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The Queen and the Flower Power— The Symbolic Use of Plants in the Court of St. James’s, United Kingdom Luís Mendonça de Carvalho,1,2 Francisca Maria Fernandes,3 Maria de Fátima Nunes,3 and Christopher Mills 4 Abstract. In traditional societies, religious and political leaders often use elements from the surrounding ecosystems to symbolically affirm their power. This ethnobotanical research looks for a similar pattern of use in urbanized western societies. We selected the use of plants by Queen Elizabeth II as a case study due to her singular position as a political and religious leader. We analysed the use of plants in public ceremonies to study how they are symbolically linked to the renewal of traditions. Keywords: Queen Elizabeth II; Urban Ethnobotany; Plants’Symbology

In non-urban societies, community and religious leaders often display their power throughout the symbolic appropriation of elements from the surrounding ecosystems. Since the time of ancient Greece, philosophy and related sciences have had interest in studying the concept of signs and their symbolic use. Signs are frequently used as meaningful units that stand for a specific entity. This entity does not necessarily have to exist or be physically present at the moment in which a sign stands in for it (Eco, 1976). Signs are found in many forms (images, acts, body language or objects) and are invested with a meaning to a recognized code. This code is a system of conventions for correlating the signifier (the form of the sign) and the signified (the mental concept) in specific domains and also provides the framework within signs that make sense to an interpretative community who shares it. The symbol is a key concept in many fields, such as anthropology, theology, philosophy and psychoanalysis, and it is a conventional, connotational or iconic sign that stands for a concept or an abstract quality often endowed with a larger dimension or attribute (Nöth, 1995). Knowing the meaning of symbols allows us to interpret societies with a deeper understanding

and put us in contact with the mindset of communities that developed codes of symbolism over hundreds of years and who used them to strengthen their culture, provide reassurance and group solidarity (Tresidder, 2004). Plants give structure to the biological and cultural environments experienced by humans, and being the most available elements in the natural ecosystem, have played symbolic roles that respond to human cultural needs. Although plants have had many symbolic meanings, they frequently embodied positive achievements, virtues, and abstract concepts that revealed the best of nature, gods, and humans (Alcorn, 1995; Carvalho, 2011). The monarchy of the United Kingdom has its origins in the early Scottish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that ruled over Great Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman armies. Queen Elizabeth II is the present-day constitutional monarch and is also Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and Defender of the Faith. In her ceremonial and representational duties, the Queen frequently uses plants that symbolically link the present with the past and so reassures the notion of time as an endless return.

This research was sponsored by FCT-Portuguese Science Agency TDC/HIS-HCT/111048/2009 1 Museu Botânico, Instituto Politécnico de Beja, Rua Pedro Soares, 7800-295 Beja, Portugal 2 Author for correspondance: [email protected] 3 Centro de Estudos de História e Filosofia da Ciência, Universidade de Évora, Largo do Marquês de Marialva, 8, 7000-554 Évora, Portugal 4 Library, Art and Archives. Royal Botanic Gardens, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB, United Kingdom Harvard Papers in Botany, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2012, pp. 317–322. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2012.


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The Coronation The first ritual where the Queen’s political pomegranate (Punica granatum L.) and its use and religious bodies were initiated was the intended to link the Queen with a chain of rulers coronation. At the coronation, plants were that began in the ancient Hebrew kingdoms key elements in the momentum of power since Solomon (Moldenke and Moldenke, embodiment. The crown, symbol of the 1986). When the Queen arrived to Westminster secular power, was designed after a calyx of a Abbey, where the coronation service took

Figure 1. The Coronation Gown and the Imperial Robe of Purple Velvet embroidered with plants motifs. Design by Norman Hartnell.


