Best Bestiary beasts…

Bodelian Library bestiary (12th century)

This post is by way of a Christmas warm up. Many of England’s medieval kings had exotic animals given to them, stories about animals abounded as new lands were explored and in Christian Europe, it was believed that the natural world was ordered by God to instruct people on a good life, proper behaviour and to reinforce Biblical knowledge – all anyone needed to do was to interpret the behaviour. Essentially the whole of creation was viewed as an allegory. Inevitably the idea was pinched from the greeks. But what the medieval world ended up with was a set of texts that combined zoology with religion – with a spot of mythology…unicorns for instance feature in many medieval bestiaries but in reality an elephant was as strange as a unicorn or a dragon. And just for good measure there was almost a game of Chinese whispers played between explorers, writers and illustrators of the bestiary – resulting in some very strange looking creatures including an ostrich with hooves.

So – lets make a start – eagles are the kings of the birds in the same way that the lion is the king of the beasts (natural order – you need to know your place) Eagles look to the sun to renew their youthfulness. People should look to God for their restoration. Equally sea eagles take dramatic plunges in search of food – they’re just like Adam and Eve falling from grace. I rather like these three eagles as they seem to be smiling.

More in December including Pope Leo X’s white elephant, King John’s zoo and King Henry I’s porcupine…

8 thoughts on “Best Bestiary beasts…

  1. My family crest has been so plain as blue and white bands so what will that signify one wonders. Even craved into my ancestor tomb in Kendal parish church the heraldic shield that was once painted now records passage of time as stone. In Westminster hall a Helm sits above same bar shield .As Sir William Parr was Knight of the Garter one needs to know what was added to his arms. Peter Donaugh York Herald at college of arms may help in this quest. Would love to know where and when the heraldic arms originally came from as Lord Sefton family is the root of the Kendal Parr lot when his younger son served Edward 111 and became the first Baron Kendal.This title granted to Hugh Lowther not long ago when I asked about it staying in my family I woke a sleeping affair it seems

  2. Naworth Castle Howard family used to have a Griffin which is reputed to have given the idea of the Jaberwocky carved fantasy figures by the fireplace in the Great Hall – oh and the other figure was the “Lion Rampant”, I dare you to explain, but what was the origin of those – Lewis Carol stayed there so a few drinks and an imagination …

    • You’ve just made my day! The Howards of Naworth took on the red bull of the Dacres when they ‘married in. The red bull and the Dacre gryphon can be seen at the V & A as can a salmon and a ram which are all associated with various members of the Dacre family. Tomorrow’s post will be about the Dacre Beasts and I’m guessing the lion rampant is a Howard armorial bearer – but I’ll need to look it up to be certain.

      • When the Earl of Carlisle died the death duties required the sale of the two carvings that stood beside the fireplace. The Lion Rampant was explained as sitting upright, claws in the air with an erection on his belly, but the phallus was a part of the boasts of those days, just look at the armour of Henry VIII with its protuberance! We are a bit coy about such matters now, and thankfully cod pieces are not in fashion (yet?). Do you know where the tapestries that hung in the Great Hall went that were also part of the death duty payments? Naworth has a wonderful hidden priest hole, I have a video of it. And don’t forget what the locals call the Capon Tree, we thought it grew capons as in cooking, but in fact as the incorrigible current owner explains, when we caught those pesky reivers we hung them, but we first took their hat off and put it on the tree then hung them – clothes were expensive in those days, Timothy Pont the map gazetteer was robbed naked in his travels. Rambling reminiscences from

      • Not immediately sure where they went but there should be an inventory somewhere. There’s nothing quite like a spot of Jeddart Justice for focusing the mind. Naworth isn’t the only place to have a capon tree. Jedburgh has one, hence Jeddart Justice.

      • Have you heard of “Kerr handed”. Apparently or allegedly, the Kerr family of Fernihurst Castle had a family tendency to being left handed so the spiral staircase spirals the opposite way to normal – when defending and retreating up the stairs the right arm was on the outside of the spiral to give more swing and the attacker had less room on their right side with the vertical spindle of the spiral staircase obstructing them, but with the Kerrs being left handed the spiral goes the other way – true or a good story?


      • I have – I think its true that the Kerrs were dolly pawed and that their turret stair cases spiral in the opposite way to that which is expected. Certainly MacDonal erased believed it to be the case.

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