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Welcome to Episode #75 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When we think of unicorns, we most often think of the mythical creature roaming forests in Europe or if you are from the UK, you’ll likely make a connection with the famous nursery rhyme about the Lion and the Unicorn. In addition to being the national animal for Scotland, and a symbol of their strength and independence, for Shakespeare and the 16th century society in Scotland, the unicorn is a type of currency.

Minted originally by James III of Scotland, it would be James VI of Scotland, also James I of England, who would first bring the Scottish Unicorn into the national symbolism for Britain as a whole. Here this week to help us explore the advent of the Scottish unicorn on Britain’s royal coat of arms, as well as the numismatic history of the Scottish unicorn as a coin, is our guest Dr. Crystal Lake.

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Crystal B. Lake is Professor of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. She is also the co-founder and editor of the online magazine, Crystal’s book, Artifacts, will be published in paperback by Johns Hopkins University Press in Spring 2020, and you can read more about her research at

In this episode, I’ll be asking Crystal about :

  • Scotland also has a coin which is called the unicorn. Crystal, why was that particular coin called the unicorn?

  • Isn’t the unicorn the one animal that legend hold can conquer a lion, the national symbol of England? How did the royal coat of arms go over with the public, considering the tempestuous relationship the unicorn and lion seem to have?

  • Did the currency of England and Scotland unify under one banner, such that the Scottish coins were now accepted currency in England or vice versa?

  • … and more!

To slay the tiger that doth live by slaughter, 
To tame the unicorn and lion wild, 


Rape of Lucrece

Unicorn of James IV of Scotland (r. 1488–1513). Gift of Assunta Sommella Peluso, Ada Peluso, and Romano I. Peluso, in memory of Ignazio Peluso, 2002. Currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City Source


Unicorn, Scotland's coin

The unicorn coin was made of gold and an official currency in Scotland from 1484-1525. Issued under the reign of James III, it had a value of 18 shillings Scots. During the reign of James V, the price of gold increased so much that it became worth 22 shillings.

The coin itself features a picture of a unicorn on it, thus the name. It was a favorite coin among Scottish royalty to give as gifts to foreign dignataries. In 1503, James IV gave 100 unicorns to an English ambassador named Lord Dacre.

There was also a half-unicorn coin which had the value of half the regular unicorn, or about 11 shillings Scots.

During the reign of James V (“Shakespeare's James” was James VI. This is James VI's dad) the unicorn was replaced by the gold crown, called an Abbey crown. That is why Crystal points out today that by Shakespeare's time, the coin was more ornamental and decorative than official currency, despite being in circulation. 

More about James VI/I of England

More about the reign of James VI/ James I of England with James Loxely. Find out what it was like for William Shakespeare when the crown passed to a new monarch right at the height of his playwrighting career. 

Now I will believe 
That there are unicorns


Tempest, III.3

Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom Scotland used from 1603 to 1649. Used by King of Scots James VI and Charles I. “ Quarterly, First and Fourth Or a lion rampant within a double tressure flory counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); Second quarterly, First and Fourth Azure three fleurs de lys Or (for France), Second and Third Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); Third Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland); the whole surrounded by the Order of the Thistle; for a Crest, upon the Royal helm the imperial crown Proper, a lion sejant affrontée Gules, imperially crowned Or, holding in the dexter paw a sword and in the sinister paw a scepter both erect and Proper, motto ‘In defens’; Mantling Or and ermine; for Supporters, dexter a unicorn Argent armed, crined and unguled Proper, gorged with a coronet Or composed of crosses patée and fleurs de lys a chain affixed thereto passing between the forelegs and reflexed over the back also Or, supporting a tilting lance proper flying a banner Azure, a saltire Argent (Cross of Saint Andrew); sinister a lion rampant guardant Or imperially crowned Proper, supporting a tilting lance proper flying a banner Argent, a cross Gules (Cross of Saint George); the compartment below the shield, with the thistle. ” —PINCHES, J.H & R.V., The Royal Heraldry of England, 1974, Heraldry Today SOURCE

The Royal Coat of Arms in Scotland and England

When James VI came to the throne in England in 1603, his number one priority was focused on unification. While he would not see the nations become what is today Great Britain, it was his aim and that is reflected in decisions like his creation of the Royal Coat of Arms that included both a lion, as the national symbol of England, and the unicorn, the national symbol of Scotland. 

This royal coat of arms is still used today, by Elizabeth II, and when she is in England the unicorn is on the right, while when in Scotland, the unicorn is on the left. 

It is also called the Royal Banner, or more popularly, the Lion Rampant. 

wert thou the 
unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and 
make thine own self the conquest of thy fury


Timon of Athens, IV.3

The Lion and the Unicorn as they appear in A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book by L. Leslie Brooke. Public Domain.

Lion and the Unicorn Nursery Rhyme

Among the general populace, it seems this unification came with a great deal of questions and individual expressions of both hope and doubt. After all, the nations had been enemies in the past. 

Thus was born the famous nursery rhyme called The Lion and the Unicorn. It is dated to 1603, the very year James came to the throne, and these are the lyrics: 

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.

Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

And when he had beat him out,
He beat him in again;
He beat him three times over,
His power to maintain.

As poetry often does, you can read alot into these lines. The poem reveals a great deal about the mindset of the people at this time of great change. 

Never fear that: if he be so resolved, 
I can o'ersway him; for he loves to hear 
That unicorns may be betray'd with trees, 

Decius Brutus

Julius Caesar, II.1

The Kelpie by Thomas Millie Dow 1895, source

The Kelpie

Falling into the same category as fairies, nimphs, and mermaids, we cannot leave behind the topic of a magical unicorn without mentioning another famous Scottish waterhorse, the kelpie. 

Described by one historian as “the Lowland name of a demon in the shape of a horse”, the Kelpie was a magical horse like creature, with black body and hooves which were backwards compared to the normal land horse. The creature who was said to live in the water as a horse, could able to come out on land and change into any figure it wanted, but usually that of a human to deceive its' intended victim. Once there, it would lure men (and often children) to their deaths, by dragging them into the water where they would be drowned and devoured.

Perhaps their generally fearsome and rather disgusting reputation is why they haven't maintained the prominent position in our collective memories enjoyed by the unicorn.

Books and Resources Crystal Recommends:

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