‘The Horn is shewen in many places; the most famous are, S. Denys in France, Venetia, Spain, Utrecht, Helvetia, Denmark, Hampton-Court in England, Windsor, and the Gedansian of Empiricus’.
Joannes Jonstonus, A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts (Amsterdam, 1678), pp 19-20.
Image of a unicorn horn from Thomas Bartholin, De unicornu observationes novae (Amsterdam, 1678), foldout plate.
This image, from Worth’s copy of Thomas Bartholin’s De unicornu observationes novae (Amsterdam, 1678), shows the famous unicorn horn of Christian V of Denmark (1646-1699). Jonstonus, referring to Bartholin’s treatise, describes the horn as follows:
The Danish one is kept in Fredericks-Burgs Castle, above seven Roman-foot long, if we except that part within the hollow, it is seven fingers about, writhed all along, and sharp-pointed at top; the colour mixt of white, and ash-colour, and in some of the spaces channeld, and chamsered with black, and duskish streaks.
Christian V appears to have been especially interested in unicorns: it was he who, in 1671, inaugurated the use of the ‘Throne Chair of Denmark’ which was reputedly made of unicorn horns. His choice of ‘unicorns’ horns for his throne, now in the Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, had much to do with the perceived linkage between unicorns and royalty and Christian V, as an absolutist monarch, was keen to use whatever symbolism he could to bolster royal power.
Image of unicorn horns from Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius collegit, & recensuit (Bologna, 1639), p. 415.
Unicorn horns were regarded as status symbols in early modern Europe and proved to be prize possessions in the burgeoning royal museums of the period. Topsell tells us that ‘There are two of these at Venice in the Treasurie of S. Markes Church, as Brasavolas writeth, one at Argentarat, which is wreathed about with divers sphires. There are also two in the Treasurie of the King of Polonia, all of them as long as a man in his stature’. This image, from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius collegit, & recensuit (Bologna, 1639), shows one of the Polish horns, belonging to King Sigismund of Poland, and the other to the Duke of Mantua. We can thus track the unicorn through early modern museums, and, given the popularity of the items, they were not as rare as one might think. Tests on the horns used in the Throne Chair of Denmark have shown that the horns were actually those of narwhal tusks.
But there was another reason why unicorn horns were so popular with early modern royalty. Topsell opens his discussion of unicorns by focusing on the ‘vertues of the horne’ for, as he observed it was this very question which ‘hath bred all the contention’ – indeed, as he argued, it was the medicinal virtues attributed to their horns which set the unicorn apart. According to Topsell, it was the Arabians who asserted that the horn was ‘good against poysons’. He elaborated on this theme in his discussion of Indian one-horned wild asses and his explanation perhaps explains the unique appeal of unicorn horns for the nobility of early modern Europe:
Indians of that horne make pots, affirming that whosoever drinketh in one of those pots, shall never take disease that day, and if they bee wounded shall feele no pain, or safely passe through the fire without burning, not yet be poisoned in their drinke, and therefore such cuppes are only in the possession of their Kings, neither is it lawfull for any many except the King, to hunt that beast.
Thus the supposed curative powers of a unicorn’s horn made them an attractive item for medieval and early modern rulers – especially those who feared poison! However, seventeenth-century writers such as the Bartholins and Georg Caspar Kirchmaier, writing on the theory of unicorn, began to question the medicinal use of unicorn horns. As Kirchmaier, quoting Thomas Bartholin concluded:
A most learned writer, D. Thomas Bartholinus quotes Crato of Craftheim, Baccius, Horatius, Augenius Horstius and others, and declares that the horn of the stag and the horn of the rhinoceros are every whit as good as the unicorn’s’.
Image of a unicorn in the royal coat of arms on Worth’s copy of Matthias de L’Obel, Matthiae de L’Obel medici insulanj, sereniss. & inuictiss. Iacobi. I. Magnae Britanniae, Franciae, & Hyberniae Regis botanographi, siue plantarum historiæ physicæ, tam indigenarum & Britanniæ inquilinarum, quam exoticarum scriptoris, in G. Rondelletii inclytæ Monspeliensis scholæ medicæ professoris quondam Regij & cancellarij celeberrimi methodicam pharmaceuticam officinam animaduersiones, quibus deprauata & mutilata ex authoris mente corriguntur & restaurantur (London, 1605), title page.
