Stoats in folklore and heraldry

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Public Domain

Stoats in folklore

The stoat (Mustela erminea), is a small animal that has a vast range and is native to both North America and Eurasia.  Consequently there is a great diversity of folklore and legend that has become attached to this small furry creature throughout the many different human cultures found throughout its territory.  This article briefly describes some of the folklore and legends that associate it with the royalty and institutions of Britain, followed by a discussion of the folklore of Brittany, France that lends it a possible spiritual symbolism that was attached to its use in heraldry.

Royalty and institutions

Stoats are animals that can change their coats with the seasons especially in northern regions of their range.  In the summer their fur is reddish-brown with a black, tipped tail. In winter the coat can turn pure white except for the tip of the tail which remains black.  Their winter pelt was much desired for many uses and often known as ermine.  

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Elizabet I with a stoat – Public Domain

The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England by William Segar depicts Elizabeth with a white stoat, possibly emphasizing her purity. It was seen as a symbol of high status and used by royalty around Europe as well as Britain where it was used as trim in ceremonial robes and garments of the royalty.  Members of the House of Lords used it and academics of Cambridge and Oxford also used it in ecclesiastical garments still worn by Prelates of the Catholic Church.  Its use was seen as a sign of the equality of their status with nobility.  Thankfully in modern times because of cost and the growing abhorrence towards using real animal fur and the growing realization that it looks far better on the living animal, synthetic fur is increasingly being used. Nevertheless ermine and its substitute forms still has a special historic place in the folklore and heraldry of many lands.

Stoats in heraldry

In the folklore of Brittany, France, it is believed that rather than soil its pure white winter coat the stoat would prefer to die.  It was claimed that when it was being hunted it would turn and surrender itself to death rather than sully its pure white coat. The coat of arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany features  a pattern of ermine and it also appears on the Flag of Brittany as a symbol of purity and the willingness to die rather than give in to lower morals.

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Coat of Arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany

The tradition is said to have come from the time of Anne de Bretagne (about 1477 – 1514), who had been married to two successive French kings and was the last independent ruler of Brittany.  She had seen a stoat in white winter coat being hunted and chased to the edge of a mud swamp.  The creature had turned to face its attackers and death rather than try to cross the mud.  Apparently Anne interpreted this as the animal choosing to face death rather than dirty its pure white coat. She was said to have saved it and chose it to become the symbol of her dynasty with the motto: Plutôt la mort que la souillure. (Death rather than defilement)

In heraldry, or ceremonial purposes, ermine is given black marks or patterns that as well as representing the black tip of the tale also represents nails. The symbolism of this originated with Plato who saw the Soul and the Higher spirit and being “nailed”to the body, so the nail symbolically joins the soul and the body as one.

Spiritual symbolism

Another aspect of its symbolism is that in summer it had a brown coat which turns white in winter.  This is viewed as being symbolic of someone on a spiritual journey who has traveled through the Four Seasons.

Life’s journey can be represented by a symbolic chart which depicts a 24 hour clock face but also marked are the four seasons and the Cardinal directions. The 24 hour point at the top represents midnight and the night and also North and Winter. The 6 o’clock point is East but also Dawn and Spring.  The 12 o’clock point is South and Noon but is also Summer.  The 18 hour point is West or Sunset but also Autumn.  This represents the path of the ordinary person on life’s journey and sometimes called The Wheel of Life.

For those seeking spiritual development and enlightenment the path is longer.  The birth time is Spring/Dawn and they progress to mid-life at Summer/Noon and then to later life Autumn/Evening.  For those on the spiritual path there follows another stage of experiencing Winter as a living human being.  This can be an extremely harrowing experience and is often called the “Dark night of the Soul.”   Those that successfully complete this path come to a new Dawn without the need to further reincarnate having achieved the ultimate destiny at the end and unite with their Higher self while alive becoming their Higher spirit or a “god in life.”

A hidden story

For a small and fairly common animal the stoat was given a greater significance than its natural stature would seem possible.  Like many other everyday animals and objects that we take for granted there lies a hidden folk story and perhaps more waiting to be told.

© 18/4/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 18th, 2016 zteve t evans

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King Arthur and the Legend of the Ermine of Our Lady

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KIng Arthur and Flolo – Public Domain

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Brittany

The former Duchy of Brittany was a small feudal state in medieval times before it became part of France.  Like most other such states it had its own Coat of Arms.   Curiously, the Duchy’s featured the white winter coat of the stoat which was often known as  ermine. There are at least two legends as to how this came about.  The first concerns Anne de Bretagne the last independent ruler of the duchy and the other King Arthur, the King of Britain. This work deals with the Arthurian version.

