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Why Is There a Unicorn on the British Pound Coin?

Royal Mint
Royal Mint

Ask anyone in the world what images you'd find on the average British coin and most people would give you the same response: the Queen's head. Other correct (though less obvious) answers might include a thistle, a portcullis, and a representation of the Roman goddess Britannia. But one answer you probably wouldn't expect to hear is "a unicorn". So how do you explain this?

Image: Royal Mint

Britain isn't widely considered the most whimsical nation in the world, so how did a unicorn—one of folklore's most whimsical creatures—end up on its currency?

The answer is a tale of political and cultural deference with origins so far in the past that at a certain point they can only be explained through mythology, legend and speculation. It's a bit like trying to build a Zelda chronology, only with much less helpful Wikipedia pages.

Before you check your pockets, we should point out that there isn't a unicorn on every pound coin—only those minted in 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008. These coins, still in circulation today, all use a reverse design which depicts the Royal Coat of Arms in full: a Royal Shield of Arms along with its motto (Dieu et mon droit) and two heraldic supporters: a lion on one side and a unicorn on the other. Like this:

Image: Royal Mint

So that's where you can find a unicorn. But that doesn't explain why it's there in the first place.

As with many things about modern Britain, you could blame the Victorians. The coat of arms found on pound coins was officially adopted by Queen Victoria in 1837 and, in respect to Britain's most beloved and (thus far) longest-reigning monarch, it has remained in use ever since.

But she'd probably not be amused if we held her solely responsible, because the unicorn was already part of the Royal Arms when she assumed them. Before her reign, only the shield of arms changed from one monarch to the next. The heraldic supporters remained the same.

In fact, the first version of the arms that incorporated a lion and unicorn flanking the shield was created over 200 years before Queen Victoria was even born.

In 1603, a quirk of birthright meant that King James VI of Scotland inherited the thrones of England/Wales and Ireland from his cousin twice-removed, Elizabeth I. He became the first monarch to rule the three British kingdoms simultaneously, and to reflect the "Union of Crowns", the arms of the new King James I (of England) incorporated a unicorn facing the lion, replacing the Tudor's Welsh red dragon.

Sodacan (Creative Commons licence)

(As a head-scratching aside, although the crowns were said to have been unified, they were—politically speaking—two separate crowns held by one person. It wasn't until an act of Parliament officially united the two countries in 1707 that the English arms came to represent all of Britain, and Scotland still has its own special version with the lion and unicorn positions reversed.)

Tracing the history back even further, it was James IV of Scotland who definitively introduced the unicorn into Scotland's arms in the late 1400s, but the official origins of the association are lost to history. The first recorded example of the unicorn in the Scottish monarch's heraldry actually comes from the latter half of the 1300s, when the arms of Robert II (or possibly Robert III) were incorporated into a gateway at Rothesay Castle, including a pair of unicorn supporters.

Image: Wikimedia (Creative Commons licence)

In any case, the reason there's a unicorn on the pound coin is because—for the last 700 years, at least—the unicorn has been used in heraldry to represent Scotland. It's a revelation that arguably raises more questions than it answers.

After all, the Scottish national character doesn't traditionally lend itself to that level of kitsch. But let's be fair to the unicorn: it only seems that way because you're looking at unicorns through modern eyes. Far from being the magical and flamboyant creatures they're currently seen as, for most of history the unicorn was believed to be an extremely aggressive and fierce animal, one more than worthy of representing a warrior nation like Scotland.

For proof, you need only note that the royal arms typically depict the unicorn as chained, with a crown around its neck. A free unicorn was considered incredibly dangerous, and while the chains are occasionally interpreted as representing the fealty and subservience of Scotland to England, they actually appeared prior to the Union of Crowns. What they actually represent is the strength of the Scottish monarchy, that it could tame a beast which, famously, would rather die than be captured (for how else would you explain the lack of domesticated unicorns?).

And if all that hasn't convinced you that it makes perfect sense to have a fictional animal adorn money, just think of it as something of a tradition. England's flag commemorates a Turkish saint who plainly couldn't have done the thing he's most famous for, Wales' flag depicts the non-existent animal he definitely could not have killed, and the greatest King of Britain—King Arthur—probably didn't exist at all. If anything, a better question is how anything sensible ended up on the coins at all.

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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