More on choughs

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.

Wolsey coat of arms

Attribution: SemperAdiuvans, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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:

Thomas Cromwell coat of arms 1532-37

Attribution: Ammelida, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Asides: Cornish choughs, St Just and Cape Cornwall

My long summer break is coming to an end, so my wife and I are trying to make the most of our beautiful county of Cornwall.

Market Square, St Just

Market Square, St Just (Wikipedia image)

Yesterday we drove down to St Just in Penrith – the most westerly of Cornwall’s regions. It’s the most westerly town in mainland Britain, beyond the tourist honeypot of St Ives, and west even of DH Lawrence’s Zennor – about which I posted several pieces recently. It’s part of the Cornwall AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

The town’s name is of uncertain provenance: it might be named after the 6th or 7th C Welsh hermit St Iestyn (Latin Justinus) and said to have been a son of a ruler of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in SW England. This confessor-saint is attributed with the founding of St Just’s namesake village in the Roseland peninsula. In the 15C bones found in the church were said to be remains of St Justus of Trieste, a 3rd C Italian martyr.

It’s a rugged, wild part of the peninsula, with huge granite boulders half-buried in the moorland. Fields host brooding standing stones, and massive crags and headlands jut skywards from the land and over the sea. Many of the field wall-boundaries reflect Iron Age  agricultural systems.

This element-battered scenery was once teeming with industrial activity: the Man Engine pieces I posted recently explain about Cornwall’s mining heritage. Penwith is now a post-industrial landscape, with engine-houses and chimneys abundant on the moors and the clifftops. Levant and Botallack nearby still have buildings and working visible, while Geevor, an 18C tin mine which closed in 1990, is open to the public.

The 1861 census recorded that over 9200 people lived in St Just, but the sharp decline in demand for Cornish copper and tin resulted in mass migration of miners to all parts of the globe. The town’s twins in Bendigo, Australia and Nevada City, USA, reflect this mining diaspora. The current population of St Just is just over 4000.

The St Just plen-an-gwari (or playing place – there’s a village of that curious name just outside of my town of Truro) is a large circular space, encircled by a 2-metre high wall of stone, one of only two surviving in the county. It hosted sports and performances of all kinds, including medieval miracle plays such as the Cornish Ordinalia. John Wesley preached there.

The gaunt granite crags of Penwith are the haunt of many kinds of wildlife and seabirds

Red-billed chough

Red-billed or Cornish chough (image from oliversCornwall website

and notably of the iconic red-billed or Cornish choughs. These once-prolific corvids have been associated with the county since the 13C. Their Cornish name ‘palores’ (meaning ‘digger’ – they probe the ground for invertebrates to eat) nearly became extinct down here, but are now starting to flourish again.

Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall: the chimney on top is a remnant of the mine there. Hazy cloud but bright Atlantic light when I took this picture

I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked from the National Trust carpark on to the chimney-capped headland of Cape Cornwall and I saw my first ever wild chough. It watched us approach, then languidly flew off towards the distant hills towards Lands End.

This handsome bird has an ancient association with Cornwall, and features in its coat of arms.

This is from Olivers Cornwall website description:

ARMS: Sable fifteen Bezants in pile within a Bordure barry wavy of eight Argent and Azure.
CREST: On a Wreath Argent and Azure a Chough proper resting the dexter claw upon a Ducal Coronet Or.
Motto ‘ONE AND ALL’.
Granted 5th April 1939.

Old coat of arms for Cornwall:

Old coat of arms for Cornwall: Olivers site image

These ‘bezants’ (an ancient coin, name a corruption of Byzantium) were allegedly raised by loyal Cornishmen (hence the motto) and paid as ransom for the release of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272, son of King John), who’d been captured by Saracens. They may also be a visually punning reference to the French for ‘peas’ (pois), as Richard was earl of Poitou.

Duchy of Cornwall crest

Duchy of Cornwall crest

The College of Arms illustration below (from mrssymbols website) shows the shield’s supporters as a pair of choughs (blazoned as ‘beaked and legged gules’), each of which holds an ostrich feather, a badge of the Prince of Wales…The motto below, ‘houmout’, is thought to convey the notion of ‘high mood’ or ‘courage’ (although the similar-sounding German word Hochmut can be translated as ‘arrogance’ or ‘pride’).

Back to St Just, where we had an excellent bowl of broccoli and stilton soup (and a pint of Sharp’s Doom Bar ale – grimly named for the sandbar in the Camel estuary, near to where it’s brewed in Rock) – in the Commercial hotel, one of three (three!) pubs in the market square. I derive disproportionate pleasure from ordering this beer as the locals do: ‘A pint of Doom, please.’

View from Cape Cornwall

View from Cape Cornwall, looking towards the headland of Land’s End

The west of Cornwall has long been associated with the arts – not just in St Ives. There are several good galleries in St Just, and a thriving community of arts and crafts practitioners. We were headed for one that opened just a couple of years ago, featuring the work of one of our favourite local artists: Kurt Jackson. He’s lived in St Just since the 80s, and much of his work  brilliantly depicts the seascapes, land, flora and fauna of this beautiful county.

There’s a useful website about Cornish Choughs HERE; follow them on Twitter @cornishchoughs