This legend goes back to the time King Arthur ruled Britain.  As well as being a mighty warrior and leader of men he was also a good and wise king who was devoted to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Hugh O’Reilly tells the The Legend of the Ermine of Our Lady which explains how this came to be.

The Loss of Gaul

The story takes place during the time when the Emperor of Rome was Leo I and Gaul was ruled by Flolo, a Tribune of Rome.  It tells how Flolo was an unjust and cruel ruler who persecuted Christians and frequently blasphemed against the Virgin Mary ordering the desecration and destruction of her statues, shrines and relics.

During this period Arthur had lost control of Gaul and was back in Britain at his court.  It was said to be towards the end of summer when a knight stood up in his court and called Arthur a coward because he had lost Gaul to his enemies.  He told Arthur that he would now die without being King of the fair and that beautiful land that the Pope himself had given him.

Arthur’s vow

Angry and embarrassed Arthur swore before God and the Virgin Mary that he would retake Gaul and be its King once again.  He vowed that within twelve months he would challenge Flolo man to man. Arthur set about planning and preparing his army for the invasion of Gaul.  By the  time Spring came Arthur had assembled a mighty invasion force and moved it across the sea into Gaul.

In Spring-time the land of Gaul was a marvelous place with oceans of sunshine and lush greenery and it was indeed a most beautiful land.  Arthur was expecting fierce resistance in its defense but no army appeared to confront him.  Bemused, Arthur sent five hundred of his warriors and two thousand archers to seek out the defending army but all they could report was that everywhere they went people fled from them.  Now unlike Flolo, Arthur was not a cruel man and he began to regret that his arrival with such a huge and warlike host of armed men had frightened the local people. They were simple peasants who worked the land for their living and they themselves were victims of the cruelty of Flolo and he felt sorry for them.  Just as he was pondering what he should do he heard the sound of trumpets and a party of messengers rode into his camp.

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King Arthur – Public Domain

Flolo’s challenge

They were the heralds of Flolo who he had sent to lay down a challenge.  The herald announced that his master proposed that to save needless bloodshed,  instead of the two armies meeting in open battle Arthur should appoint a champion who would fight him man to man to the death.  The winner would rule Gaul.

Flolo was a giant of a man with incredible strength and endurance and was completely fearless in battle.  As a sleight to Arthur he had challenged him to pick his bravest, strongest and best warrior to fight for him, rather than face him himself.  The herald was carrying Floro’s gauntlet and threw it contemptuously at Arthur’s feet.

Arthur accepts

Arthur’s knights clamoured to be his champion but Arthur silenced them.  He told them that he would fight Flolo and it was he alone who could be King of Gaul. Arthur told the herald to go back to Flolo and tell him that he himself would fight him to the death.  There would be no quarter asked and none would be given and that God alone would grant the most righteous victory.  So with the terms agreed the place of the combat was to be the Island of Notre Dame of Paris.

In the morning Arthur knelt in prayer to God and the Holy Virgin Mary that he may acquit himself with honour and courage and for protection.  Flolo appealed to the god Bacchus for strength and courage and the death of Arthur. Both men then mounted their warhorses and faced each other waiting for the signal from the herald.  The herald stood in the middle of the field waiting for the two to be ready and then blew on a trumpet to let the fight begin.

Fight to the death

Flolo spurred his horse forward and Arthur did the same.  The points of both men’s lances crashed against their shields as they met head on knocking both from their horses.  With lance and shield splintered to shards  both men scrambled to their feet and began raining sword blows at each other.  Both managed to deflect the deadly blows until the height and strength of Flolo gained a brief advantage and blow to Arthur’s head split his iron helmet and brought him to his knees knocking the senses from him.

Appearance of the Holy Mother

Arthur’s followers groaned thinking their King must surely die.  Flolo raised his sword for the final blow but that blow never came.  To the astonishment of all the Holy Mother Mary appeared with a cloak of ermine around her shoulders which she quickly threw over Arthur’s shield.  So pure and white was the ermine cloak that Flolo was temporarily blinded and stunned with terror.  Arthur, although wounded seized his chance and with his last strength took off the head of his enemy with his sword, Excalibur.

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Coat of Arms of the former Duchy of Brittany – Public Domain

Ermine

Not until the fight was over did Arthur learn from his knights of the apparition of the Virgin Mary.  To give thanks and to honor her he ordered that a Church be built on the island. Today the Church of Notre Dame of Paris is said to stand on that same spot.  Arthur then ordered that his nephew, Hoel, the sixth Duke of Brittany should incorporate the cloak of ermine on his Coat of Arms also.  According to legend from that day on ermine was always borne on the  Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Brittany.

© 17/02/2016 zteve t evans

 References and Attributions

Copyright February 17th, 2016 zteve t evans