The love of the pelican

Courtesy of Simon Wills

The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a wonderful treasure trove of online books from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Browsing these works is a fascinating experience, not least because you can explore many images of our ancestors’ world and their beliefs. And you can find some unexpected things here.

For me, some of the most interesting illustrations are those related to wildlife. In the 12th and 13th centuries particularly, books known as bestiaries were popular which depicted both real and mythical animals. Since these works were created by monks, bestiaries could be utilised by the Medieval church to impart moral instruction in the form of allegories. So the noisy squawking of the jay was used as a warning against the dangers of gossip, for example.

Some of the birds found in British bestiaries are surprising. An English manuscript from the British Library collection known as ‘Harley 4751’ contains an illustration that claims to depict a group of pelicans, and yet anyone who has seen a real pelican would struggle to recognise them.

Pelicans from the 13th century bestiary ‘Harley 4751’
(courtesy of British Library)

It is immediately obvious that the artist has never seen a real pelican. What’s more, the birds are displaying some very un-pelicanlike behaviour: one bird is killing another. What is all this about?

In the early centuries of the Christian church, some odd traditions arose in connection with the pelican. It was said that the bird loved its offspring very much, but when the chicks squabbled in the nest and beat the parents’ beaks with their own, the mother would get angry and kill them. Filled with remorse she would, after three days, restore them to life by feeding them on her own blood by stabbing her breast with her beak. The illustration from Harley 4751 shows the full chain of events: the parent-bird with chicks under her wing kills one of them, mourns it, and then pours her blood down its throat to revive it. This tale became a metaphor for Christ’s behaviour: saving humankind by spilling his blood. So, it’s no surprise that the earliest records of it are found in Christian writings of the 2nd to 4th centuries because even if the Church didn’t invent the story they were keen to popularise it. Yet, the narrative soon changed a little: the idea of a Christ-like bird murdering its own brood was probably rather unpalatable, so it began to be said that the chicks were killed by a snake or some other cause instead.

Of course, when the story of the pelican came to Britain with the early Christians, no-one on these shores knew what a pelican looked like and so its representation was very inaccurate.

Once aware of this curious belief, it is possible to find countless depictions of the pelican in churches throughout the UK. There is a beautiful stained glass window in St Nicholas’ Church at Pevensey of the pelican giving her blood to restore her children, an interesting wooden statuette in Tewkesbury Abbey, a carving in a misericord at Lavenham Church, Suffolk, and a handsome stone relief behind the pulpit in St Mary’s Church, Abberley.

Examples of the pelican at Pevensey, Tewkesbury and Abberley (courtesy of Simon Wills)

These representations all show what became the classic pose of pelican on the nest with chicks, often with wings outstretched, and stabbing her own breast to produce life-giving blood. This depiction acquired a specific name of the ‘pelican in her piety’ to emphasise the sacrifice and devotion involved. In Renaissance art the pelican is sometimes even shown sat atop the cross while Christ is crucified.

This Pelican from a Tudor manuscript is more accurate (courtesy of Simon Wills)

This symbolic use of the pelican continued into Tudor times, even though it was still the case that few if any Brits would ever have seen one. Queen Elizabeth I adopted the pelican as one of her personal symbols probably because she liked to be seen as the mother of the nation, making sacrifices on behalf of her subjects. This perhaps helped to broaden the symbolism away from Christ alone. The National Portrait Gallery has an interesting analysis of a contemporary portrait in which the queen is wearing a pelican jewel.

Shakespeare makes several references to the prevailing beliefs about the pelican. In Hamlet, for example, Laertes says ‘…I’ll ope my arms  And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,  Repast them with my blood’.

We do know that pelicans officially arrived in England in 1664, and probably for the first time. Charles II was given some by the Russian ambassador as a present and they were kept in St James’s Park, London, which the King opened to the public. Pelicans still reside in the park to this day.

Blood donation poster 1944
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gradually, the pelican symbolism was extended ever more generally and became a sign for sacrifice, benevolence, or devotion to others. Thus the bird was associated with charities, and it began to be depicted outside the church setting. There is a well-known one on the façade of Magdalen College, Oxford, for example. The porch of the Scottish National War Memorial built at Edinburgh Castle in 1927 displays a gold pelican, representing sacrifice, and this was quite a popular symbol to use on First World War memorials across the UK. The familiar image of the ‘pious’ pelican was even used on a Second World War poster to help recruit blood donors, again in Scotland.

