Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Rose - Emblem of England

By Deborah Swift
The rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left: Dante's mystic rose, and 'go lovely rose', the Wars of the Roses, rose thou art sick, too many rings around Rosie, a rose by any other name, a rose is a rose is a rose...'
Umberto Eco : Reflections on The Name of the Rose.1983 

The Symbolism of the Rose

For centuries, flowers appeared in Western Art primarily for their symbolism. In the case of roses, these usually revolved around ideas of heavenly and earthly love. Early roses had only five petals, and legend says the original colour was always white. The ancient Greeks believed that roses only turned red after Venus chased after her lover, Adonis, and pricked her finger on a thorny rose bush in her lust to catch him.

Another Christian legend is, that the blood of the crucified Christ spilled down onto a white rose bush which grew at the foot of the cross, and since then, the roses there grew red instead of white. Red and white roses were also symbols of the Virgin Mary, representing sacrifice and purity, and rosary beads (a rosary is a rose garden) are still associated with Mary. Rosary beads refer back to the 11th century, when, the story goes, Godgifu ( Lady Godiva) gave a set of beads as an offering to the Virgin Mary at St Mary’s Abbey, Coventry (later Coventry cathedral). 

This portrait shows the 26-year-old Elizabeth I dressed in coronation robes upon which the rose emblem is fiercely evident. This particular image was used as the basis for coins and seals, hence the reason she is shown full face. The portrait is based on a now lost original which dated from 1559. Elizabeth's long flowing hair was traditional for a coronation. and her elaborate gown is made from woven gold and silk thread and was also used by Mary I, five years earlier. The decoration of Tudor roses and fleurs-de-lis refers obliquely to the English sovereignty and the English claim on French land.

What is the Tudor Rose?
The Tudor rose, one of the most distinctive and unmistakable flowers in England, has been in use as the country’s emblem since the Tudor Era. It is a representation of the merging of two warring houses, and the end of years of conflict.

This illustration in the painting at the top of this post is by Albert Payne from 1910, and depicts The Plucking of the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens - an event that supposedly happened in the mid-fifteenth century but was probably a fiction - invented by Tudor propagandists and popularised by Shakespeare. Do Read the scene here - it's wonderful and very dramatic! The scene in the painting represents both the dynastic struggle for the throne, and the bringing about of unity with the rise of the Tudors.

The years of armed conflict, sometimes known as the Cousins’ War (both Richard, Duke of York, and Henry Tudor were directly descended from Edward III and therefore cousins), are most commonly known as the Wars of the Roses which came to an end with the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. King Richard III was defeated by the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, who ascended the throne as Henry VII.

Their marriage united the two warring houses, and so Henry VII introduced the Tudor Rose, which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York. The Tudor Rose was adopted as the national emblem of England, and became a symbol of peace and unity in the period after the long civil war.

The Tudor Rose is a common sight in England even today. It can be seen as a symbol on a number of old buildings, most notably Hampton Court Palace, which was built during the reign of Henry VIII. The badge is found on the uniforms of the Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London, on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, and also on the back of our 20p coins. It is a common emblem in stained glass in public houses and palaces all over England.

The Popularity of Roses in Tudor Gardens
Because of this, cultivated roses in the Tudor garden were very popular. Roses were used in cookery, for making rosehip wine and also for perfumes, cut flower arrangements and pot pourri mixtures to keep rooms smelling sweet. In a London where people lived very closely together without any proper sanitation or drainage, the smell in summer could be unbearable, and roses, with their strong scent, were used to allay the stench. Levinus Lemnius, a Dutchman visiting England in 1560, was impressed by the English use of herbs in the home; 
their Chambers and parlours strawed over with sweet herbes, refreshed mee, their nosegayes finely entermingled with sondry sortes of fragrant floures in their bed chambers and privie roomes, with comfortable smell cheered me up, and entirelye delighted all my sences.
Because of the new interest in rose varieties, in gardens as a status symbol, and added to this the fact that new roses were also arriving from abroad, a great deal of 'rose lore' was published in the Tudor era. Some of this lore was useful; some of it deluded by our standards today. 

Harking back to the York/Lancaster division, Thomas Hill's book ‘The Gardener’s Labyrinth’ of 1577 suggests that you can turn white roses red by placing the white flowers in the mouth of a pot filled with the best redde wine, close to, but not actually touching the wine. Then, by keeping the pot tightly-stoppered all day the roses will have become red by the evening!

He also suggests you can turn red flowers white by holding them over
‘the smoke of brimstone beaten into a fine powder and burnt on a new tile stone'
Another of his ideas, of how to have fresh roses at all times of the year was equally suspect, involving gathering half-open rosebuds at sunset, 
'touche them not with a hande in gathering, with a sharpe knife properly gather them'
 After that you had to put them in a jar stoppered with horse dung, and bury the pot underground.

A bestseller in the field or herbal advice was Hugh Platt's The Jewell House of Art and Nature which contains a whole section devoted to the art of distillation of flowers. He advises his ladies to collect rose petals, spread them out on on clean linen to dry them, or to put half-opened roses in shallow boxes of washed and dried sand, to sprinkle them with another fine layer of sand and to build up four or five layers of drying roses and leave them in the sun.  
'and so you may have rose leaves and other flowers to lay about your basons, windowes and court cupboards, all the winter long.'

Echoes of the past
There is something quintessentially English about roses. Partly it is because of our gardens, lavishly furnished with traditional rose-beds, partly it is because of fairy tales we remember like Snow White and Rose Red and The Sleeping Beauty. Much of it is also because of the way our royal family has adopted the Tudor Rose to convey the absence of division, something as a nation we should all aspire to. In the early part of  the 20th century, and still surviving in rural England to this day, (picture above from the Edwardian era) the ceremony of the 'Rose Queen' was very popular. In early summer, processions were led by a young woman, who had been crowned the "Rose Queen" for the year. In some communities, the Rose Queen and May Queen have become indistinguishable, but in some villages they are still distinctly different ideas. The Rose Queen may be particular to a church, but can also represent the whole village or community. Her duties are often as an ambassador at local fetes or charities, where her presence acts as a kind of blessing. The rose and royalty, and the link to sovereignty and the land are still strong in our customs and folklore.

Pictures from wikipedia, unless linked.
The Rose - Jennifer Potter
Culpeper's Herbal
Elizabethan England - Dodd
The Tudors - Terry Breverton
Deborah Swift  worked as a set and costume designer for film and TV before publishing her first novel. She also developed a degree course in Theatre Arts at the Arden School of Theatre, where she taught scenography and the history of design. In 2007 she took an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and since then has juggled writing with teaching. Her first novel, The Lady's Slipper, about the wild flower of that name, is available for free download here.


  1. Roses are my favourite flower. My favourite part of Hampton Court was the rose gardens

    1. I love them too. I think the scent is so evocative of our English history, and they are beautiful at all stages of their blooming/falling/decaying.


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