventory of the Wardrobe identifies many of Elizabeth’s clothes in 1600 as well as her new year’s gifts which included many hand embroidered items. Elizabeth herself hand embroidered gifts for her own family, most famously Katherine Parr’s prayer book cover stitched when Elizabeth was eleven-years-old, which includes pansies or heartsease.

Katherine Parr’s Prayer book cover stitched by Princess Elizabeth

Look closely at any number of Elizabeth’s portraits including the Pelican Portrait, the Hardwick Hall portrait and the Rainbow Portrait for example and you will find pansies.

2 thoughts on “Heartsease (viola tricolour) – Elizabeth I’s flower

  1. KP i am too. Yes like Kateryn Parr prayer book that now i set behind glass in the office of Kendal mayor in Town Hall Stricklandgate. If my dotty relative had not handed it to a rag man as out of date it would not have ended up in an auction when by chance a Kendal council office man was on holidays near Lewes and just so happened to be at that auction and bought it for the town hall it would have been in my library by right. Kate Parr was not born in the Kendal family home that was falling down with age in 1512 .She was born in Blackfrairs house in London her father had it built in 1510 -1511 so for full sure as he worked for the palace and king his family all lived there.It is absolute nonsense to say she was born in Kendal. Yes my gardens are all ready for summer .Kitchen gardens way behind as walls take time to heat the ground. Roses in leaf buds and well ahead of May. Looking ever so forward to operation garden border planting up from seed and cuttings grown. My dial garden to plant a hedge of Hidcote Lavender of some 120 plants around a circle with sundial in centre. Hope that my green emerald walls will grow faster to make my six rooms. Micro climate idea from Hidcote Manor with help from staff with measurements on red border to see if mine is longer. It is. Keep well and avoid a visit from this awful virus.

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