From Christ to Queen Elizabeth I to war memorials and blood donation. What was the origin of this rather strange story about the pelican that bled itself to save its young? It was probably simply that the adult birds open their beaks widely to disgorge semi-liquid food straight into the mouths of their chicks; they also tend to press their beaks towards their breasts when doing so. At some point, somebody misinterpreted this or deliberately chose to use it as a life-giving allegory.

Still, it is odd to think that a bird which few people in the UK had ever seen until fairly recently has been so widely depicted in our communities and culture; and for a behaviour that it does not even display.

(courtesy of Simon Wills)


Simon Wills is a history journalist, genealogist, and wildlife photographer. He has also been an adviser to the television programme Who Do You Think You Are? The author of ten books, Simon has taken a particular interest in areas of history that are difficult to research or which have been neglected.

His well-received ‘Wreck of the SS London’ explores the tragic sinking of a luxury liner that sent shockwaves through Victorian society but which has been largely forgotten. Similarly, his bestselling book ‘How Our Ancestors Died’, tells the story of historical causes of death with which a modern audience may no longer be familiar.

He has recently been researching the history of the human relationship with the natural world and published ‘A History of Birds’, which will shortly be followed by ‘A History of Trees’.

Simon will be speaking about ‘A History of Birds’ at the Festival at 2pm on Tuesday 26th June 2018. Tickets go on sale 25th April.

VIDEO: Al Murray: Monty

Al Murray may be best known for his comic creation, the Pub Landlord, but he is also a serious and passionate historian and student of  World War Two. In this event, filmed at Chalke Valley History Festival 2017,  he brings that immense knowledge to bear in defence of Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, talks about the life, career, great victories and controversies of Britain’s most famous wartime general.

Al Murray: Monty (CVHF 2017) from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

CVHF 2017: Pop-up History – Alex Langlands & James Holland (Hay Making)

In this Pop Up History talk from CVHF 2017, Alex Langlands talks to James Holland about hay making pre-mechanisation.

CVHF 2017: Pop-up History – Alex Langlands & James Holland (Hay Making) from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

VIDEO: From The Revolution To The War With Terror: A History Of Modern France

Today’s France was born from revolution, a tumult which changed it forever but embedded tensions that can still be felt today. In this talk, based on fifty years of close observation, best-selling historian Jonathan Fenby explores what makes France a country proud of its past but also a prisoner of its history.

Recorded at Chalke Valley History Festival 2017

Jonathan Fenby: A History of Modern France (CVHF2017) from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

Highlights of Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools 2017

Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools 2017 has now come to a close.. over 2000 students, 30+ talks, Living History demonstrations and plenty of laughs along the way. Here is a beautifully shot highlights film by the Bournemouth University film crew..

CVHF 2017: Schools Festival from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

POP UP HISTORY TALK: James Rebanks

Pop Up History talk – James Holland talks to James Rebanks about people’s history of landscape and the importance of engaging with the countryside.

CVHF 2017: Pop-up History – James Rebanks from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

Broad Chalke, Wiltshire: Giving History A Home

A short film on our new home, the pretty village of Broad Chalke, Wiltshire

Broad Chalke, Wiltshire: Giving History A Home from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

10 Facts About The 16th Century ‘Game of Queens’

The Game of Queens was played out in deadly earnest. But that’s not to say that we – like these sixteenth-century women themselves – can’t have a little fun along the way! Here’s ten facts I found in my research that particularly struck me:

1 Anne de Beaujeu, regent of France, wrote a manual of instruction for powerful women. One piece of advice was not to pay too much attention to clothes – ‘Past 40, no finery can make the wrinkles on your face disappear’.

2 King James IV of Scotland took an interest in a wide variety of subjects, including dentistry. He paid his subjects to let him take their teeth out – a practice that might endear him to many patients today!

3 When Henry VIII sent his sister Margaret Tudor, James IV’s widow, the present of some wonderful dresses, she was in such pain from sciatica she couldn’t even bear to be turned in bed. But she still made her attendants hold up the dresses so she could see them, every day.

4 While Henry VIII was looking for a new bride, after beheading Anne Boleyn, his eye lit on Marie de Guise. He said that they should get one, because they were both ‘large in person’. ‘I may be large in person’, she retorted, ‘but I have a little neck!’

5 Margaret of Austria was unlucky in her marriages. On her way to the second, with her ship in danger of foundering in the Bay of Biscay, she composed her own mocking epitaph.

                  Here lies Margaret

                  The willing bride

                  Twice married –

                  But a virgin when she died

6 When Margaret, as Regent of the Netherlands, was negotiating a peace treaty with England’s Cardinal Wolsey, she tried literally to sweeten his mood with a daily breakfast delivery of fresh rolls, wine and sugar.

