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Forget-me-not – or a flowery take on an usurpation

Not a dogrose, this rosa rugosa is still simply beautiful

Ask anyone what flower they associate with the House of Lancaster, and chances are they’ll answer a rose. And yes,  during the War of the Roses, Lancaster had a red rose as a badge. Their fierce opponents, the House of York, sported a white rose. And by now all of those who know your history will be yawning and idly wondering if there’s a point to all this rambling. Am I planning on going on to talk about the Tudor rose, effectively an amalgamation of the white and red?
Nope, I am not. As an aside, though, I rather like it that both the Lancaster and York roses are uncomplicated roses, reminiscent of the dog rose—beautiful in their simplicity.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Edward III’s fourth son, is credited with having chosen the red rose as his emblem. His younger brother, Edmund of Langley, chose the white rose. I imagine that when these young men chose to strut about with a rose adorning their clothes, they had no idea that come sixty years or so, their descendants would face off across the battlefield in that very bloody and long civil war which has such a poetic name. The scented petals of the roses would be trod into bloodied ground, so to say…

Stefan Lochner, Madonna in a rose garden

Today, roses are mostly seen as representations of love and romance. In medieval times, roses not only represented love (of the more courtly kind) Roses—more specifically red roses—also represented divine love, as symbols for Jesus’ suffering on the cross. In medieval representations of the young Virgin Mary, she is often seen holding a rose as a symbol of her purity and innocence – or sitting surrounded by roses. When John of Gaunt adopted the rose as his badge, he likely did not do this as a romantic gesture: he did it to signal to all and sundry that here was a man of faith, a loyal man of integrity and purity of purpose.

I have a thing about roses and how this fragrant bloom has accompanied humanity through history. I am also an avid rose collector—well, I used to be, having more than 47 variants in the garden we sold a decade or so ago. In our country house, the roses I’ve planted are of the more robust variety—a bit like the roses of Lancaster and York. But before I digress into writing about my favourite rosa gallica variants, or wax poetically about the lovely, lovely rosa rugosa Louise Bugnet – a fragrant, beauty that flowers and flowers and flowers throughout summer and well into autumn, I best revert to my intended subject, which is a much more modest flower than the rose.

I give you the forget-me-not. Miniature blue flowers adorn the dipping stems of this little plant. They thrive in the shade rather than the sun, and if it weren’t for that astounding shade of blue, they’d be almost invisible. So invisible, in fact, that legend has it that this little flower got its name because when God was naming all the plants, he walked past our little floral protagonist without as much as a glance.
“Forget me not, oh Lord!” the plant called out.
God came to a halt and turned its way, but after an entire day of naming tiger lilies and roses and anemones and violets and primroses and bougainvillea He was totally out of inspiration, which is why He smiled down at the unassuming little plant and decided to name it…taa-daa…forget-me-not.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family; The National Gallery, London. I just love this painting – and as she IS holding a sprig of forget-me-not, I decided to indulge myself and include it here

There are other legends regarding how the flower got its name, the most famous one being that of the medieval knight and his lady who were taking a walk along a rushing stream. There, on a little islet in the middle of the stream grew a bunch of pretty blue flowers. The knight decided to pluck them for his lady and waded out into the water. He got hold of the flowers, was almost back to the bank with his precious gift when he slipped. And as he was wearing full armour (????? Really? While taking a walk with his lady-love?) he could not regain his feet, his last words to his fair love being “Forget me not!” before he was swept off to drown.

However the little flower got its name, by medieval times it had become a symbol for fidelity and love. And, obviously, for remembrance.

And now, dear peeps, it is time to revert to the Lancastrians. In 1367, John of Gaunt welcomed a son to the world at Bolingbroke. Baby Henry was to be the only one of John’s legitimate sons to survive infancy, so I imagine there was quite some pressure on those young shoulders to live up to parental expectations.

Being of an age with his cousin Richard of Bordeaux, the soon-to-be Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke spent quite some time with him while growing up. Edward III was still alive, if old, and he was hoping to foster a loving and supporting relationship between his two grandsons, all too aware of how important it was to have people holding your back when you were king. Edward III had been fortunate in having had a loyal brother (even if he died young) strapping sons and good friends to do his back-holding. Richard had no surviving siblings, so the old king hoped cousin Henry would fill the shoes of a brother. John of Gaunt was all for his father’s idea. Not only was John a dutiful son,  I also imagine John saw the future benefits to his family of building a strong relationship between the cousins, hoping no doubt to see Henry become the power behind the throne he himself was during the latter years of Edward III’s reign –and Richard II’s minority.

The relationship between the cousins nosedived in the aftermath of the Peasant’s Revolt. While history is of the opinion that Richard II acted with surprising wisdom and bravery for a mere fourteen-year-old, Henry would never forgive him for having effectively betrayed him, thereby almost getting Henry killed. At the time, Henry and Richard – along with various royal counsellors – had traken their refuge in the Tower. The young king rode out to negotiate with the rebels, and somehow agreed that they be allowed to seize all “traitors” and do away with them. The rebels, armed with the young king’s “agreement”, were able to convince the guards at the Tower to let them in to search for evil traitors.  To the rebels, John of Gaunt was deffo one such traitor—hence the sacking of his Palace of Savoy—and as to John’s son, well, Henry would likely have died that day had not a John Ferrour interceded. As it was, several other men were hauled away and summarily executed.

