Alicorn

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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.