Elizabeth I’s Magical Unicorn by Carlyn Beccia

Today’s post is a very interesting guest article by Carlyn Beccia, author of The Raucous Royals and I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat. To learn more about this wonderfully talented author and illustrator read my exclusive interview here.

In the meantime, enjoy!

Elizabeth I’s Magical Unicorn

In the 16th century, Elizabeth I’s seamen were like little boys running in a vast field, trying to find the prettiest wild flowers to run back and give to their queen mum. Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Humphrey Gilbert, they were all in the race of their lives to find the best trade routes and the richest treasures to bring home to the woman who held the keys to Gloriana. But on July 22, 1577, English privateer, Martin Frobisher found the holy grail of treasures when he landed in Northern Canada while looking for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean. There, washed up on the icy shores, a long, spiral horn thrust through the earth and caught the sun’s rays like spun glass. This strange, white object was the remains of one of the most beautiful mythological creatures in Christendom and so rare that it could only be captured by a Virgin.

Frobisher had not found just common beach debris. He had found the horn of a unicorn.

Queen Elizabeth so cherished the horn that it became part of the Crown Jewels and is today known as the Horn of Windsor. At the time, unicorn horns or “alicorns” were valued ten times higher than gold (over $500,000 by today’s standard). King and queens drank from goblets lined with unicorn horn or dunked the tip into their glass to test for poison. When a unicorn horn came in contact with poison it would cause the drink to bubble, alerting the queen that she needed to watch her back. With Spain down her throat and Mary queen of Scots spitting venom in her English prison, we certainly can see why Elizabeth would have feared assassination attempts.

With unicorn horns being so precious, they became known as a panacea similar to Henry VIII’s equally famous cure-all of digesting ground pearls. Some unicorn horns were ground into a fine powder and digested as an antidote to poisoning. Others were ingested to increase strength and sexual stamina. (The rhino’s horn is still ingested as an aphrodisiac in some countries today).

Unicorn horns were even used in the Black Arts. Ivan the Terrible was said to predict the day of his death by using his staff decorated with an alicorn. He would carve a circle in the wood and if any spiders died in the circle then his death was near. Legend has it that he died the same day that his spiders died inside his carved circle.

It may sound like a bunch of hocus pocus today, but unicorn horns remained on the list of ingredients apothecaries were required to carry until 1741. At this point, physicians petitioned for unicorn horn to be eliminated from the Pharmacopeia as an outdated form of medicine and they subsequently got their wish. That same year, Hogarth painted The Inspection in his Marriage a’la Mode series and couldn’t resist adding the phallic unicorn horn above the couple’s head as a symbol of the doctor’s quackery. That Hogarth could be so cheeky.

But one has to wonder with any cure that survives so many centuries: was there some truth to it? One theory is that many of the horns adorning the tables of kings and queens were actually rhino horn, which in a pinch…would be very useful. Unlike other animal’s horns, a rhino’s horn is 100% keratin and when it comes in contact with some alkaline poisons (for example arsenic) it will bubble. (If you suspect a dash of arsenic in your soup next mealtime, just whip out your rhino horn. It’s a real conversation starter. )

Elizabeth’s unicorn horn was most likely a narwhal tusk, but could it detect poison? That question is still something of a mystery, even today. A narwhal’s tusk is a funny thing. It is a long spiral tooth growing out of its upper jaw plate. It’s pretty much your overbite from hell which begs the question….why? Unfortunately, no one has really got that one pinned down yet. Part of the confusion can be blamed on Darwin. He took one look at the narwhal’s tusk and concluded – it’s long, it’s hard, it’s bigger on males….well, it must drive the lady narwhals crazy. Scientists concurred and the tusk was deemed similar to a male peacock’s plume. Only recently, scientists have begun to question Darwin’s theory and wonder if the narwhal tusk is more than just another “check out how big mine is” appendage. A few curious things have been found regarding its structure. First, it’s actually not that hard. Unlike the teeth of other whales, it has a soft core on the outside allowing it to bend one foot in either direction without breaking. Second, the horn has 10 million nerve endings that can detect changes in temperature, pressure and even the saline concentrations in its environment.

So if the horn is sensitive enough to detect salinity then perhaps it could detect other things….like a few drops of poison in a wine glass. Elizabeth I and all the kings and queens of Europe may have seen what modern science is quick to dispel – Alicorns are truly magical.

You can read more about magical cures through history in Carlyn Beccia’s latest book, I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat, in stores now.

Art from I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat and copyright of Carlyn Beccia.

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  1. What a great post – I just love this author and cannot wait to give my daughter these books to read – will be a great introduction into history I think. It’s interesting how modern society tends to dismiss past generations’ ideas as quackery and nonsense, but when we look closer, we find that maybe they weren’t so off after all! Thanks for highlighting this great and hilarious author.

  2. I love unicorns. I’ve always wished that they were real.

  3. This article was so cool — I’ve been a fan of unicorns since I was a child.

    Oh and Elizabeth Kerri Mahon — I heard once that the reason why unicorns ceased to exist is that they were late arriving at Noah’s Ark and all of their kind died in the Flood. Seems like there was a folk song from the Sixties that said something similar. *g*

    Whatever the case, I like to think that maybe they’re hiding out somewhere…..

  4. Teresa Lyons says:

    A fictional account of Am Dudley’s life, Robert Dudley’s ill fated wife, mentions a unicorn horn. Amy gets one because she is afraid of being poisoned. When Robert finds out, he becomes furious. He takes the horn away. Amy later learns that Robert presented a unicorn horn to Elizabeth I. She suspects that he gave the queen her horn to raise his favor with her.
    The book is called “The Queen’s Pleasure by Brandy Purdy. The story is centered around Robert and Amy’s courtship and marriage. It is told from the point of view of Amy and Elizabeth I. I found it interesting even though the author went with the breast cancer story.

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