7 Margaret was succeeded as Regent by her niece Mary of Hungary. Ambassadors said Mary was ‘a little mannish’, and that everyone knew she wouldn’t have children – she was far too sporty.

8 It was Mary Queen of Scots who liked actually actually to dress up in men’s clothes and go roistering around the Edinburgh streets with her ladies. There was always the joke that the best way to end the troubles between Scotland and England would be for Mary and Elizabeth I to marry.

9 When Mary sent Sir James Melville on a diplomatic mission to Elizabeth, the Tudor queen kept pressing him as to whether she or Mary were the taller, the better dance, the prettier. Mary was  the fairest queen in all Scotland and Elizabeth in all England, answered Melville, diplomatically.

10 Across the Channel in France, two other rival rulers were Jeanne d’Albret and Catherine de Medici. But when they were trying to negotiate and end to the war between Protestants and Catholics they still broke off to go shopping round the Paris boutiques together, disguised as ordinary bourgeoisie.


Sarah Gristwood has written bestselling biographies of Arbella Stuart, and Elizabeth and Leicester. Blood Sisters was a dramatic portrait of the women whose dynastic ambitions and rivalries fuelled the Wars of the Roses and her latest book is Game of Queens: the Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. She will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on 27 June on this subject. Tickets available here.

Research your ancestors’ worlds

As lovers of history we relish feasting on the latest historical books, and soaking up the newest series on the telly – and absolutely quite right too. But history doesn’t have to be something you solely watch from the sidelines. It’s something you can dive into, join in with, something you too can research – with pleasure and with a real purpose. And an excellent way to do this is by tracing your family history.

If you’ve not yet tried it, you may be wondering about the appeal – however, once you begin finding out about your family history, I guarantee you’ll be absorbed.

So what’s family history all about? Going up into the roof and hauling down those boxes of papers and photos? Yes certainly. Booking yourself on a battlefield tour, or taking a DNA test? Yes those too. Unearthing skeletons, little-known stories and long-lost relations? Yes (we all have the skellies but they’re not so scary).

But as someone passionate about history, one of the things I think you’ll find most appealing about family history is that first-hand look at the past. Actually tracking down the records (in the archives and online) that tell us about our ancestors’ lives and the world they once lived in. Discovering the miles of records that are held in the thousands of archives nationwide (helpfully increasingly now digitised too). Wrestling with the crabbed old handwriting. Making sense of what that record can tell you about the past.

Think back to 1939 and the start of World War 2 for instance. We know about the Nazi invasions Europe-wide, the gas masks dished out on the Home Front, and the young evacuees whisked away to rural safety. Now look at September 1939 with a family historian’s eye. Yes we do want to know about the wider historical context for sure. But we also want to find out about our family and pinpoint their place in history, so we turn to the 1939 Register.

Taken on 29 September 1939, within weeks of Britain joining the war, the 1939 Register is a time capsule of our ancestors on the brink of the dark years of war that were to follow. It’s literally a role call of the nation – names, birthdays, home addresses. But already the tentacles of war had crept in and disrupted our ancestors’ lives. Have a serviceman or woman in the family? They won’t be listed, being recorded separately by the military. Looking for a youngster in the family? Don’t be surprised if you can’t find them at home – Operation Pied Piper, launched earlier in the month – had relocated millions of young and vulnerable people in the national evacuation programme.

But look closely and you will find further clues about your ancestors too. Notes, perhaps, that someone was an air raid warden, or maybe a change of surname – as the register continued to be used by the fledgling post-war NHS. And why was the register taken in the first place? To make sure the war effort worked – to allocate and organise ID cards, conscription and rationing. Turn to Hansard (freely available online), and the transcripts of the discussions in Parliament through that long summer of 1939, and you can read of the politicians’ concerns about how to manage with the clouds of war gathering, concerns about how to feed the nation, about what Emergency Powers would be needed.

This is all part of our families’ history. The events that were common to all, and the individual story of each person’s life and experiences. By finding out your family story, piecing together the tales, tragedies and adventures of your ancestors’ lives you’ll be setting yourself on a time travel trip back into the past where history is truly, poignantly very much alive.


Helen Tovey is the Editor of Family Tree Magazine. In her talk on 30th June at Chalke Valley History Festival, she will be looking at ten types of historic records, and seeing what light each one can shed about our family history, our ancestors and the world they once lived in. You can book tickets for the ‘My Heritage and Ancestry Morning’ here.