Columbines, granny’s bonnet, Aquilegia…call it what you will.

Eight hours it took me to stitch the first granny’s bonnet on the coif and that’s not counting the two hours it took me to unpick my first effort – we won’t go into how many hours I’d already spent on it or the amount of time taken by the leaves. I am admittedly quite pleased with the end result but that could just be relief to have completed it!

Aquilegia were first listed as a garden plant by Hildegard of Bingen at Rupertsberg. She used it as a tincture to cure fever. The plant appears as an illustration in many medieval breviaries and psalters across Europe as a quick search will reveal.

To the medieval mind those fluttery petals were akin to bird’s wings – the association stuck. Columbine from the Latin columba meaning dove gives us the link to the Holy Spirit while aquila gives us the eagle – and Christ in the form of an eagle soaring heavenwards. Which makes me wonder if the bird on the left of the flower on the coif is in fact an eagle and the smaller one above it is supposed to be a dove (albeit a rather sooty looking one.)

The plant does have other common names because it it is indigenous to Britain. I’ve always known the flower as a granny’s bonnet – my mother comes from East Anglia – but it is also called boots-and-shoes; Dolly’s bonnet; lion’s herb’ rags and tatters and widows weeds among many others.

Wild columbines are largely blue and this was the colour of royal mourning in France – so the plant became associated with widows and the sorrows of Mary- the idea travelled. As if that weren’t enough apparently it was also known as herba leonis because there was a belief that lions favoured them as a light snack (don’t ask). As a consequence, carrying the flowers or even rubbing some sap into your hands was supposed to imbue a person with courage and fearlessness – qualities associated with lions.

The Hall family of Coventry are recorded as using columbines on their coat of arms – presumably so that they could be as gentle as the Holy Spirit, as warlike as an eagle, as brave as lions and as forlorn as deserted lovers (yup- yet another association).

Later, ladies who wished to find an example to turn into an embroidery might have used Gerard’s Herbal first published in 1597. Gerard described some of the variations to be found in the aquilegia as well as methods for their cultivation, indicating the move towards a more scientific approach. He noted that medieval medicine did not use it as a cure (he clearly hadn’t seen Hildegard’s thoughts on the subject) but he suggested:

Most in these days following others by tradition, do use to boil the leaves in milk against the soreness of the throat, falling and excoriation of the uvula: but the ancient writers have said nothing hereof. Ruellius reporteth, that the flowers of Columbines are not used in medicine: yet some there be that do affirm they are good against the stopping of the liver, which effect the leaves do also perform.            

Clusius saith, that Dr. Francis Rapard a physician of Bruges in Flanders, told him that the seed of this common Columbine very finely beaten to powder, and given in wine, was a singular medicine to be given to women to hasten and facilitate their labour, and if the first taking it were not suffficiently effectual; that then they should repeat it again.

I wouldn’t suggest trying it. For other sources the so-called Tudor Pattern Book of 1504 held by the Bodleian Library is part bestiary part herbal. The formalised image on the coif seems more Tudor than Stuart in form so I shall be taking myself off to Hardwick Hall to see if I can spot an embroidered slip that has a similar look.