Perhaps the most familiar use of the image of a unicorn comes in the British royal coat of arms. The union of England and Scotland in 1603 under the rule of James VI of Scotland and I of England (1566-1625), ensured a change in the royal coat of arms, which now included not only the traditional elements of the English coat of arms (the lions of England and the fleur de lis of France), but also the lion rampant of Scotland, and the harp, symbolising the Kingdom of Ireland. Encircling the royal coat of arms is the French motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (evil to him who thinks evil), and underneath we see the motto ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ (God and my right), ascribed to Richard I of England (1157-1199), and adopted as the royal motto by the equally warlike Henry V (1386-1422). The heraldic supporters of the coat of arms, the lion and the unicorn, symbolize the United Kingdom. The lion, representing England, has the Tudor rose behind him and the unicorn has the thistle of Scotland.
Image of a unicorn in the English royal coat of arms on Worth’s copy of Sir Audley Mervyn, The Speech of Sir Audley Mervyn Knight (Dublin, 1662), title page.
Here we see a variation on the theme, used on the title page of a Dublin printing by William Bladen I (d. 1663). Bladen had been active as a bookseller in Dublin from the mid 1620s onwards and from 1642 to 1647 had been Printer to the King. However, on 31 July 1660 the office of King’s Printer had been given to John Crooke of London. It is likely that Bladen’s use of the royal coat of arms on his publication of Sir Audley Mervyn’s speech was a deliberate attempt to stake his claim to this lucrative position. In 1663 Bladen petitioned James Butler (1610-1688), first duke of Ormond, to restore him to the post but died a few months afterwards.
Image of a unicorn from Thielman Kerver’s printer’s device in Publius Vergilius Maro, Opera (Paris, 1500), volume I.
Unicorns, as a heraldic device, were not the preserve of royalty. This image, of the exquisite printer’s device of Thielman Kerver I (active 1497-1522), on Worth’s two-volume edition of the works of Publius Vergilius Maro (d. 19 BC), displays two unicorns holding a shield bearing Kerver’s initials. Kerver was a native of Coblentz who had set up a printing shop in Paris at the ‘sign of the two unicorns’ – so his device was an advertisement for his printing shop. The earliest known use of this device was on another book, printed by Kerver in the same year, but he had been printing in Paris since 1497. The device shows an oak tree in the centre and foliage very similar to that used in the printer’s device of another Parisian printer, Jean Petit (fl. 1495-1530). In fact, this ornate and complex edition of Virgil’s works was a combined effort of both these Parisian printing houses. Thielman’s distinctive unicorns continued to be used by his family after his death and, as Davies notes, they spawned many imitators.
Aldrovandi, Ulisse, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius collegit, & recensuit (Bologna, 1639).
Davies, Hugh William, Devices of the Early Printers 1457-1560: their history and development (London, 1935).
Gessner, Conrad, Historiae Animalium, 3 vols (Frankfurt, 1620), volume 1. English translations from Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607).
Jonstonus, Joannes, Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri (Amsterdam, 1657). English translations from Joannes Jonstonus, An History of the Wonderful Things of Nature (London, 1657) and John Johnston, A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts (Amsterdam, 1678).
Kirchmaier, Georg Caspar, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669). English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886).
Lavers, Chris, The Natural History of Unicorns (London, 2009).
Pollard, Mary, A Dictionary of the Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 (London, 2000).
South, Malcolm, ‘The Unicorn’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York and London, 1987), pp 5-26.
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 This quotation is an English translation of Joannes Jonstonus’ Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri (Amsterdam, 1657), p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 20 (1678) and p. 23 (1657).
 Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607) p. 715. This book is not in the Worth Library but it is heavily dependent on Conraf Gessner’s Historiae animalium (1558), which Worth collected in a 1620 Frankfurt edition.
 Ibid., pp 711-712.
 Ibid., p. 712.
 Ibid., p. 713.
 Georg Caspar Kirchmaier, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669). English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886), pp 18-19.
 Mary Pollard, A Dictionary of the Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 (London, 2000), p. 39.
 Hugh William Davies, Devices of the Early Printers 1457-1560 (London, 1935), pp 448-451.