Sea Unicorns from The History of Barados, St. Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the rest of the Caribby-Islands (London, 1666).
One of the first pieces of Anglo-American exploration literature to be translated and circulated to a wider European audience was Dionyse Settle’s 1577 account about Martin Frobisher’s second voyage entitled A true reporte of the last voyage…by Capteine Frobisher. The account was typical of others in the period. It narrated the path of the ship, described the natural resources found in northern North America, and highlighted English encounters with Native Americans in both trade and war. Unremarkably for the period, Settle encountered the physical remains of a sea unicorn. Settle described seeing two shorelines, Asia in the east and America in the west. On the western shore of America, the men of the Frobisher expedition “found a dead fishe floating, whiche in his nose a horne streight & torquet, of lengthe two yeardes lacking two inches, being broken in the top…we supposed it to be the Sea Unicorne.” The account of this event was casually sandwiched between a straightforward description of icebergs, and an encounter with Native Americans.
Coming across a dead sea unicorn did not surprise Settle or seem out of the ordinary, however, it was clearly a significant event because he chose to take the time to record and publish the material. This in part, may be due to the value of the sea unicorn. Land and sea unicorns were very real and prized to early-modern Europeans. The sea unicorn in Settle’s account, with its thirty-four inch twisted and torqued horn may have been the same horn presented by Martin Frobisher to Queen Elizabeth I, “who greatly valued it as a jewel, and commanded it thenceforth to be kept in her wardrobe.” The horn was dubbed the “Horn of Windsor.” Roughly two decades later, a German traveler named Hentzer claimed to have seen the Horn of Windsor, and valued it at £100,000. This was not Elizabeth’s first horn. During her first year as queen in 1558, an inventory taken at Windsor Castle catalogued a unicorn horn valued at £10,000. Not only were unicorns real, their horns were expensive.
Elizabeth I was not the first English monarch to possess a unicorn horn. In 1599, the Swiss traveler Thomas Platter witnessed two alicorns, or unicorn horns while in England. He saw the first at Hampton Court and was told it was originally from Arabia and given to Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father. It was filed down and used as medical powder, most likely as an antidote for poison. Platter saw a second horn at Windsor Castle that weighed twenty pounds and stood a foot taller than Platter (however, Platter does not give his height). It was also thick to the point that Platter “could almost compass its circumference with one thumb and forefinger.” This may have been the same horn seen by Georg von Schwartzstät, Baron of Offenbach in 1609 which he considered “without doubt of enormous wealth if it is genuine.” Platter also visited the home of Walter Cope, a member of the Elizabeth Society of Antiquaries, who owned a cabinet of curiosities. Cope owned, amongst other things, an African charm made of teeth, a mummy of a child from China, and the tail of a unicorn.
The physical remains of unicorns, especially their horns, hooves, and bones were owned by a variety of people, from royalty to apothecaries. Some large horns were kept intact and used as scepters by royalty, or croziers by churchmen. St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice possessed three alicorns which city officials used as batons, and the abbey of Saint-Denis outside Paris used a seven foot tall alicorn as a chalice until it was destroyed in the turmoil of the French Revolution. The Danish throne was made up of various unicorn horns, probably in part to symbolize the strength and wealth of the crown, but possibly also to reflect the alicorn market captured by Danish merchants. Feodor I was crowned Czar of Russia in 1584 while holding a unicorn horn in his right hand. Medium sized horns were used for the bodies of beakers, goblets, and knives. Smaller pieces of unicorn horn were used as amulets, rings, and other jewelry. John Davies, an Englishman deposed for a court case in November 1616, listed several precious items once owned by his late wife including jewels, a plate, and a unicorn horn. Cups made of unicorn horn were designed to counteract the poison secretly placed into drinks by assassins and spies. Horns were also dipped into liquid to act as an antidote to poison, and horn was ground up and consumed to treat the plague and the flux.
Madeleine Doran, “On Elizabethan ‘Credulity’: With Some Questions Concerning the Use of the Marvelous in Literature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 1, no. 2 (Apr., 1940).
Georg von Schwartzstät, Baron of Offenbach in G.P.V. Akrigg, “England in 1609,” Huntington Library Quarterly 14, no. 1 (Nov., 1950).
Peter Mancall, Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obesession for an English America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
Lise Gotfredsen, The Unicorn (New York: Abbeville Press, 1999).
John Brown, A Dictionary of the Holy Bible vol. 2 (Pittsburgh: Carmer, Spear, and Eichbaum, 1811).
Guido Schoenberger, “A Goblet of Unicorn Horn,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 9, no. 10 (Jun., 1951).
Mark Eccles, “Brief Lives: Tudor and Stuart Authors,” Studies in Philology 79, no. 4 (1982).
David B. Quinn, Alison M. Quinn, and Susan Hillier, Newfoundland from Fishery to Colony, New American World: A Documentary History of North America, vol. 4, 207. Settle, A True Reporte of the Laste Voyage into the West and Northwest Regions, &c. 1577. Worthily Atchieued by Capteine Frobisher of the Sayde Voyage the First Finder and Generall With a Description of the People There Inhabiting, and Other Circumstances Notable. Written by Dionyse Settle, One of the Companie in the Sayde Voyage, and Seruant to the Right Honourable the Earle of Cumberland..
Dionyse Settle, “A true reporte of the last voyage…by Capteine Frobisher,” titled as May to October, 1577. The second Frobisher voyage for the discovery of the Northwest Passage in Quinn and Quinn, Newfoundland from Fishery to Colony.
Frank Jones, The Life of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight containing a Narrative of the Spanish Armada (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878).
Odell Shepard, The Lore of the Unicorn (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1930).
James Cross Giblin, The Truth About Unicorns (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).