Mendonça de Carvalho et al, the Queen and flower power

place, she wore the George IV State Diadem which incorporates three national symbols: the English rose (the Tudor rose), Irish shamrocks (Trifolium dubium Sibth. or Trifolium repens L.) and Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.). The coronation crown (St. Edward’s Crown, made for King Charles II) is the principal piece of the coronation regalia and has another botanical icon, the iris flower or fleur-de-lis (Iris pseudacorus L.), adopted since King Edward III’s reign, as a reminder of his French land claims (Rose, 1992; Strong, 2006). The coronation gown (Fig. 1) was designed to reaffirm the Queen’s political domain over the United Kingdom and her political ties with some states within the Commonwealth of Nations throughout a set of embroidered flower motifs: (1) England, the Tudor Rose—a symbolic hybrid rose of Lancaster red rose (Rosa gallica L.) and York white rose (Rosa x alba L.); (2) Wales, the Welsh leek (Allium ampeloprasum L.); (3) Scotland, the Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.); (4) Northern Ireland, the Irish shamrock (Trifolium dubium Sibth. or Trifolium repens L.); (5) Canada, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marshall); (5) Australia, the wattle flower (Acacia pycnantha Benth.); (6) New Zealand, the Silver Fern Tree (Cyathea dealbata (Forst.) Sw.); (7) South Africa, the protea (Protea cynaroides L.); (8) India, the lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.); (9) Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese lotus flower (Nymphaea nouchali Burm.f.); (10) Pakistan, the wheat spike (Triticum sp.), jute


(Corchorus sp.), and cotton (Gossypium sp.) (Norman, 1955; Mabberley, 2008). The climax of the coronation was the anointing performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who touched the forehead, breast and hands of the Queen with a blend of oils from orange (Citrus x aurantium L.), jasmine (Jasminum sp.), rose (Rosa sp.) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum J.Presl) in order to prepare the Queen for her enthronement. After the anointing, the first robe with which the Queen was invested was a loose white undergarment of fine linen (Linum usitatissimum L.), the colobium sindonis, which symbolizes the derivation of royal authority from the people (Rose, 1992; Cox, 1999). The Queen was anointed and crowned while seated on the coronation chair, the St. Edward Chair, made with oak (Quercus sp.) for King Edward I, around the year 1301. This is the probably the oldest piece of furniture in England still used for the purpose for which it was made (Rose, 1992). At the conclusion of the ceremony, on exit from Westminster Abbey, the Queen wore the Imperial Robe of Purple Velvet, which was embroidered with gold wheat spikes (Triticum sp.) and olive branches (Olea europaea L.), timeless symbols of abundance and prosperity in the Mediterranean world. This robe symbolically linked the Queen with the Roman and Byzantine emperors who wore silk dyed with Tyrian purple and, in Byzantium, held the title porphyrogenitus (born in the purple).

Remembrance Sunday At Remembrance Day, the political body of the Queen suspends an ancient proscription that shields her from public association with death (Fig. 2). During this period, the Queen led the nation to mourning of those who died in Britain’s wars and uses a flower traditionally associated with the abrupt end of a youth’s life—the corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas L.). The poppy has become a remembrance symbol of the dead in the First World War and subsequent wars. The first Poppy Day was organized by the British Legion in 1921 and, in the following year, a factory that employed disabled war men was established in East London in order to produce lapel poppies and wreaths still used to honour the war dead (Ilse, 1987; Vickery, 1995). Figure 2. The Queen honoring the dead with stylized poppies wreaths, on Remembrance Sunday. Photo by Andy Williamson.


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Christmas and Easter

The Queen’s role as Governor of the Church and Defender of the Faith is linked with a tradition renewed every year at Christmas, when the Queen receives a blossom sprig of the Glastonbury Holy thorn (Crataegus monogyna Jacq. cv ‘Biflora’) (Fig. 3). This cultivar blooms twice a year, in early summer and in winter (close to Christmas), and a local tradition links it with the biblical Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly visited Glastonbury, founded its first local church and either left a relic—a thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns—from which the Holy thorn grew or, according to other traditions, thrust his staff into the ground, where it rooted and bloomed, originating the Holy thorn. When Glastonbury Abbey was closed and later destroyed, some offshoots of the plant were kept by the local community who preserved its genetic pool. This tradition aims to keep a link with the Christian faith of the monarch and reinforce the Queen’s religious body as Governor of the Church of England (Vickery, 1995; Mabberley, 2008).

