The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Rose – The Thistle – The Leek – The Shamrock

Category: Customs + Festivals

The Rose

The red rose was the emblem of the Lancastrians, the white rose that of the Yorkists, the two contending Houses for the English throne in the Wars of the Roses (1455-85). All rivalry betweeri the Roses ended by the marriage of Henry VII, the Lancastrian with Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, the Yorkist. The red rose has since become the national emblem of England.

St George the Martyr is the patron saint of England and his cross is the symbol of England and the Church of England. In ancient days the standard of St George was borne in battle before the kings of England. In his name the most highest order of English knighthood the Order of the Garter* was instituted by Edward III about 1348.

The Thistle

The thistle is the national emblem of Scotland. This is how, according to a curious legend, that homely plant came to be chosen as a badge,-in preference to any other.

In very ancient times the Norsemen* once landed somewhere on the east coast of Scotland, with the intention of plundering and settling in the country. The Scots assembled with their arms and took their stations behind the river Tay, the largest in Scotland, at the only practicable ford. As they arrived late in the day, weary and tired after a long march, they pitched their camp and rested, not expecting the enemy before the next day.

The Norsemen however were near; noticing that no guards or sentinels protected the camp, they crossed the river Tay, intending to take the Scots by surprise and slaughter them in their sleep. To this end, they took off their shoes so as to make the least noise possible. But one of the Norsemen stepped ona thistle. The sudden and sharp pain he felt caused him to shriek. The alarm was given inthe Scots’ camp. The Norsemen were put to flight, and as an acknowledgement for the timely and unexpected help from the thistle, the Scots took it as their national emblem.

The Leek

Welshmen all over the world celebrate St David’s Day by wearing either leeks or daffodils. The link between the leek and St David is the belief that he is supposed to have lived for several years on bread and wild leeks.

There is a conclusive evidence that Welshmen wore leeks on St David’s Day in Shakespeare’s time. In “Henry V”’ Fluellen* tells the King.

“If your Majesty is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth* caps; which, your Majesty knows, to this hour is an honourable pledge of the service; and I do believe your Majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon  Saint Tavy’s* dayl’’

At Jesus College, Oxford, where there is traditionally a large contingent of Welsh students, the wearing of leeks on St David’s Day is de rigueur, just as officers and men of the Welsh Guards and the Welsh Regiment proudly display leeks on this national day.

The daffodil is also closely associated with St David’s Day, due to the belief that it flowers on that day. It became an alternative to the Leek as a Welsh emblem in the present century, because some thought the leek vulgar.

The Shamrock

What the red rose is to Englishmen and the leek and daffodil to the Welsh, the little shamrock is to the Irish, and no Irishman worth his salt fails to wear this national emblem on St Patrick’s Day, March 17. It is worn in memory of Ireland’s patron saint, whose cross is embodied in the Union Jack by the thin red one under the cross of St George.

A popular notion is that when preaching the doctrine of the Trinity to the pagan Irish St Patrick used the shamrock, a small white clover bearing three leaves on one stem as an illustration of the mystery.

Shortly after the formation of the Irish Guards in 1902 the custom of presenting the national emblem to the new regiment on St Patrick’s Day began. An equally tenacious observance on St Patrick’s Day is Wetting the Shamrock, the convivial aspect of Irish loyalty to their patron saint.

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