I’ve got roses on the brain, but not just any rose, eglantine roses, a wild, shrubby variety (otherwise known as sweetbriar or Rosa rubiginosa or eglanteria) at once very common but surprisingly elusive now. I’ve been thinking about these roses for several reasons. It is late May, and my roses are about to bloom, and I’ve come to the realization that I just don’t like several of them: hyper-hybridized varieties that let me down every summer. Too pumped up and showy. I want to go back to basics, and the eglantine rose is a very old rose, pared down and rambling, with a lovely scent. Chaucer wrote about this rose, as did Shakespeare, and Elizabeth I adopted it as her favorite symbol.
A beautiful sweetbriar rose in the Cloisters Garden.
So I have personal reasons for thinking about the eglantine rose, but also scholarly ones. Summer classes start this week, and after an administrative semester, I’m back to teaching (gratefully): a course on “Shakespeare’s England” and one on Renaissance art, science and technology. Content from both will probably appear in future posts, and the eglantine rose definitely ties in to the first, because “Shakespeare’s England” was largely Elizabethan England, and Elizabeth loved eglantine roses. The last Tudor had her family emblem, the Tudor Rose, and she used it often, but she adopted the more natural eglantine, symbolizing royalty and chastity, as a personal device, particularly after she had forsaken marriage in favor of “marrying England”. The “Phoenix Jewel”, from about 1574, show Elizabeth surrounded by intertwined Tudor and eglantine roses (as the Virgin Queen, she preferred white), though in the more public “Phoenix portrait”, from about the same period, she is holding the Tudor Rose. Almost two decades later, William Rogers’ print “Rosa Electa” shows her with the Tudor Rose on one side (left) and the eglantine on another: at this last phase in her long reign, she was widely associated with eglantine roses, even sometimes referred to as the Eglantine.
The Tudor Rose in BL MS Royal 11 E xi, ff. 2v-3 (a canon for Henry VIII); The “Phoenix Jewel”, circa 1574, British Museum; The “Phoenix Portrait”, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London (on loan to the Tate Museum since 1965).
More visual evidence of the first Elizabeth’s association with eglantine roses is her court painter Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), in which a young courtier (often identified as Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex) pays tribute to her simply by standing among eglantine roses (with his hand on his heart). And then there is George Peele’s exhortation to his fellow Englishmen and -women to wear eglantine, and wreaths of roses red and white put on in honor of that day, for her Accession Day, November 17.
Nicholas Hilliard, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
After Elizabeth, the eglantine rose continues to be admired, though perhaps not with the symbolism it had before. It’s a simple, country rose, contrasted with more extravagant varieties: natural, wild. Like all roses, it acquires all sorts of romantic associations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only to be turned into a tobacco brand in the twentieth!
“Rosa Eglanteria Zabeth” (Queen Elizabeth’s Eglantine Rose), Pierre-Joseph Redouté, later 18th century; The “Wild Rose”, W.L. Ormsby lithograph, NYPL; a lithograph by Jane Elizabeth Giraud from “The Flowers of Milton”, 1846, NYPL; Tobacco Card, Duke University Emergence of Advertising Digital Collection.
The prettiest paper eglantine roses seem to be on paper: William Morris chose the rose and its vine for one of his earliest, and most popular designs, “Trellis” (1864), and there is a lovely, simple pattern reproduced by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers based on paper found in a house in Georgia that dates from the 1840s. I love this company’s slogan: History repeating itself….
“Trellis” wallpaper by William Morris, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; “Marietta Eglantine” wallpaper by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers, LLC.