I’ve posted several times in the past about those handsome, red-footed, red-beaked corvids: choughs. They were once widespread in the British Isles, but are now particularly associated with Cornwall, where they started to breed and flourish again early this century.
I came across recently a sequence of online newspaper articles that surprised me: images of choughs are to be seen in a convent in Salamanca, Spain, in the region of Castile and León.
The Real Convento de Santa Clara there, founded in 1238, now an art museum, has a remarkable range of over 150 medieval heraldic paintings, concealed for centuries by an 18C false ceiling. Among these are devices or representing choughs (unfortunately I can’t post an image for copyright reasons).
Spanish researchers recently concluded that they are the emblem of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and lord chancellor) murdered at the encouragement of Henry II in 1170 because of a conflict over royal and clerical power. Repenting of this act, Henry instructed his descendants to venerate Thomas, who was canonised as a martyr saint in 1173.
So how did this troublesome priest become associated with choughs? According to one set of legends, after his violent murder by sword-wielding knights, a crow hopped (or flew?) into the cathedral and stepped and dipped its beak on the bloody corpse – it became a chough.
Among Henry’s descendants was his granddaughter, Queen Berenguela I of Castile (1180-1246, usually called Berengaria by the English), daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor Plantagenet – who was herself the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, promoter of the Angevin empire (named after English realms in Anjou and elsewhere).
She represented the history of Plantagenet and Angevin monarchs encrypted in this sequence of painted heraldic devices and other images on the wooden ceiling: the choughs appear next to a golden castle, emblem of the kingdom of Castile.
Spanish researchers have concluded that Berengaria came to Salamanca at the end of her life to tell her royal family’s story through this ceiling iconography and re-establish her position as Queen of León, Lady of Salamanca, and mother of saintly Ferdinand III, reconquerer of Córdoba and Seville. She unified the kingdoms of León and Castile through her marriage to Alfonso IX.
The researchers recalled that the coat of arms of the city of Canterbury, devised many years after Thomas’s martyrdom, depicts three red-beaked choughs beneath the golden lion of the Plantagenets. So the Cornish chough had become synonymous with the cult of St Thomas, and by extension with this early medieval royal dynasty, and its links with Spanish royalty. The shields on the ceiling of this Salamanca convent appear to predate the taking up of this distinctive bird by the Becket family, and the city of Canterbury, by centuries.
Two English brothers, who seem to have known Thomas and fled England after his martyrdom, founded a church dedicated in his name very near to the Salamaca convent a few years later. The cult of St Thomas became one of the most powerful not just in England, as Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrated in the 14C, but across Europe.
By the way, Berengaria’s aunt, who had the same name (but with the sobriquet ‘of Navarre’), was shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus on her way to join her royal fiancé, Richard I (the Lionheart king of England), who had embarked on the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. She was held hostage by the Byzantine ruler of Cyprus until rescued by her gallant husband, who went on to conquer the whole island and add it to his empire.
I’ve occasionally mentioned in earlier posts my childhood year in Cyprus. We lived near a village called Berengaria, after the English queen who rarely met her crusading husband, and didn’t visit England until after his death. When she did, she was said to have been present at the translation of St Thomas’s relics in 1220.
After some more online digging I found that choughs feature in a number of other coats of arms. Among them are those of two famous English Thomases, who perhaps a little presumptuously adopted the Canterbury martyr’s emblem as a kind of homage.
Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) was a cardinal and statesman, and an early influence on the reign of Henry VIII, for whom he rose to the rank of lord chancellor and chief adviser. This was also the coat of arms of Christ Church, Oxford (established originally by Wolsey as Cardinal College, then developed and renamed by Henry VIII). That’s Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat (galero) at the top.
The four blue leopard faces (yes, they are stylised leopards) and shield were used by the Dukes of Suffolk (Wolsey was born in Ipswich in that county). The two Cornish choughs indicate that he was a patron of Thomas Becket.
Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), so brilliantly depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, was an adviser to his early mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and a lawyer and MP for Taunton. He skilfully avoided falling out of favour after the downfall of Wolsey, and for six years served as eminence grise and chief minister to Henry, until the volatile king had him executed for treason. This was his coat of arms from 1532-37, with two choughs central; it became more elaborate after his son’s marriage in 1537 to (queen) Jane Seymour’s sister, Elizabeth:
I noted in my post of 27.8.16 that, according to legend, King Arthur didn’t really die; he was transformed into a chough, whose red beak and feet symbolise his bloody and violent end. This is why it’s still considered unlucky to kill a chough.
It pleases me that these splendid, iconic birds have generated such a rich and varied set of associations and stories.