Every year, a special Holy Communion service takes place in the Chapel Royal (St. James Palace, London) to mark the Feast of Epiphany and the end of the Christmas season. The Queen sends an offer of gold, frankincense (Boswellia sacra Flueck.) and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha Engl.), following a royal tradition that goes back to the eleventh century. This tradition is linked with the Gospels’ history of the presentation of gifts by the three Magi to the infant Jesus (Oakey 2010). During the Holy Week, the monarch presides over the Royal Maundy, a service in which she expresses her humanity by distributing specially minted coins, and coming close to the people—a rare and potentially dangerous situation in former days due to infection and unpleasant odours (Wright 1973). As an evocation of those unsafe periods, the Queen holds a nosegay—a bouquet of spring flowers—used as a symbolic barrier between the Queen and the attendants (Wright, 1973; Ilse, 1987) (Fig. 4).

Figure 3. The Queen receives a blossom of the Glastonbury Holy thorn, at Christmas season. Photo by Fiona Hanson/ Press Association Images.


Mendonça de Carvalho et al, the Queen and flower power

Figure 4. The Queen at the end of Maundy Thursday service. Photo by Matthew Bigwood.


Royal Coats-of-Arms and Orders of Chivalry chose, at the end of the war, to symbolize peace European heraldry established its first codes through a new rose that combined the Lancaster in the first half of the twelfth century when red rose (Rosa gallica L.) and York white rose knights and warriors found it necessary to (Rosa x alba L.) into a single red and white identify themselves with a cloth bearing a coatTudor Rose (Carvalho 2011). of-arms that depicted stylized elements such as The Irish shamrock (Trifolium dubium Sibth. flowers, leaves, fruits and trees, or animals such or Trifolium repens L., although other plants with as unicorns, horses, lions or bears. The members similar leaves, such as Oxalis, may be used) has of the same family or clan used the same basic been linked with Saint Patrick, the patron saint pattern on their shields. The development and Apostle of Ireland. An eighteenth century of tournaments paralleled the beginning of tradition states that the leaves of the shamrock heraldry, and these two arts evolved together. were used by the saint to illustrate the Christian Plants represented in the coats-of-arms were doctrine of the Trinity, and every year, the frequently chosen as an explicit reference to a Queen sends a member of the Royal Family to family name or an allusion of its origin. Later on, present shamrocks to the Irish Guards on Saint coats-of-arms became more elaborated due to the Patrick’s Day (17th March) (Vickery 1995). unions between ruling classes and subsequent The Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare (Savi) combination of designs (Rosenberg 1939; Ten.) is a common plant in Scotland’s fields Woodcock and Robinson 2001; Carvalho, 2011). and a national legend states that a barefoot The Queen’s coat of arms (Fig. 5) depicts Norseman from an invading army stepped upon three animal (lion, unicorn and ermine fur) and a thistle, causing him to cry out in pain and thus three plant (English rose, Irish shamrock, and the alerting Scots to the presence of the invaders. Scottish thistle) motifs. The English Rose has its origins in the War of the Roses—a series of The Order of the Thistle was established in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland (James bloody dynastic civil wars between supporters of II of England and Ireland) and its membership the rival houses of Lancaster and York, each one represented by a different rose, for the throne of can only be granted by the Queen. It includes sixteen Knights and Ladies and it is the most England (c.1455–c.1487). The war ended with prestigious order of chivalry associated with the victory of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who founded the House of Tudor. King Henry VII Scotland (Vickery 1995).


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Figure 5. The Royal Coats of Arms with the English rose, the Irish shamrock, and the Scottish thistle.

The position of the Queen, as Head of State and Governor of the Church, places her in a singular position among other Western civilization rulers. The study of the symbolic uses of plants by the Queen reveals forms of

representation and communication that use plants to link the past with the present and simultaneously reinforce conceptions of social order and religious beliefs that renew ancient symbolic codes.

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Nöth, W. 1995. Handbooks of Semiotics. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. Oakey, D. 2010. The Queen´s Year—A Souvenir Album Royal. Royal Collection Enterprises, London. Rose, T. 1992. The Coronation Ceremony and the Crown Jewels. HMSO, London. Rosenberg, M. 1939. The Art of Heraldry. Henry Holt and Company, New York. Strong, R. 2006. Coronation: from the 8th to the 21st Century. HarperCollins, London. Tresidder, J. 2004. The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Myth, Art and Literature. Duncan Baird Publishers, London. Vickery, R. 1995. A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Woodcock, T., and J. Robinson. 2001. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford University Press, New York. Wright, P. 1973. The Pictorial History of the Royal Maundy. Pitkin Pictorials, London.