Royal Mint
Royal Mint

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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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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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What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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