The trust between the cousins was further shattered when, several years later, Henry became involved in the rebellion of the Lords Appellant in 1386-87. Spearheaded by the king’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, as well as the earls of Arundel and Warwick, the purpose of the rebellion was to curtail the power of the king and his favourites, and for a while, things worked as the rebels wanted them to. But Richard, being a pragmatic and intelligent man, was smart enough to comply while biding his time. By 1389, he was firmly back in power—but apparently harbouring no ill will against the Lords Appellant. Ha.

Henry whiled away the early 1390s touring between his various estates,  building relationships in Aquitaine (he hoped to become duke there one day), participating in tournaments, crusading in the Baltic countries, going in pilgrimage to Jerusalem and in general developing the skills he’d require once he became Duke of Lancaster, the single most powerful landholder in England. The childless Richard II was all too aware of just how powerful the House of Lancaster was, and where he had no heirs of his body, Henry had four fine sons and two daughters.

A decade after the successful rebellion in 1386, Richard felt strong enough to strike back. The three ringleaders were arrested, one of them executed, the other murdered and the third locked away for life. Interestingly enough, John of Gaunt—a firm believer in royal prerogative—supported his nephew. Somewhat more surprising, Henry did the same, turning his back on his former companions, even adding his voice to the testimony condemning them.

Of the five Lords Appellant, two were now left standing: Henry and Thomas Mowbray. According to Henry, Thomas made a nervous comment about it being but a matter of time before the king came for them. Henry reported this to the king, accusing Mowbray of treason. Mowbray exploded, stating that if anyone was a traitor it was Henry. Things were to be settled in a joust, but Richard had a lightbulb moment and decided to exile the two men, thereby ridding himself of their presence. Mowbray was exiled for life, Henry for ten years—and under generous terms, indicating John of Gaunt was somehow involved. I’m thinking he approved of the king’s decision, hoping that distance and time would heal the somewhat acrimonious relationship. Huh. Did not happen…

By the time of his exile, Henry was usually referred to as “he with the Ss”, this likely being a  reference to the livery collar he wore—a collar of elegantly shaped esses that seems to have seen the light of the day in the early 1380s to be worn by those loyal to the house of Lancaster. York would soon enough develop their own livery collar, one in which suns and roses dominate. But why the S in the Lancastrian collar?

There are various theories. Some have suggested the S stands for sovereign, but for a duke or earl to strut about with a collar declaring him the sovereign was treason, so that is probably not the correct explanation. Yes, once Henry became king, the S could be interpreted as standing for sovereign, but prior to that event, he’d been wearing the esses for years.

This, dear peeps, is where the forget-me-nots come in. (At last, hey?) Surviving documents indicate Henry was very fond of forget-me-nots. On occasion, he rode at the lists with a black and white shield adorned with golden forget-me-nots. He had a belt adorned with silver forget-me-nots (that he had repaired, hence that we know of it) His accounts detail mantles and short gowns embroidered with “soveyne vous de moi”, collars in silver and gold with a similar design. The man, clearly, had a thing for this humble little flower. Or, more likely, the flower had a special meaning to him. Souvienez, it whispered (or soveyne as it would have been spelled back then). Remember. So maybe that’s where the S comes from, a constant reminder to remember.

Seeing as the S collar was originally designed while John was the Duke of Lancaster, maybe this was a silent admonition never to forget Blanche of Lancaster, John’s first wife and Henry’s mother, the S representing Souvienez, not sovereign. In time, it could encompass other people lost to them, like Henry’s wife, Mary, or, in the fullness of time, John of Gaunt himself.

Upon leaving England, Henry formally adopted the forget-me-not as his badge. Souvienez-vous-de-moi, he may have said. This time, there was no doubt as to who should be remembered: Henry wasn’t about to fade away on the English continent, not when his destiny (and wealth) was in England. “Remember me,” his chosen flower said. “I’ll be back,” he likely added in an undertone.

When John of Gaunt died a year later—without the opportunity of bidding his beloved son farewell—Richard played straight into Henry’s hands when he  disinherited his cousin. Now, Henry had a legitimate reason to return. More importantly, Richard’s highhandedness caused a lot of concern among the rich and mighty in his realm.  Plus, many were more than disenchanted with this tyrannical king, complaining loudly about high taxes.

When Henry landed at Ravenspur on July 4, 1399, stating he was only there to claim his patrimony, he wasn’t stopped. No, he was welcomed as a saviour, the man who would put things right again. With King Richard in Ireland, there was little resistance. Henry’s ranks swelled and one by one he retook his own castles.

Henry claiming the throne

Some months later, Henry was acclaimed as the new king. Richard was incarcerated in Pontefract Castle where he died under suspicious circumstances.

Henry was now king. But I imagine that in the middle of the night he’d hear that little whisper “soveyne vous de moi”. And this time, it wasn’t about remembering his mother or his wife. No, this time it was about remembering his cousin, born to be king, who died alone and humiliated in less than comfortable confinement. Sometimes, the little whisper would remind him of his father, and Henry likely tossed and turned, assuaged by guilt. Because he knew that his father would have been horrified by Henry’s usurpation—and yet, what choice did Henry really have?

So there you have it, dear peeps. I hope that next time you come across a forget-me-not you are reminded of Henry Bolingbroke, the first Lancastrian king. His was destined to be a short reign, a difficult reign, the last years of his life plagued by sickness, by his constant conflicts with his eldest son and heir (who was very fond of Richard) and the guilt that hung like a mill stone round his neck.

“Souvienes-vous-de-moi,” he said, holding a sprig of forget-me-nots. And yes, Henry, I do think of you—even at a distance of more than six centuries, I think of you, whenever I see a cluster of blue, blue forget-me-nots!


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