Another snowstorm, another snow day for me, but I am tired of thinking and writing about that particular form of white. Yesterday I was sitting on the couch watching the 1939 film The Four Feathers (what a great movie!) while intermittently selecting images for a PowerPoint presentation on the Hundred Years’ War and quite suddenly there was a paradox about white feathers: in the film, of course, white feathers are a symbol of cowardice, while in the late medieval past, they became associated with heroism after the teenaged son of King Edward III, thereafter known as the Black Prince, led the English troops to a momentous victory against the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. His adoption of the three white feathers and the motto “Ich Dien” (“I serve”) established an emblem which is still attached to the Prince of Wales today. So we have a feather quandary! What’s the story?
The Black Prince with his feather-plumed helmet in a c. 1670 print published by Robert Walton; British Museum; Harry Faversham (John Clements) receives his three white feathers from his former mates and is about to pluck a fourth from the fan of his fiancée, Ethne Burroughts (June Duprez).
The story that I have pieced together has many gaps in it–and (as is often the case) there is no one big moment when somebody proclaims: white feathers stand for cowardice! Clearly by the turn of the twentieth century the association was generally known in Britain (not elsewhere), as evidenced by the publication of the 1902 A. E.W. Mason novel on which the Four Feathers films are based and P.G. Wodehouse’s boarding school tale The White Feather (1907), as well as Admiral Charles Fitzgerald’s Order of the White Feather, an organization which encouraged young women to present young men out of uniform with white feathers “encouraging” them to enlist during World War One (many of you might remember the Downton Abbey episode from season 2 which featured several feather girls). Apparently the association comes from cock-fighting (game birds with white feathers proving to be not as “brave” as those without) and dates back to the eighteenth century, although the first visual references that I could find date from the Napoleonic wars. Before that, nothing: just a lot of (presumably heroic or at least virtuous) kings and princes wearing plumage.
First edition of Mason’s Four Feathers (1902); a Holbein miniature of young Prince Edward (later King Edward VI) who, though never formally crowned Prince of Wales, is always depicted with the title’s emblem, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Whatever its origins, the white feather/cowardice connection is a strictly British one. Both across the Atlantic Ocean and across the English Channel, no such association developed. French kings and nobles are routinely pictured with white plumage in the early modern era, including the ever-popular, and always-courageous, Henri IV, who compelled his troops to ralliez-vous à mon panache blanc! (follow my white plume!). At the same time that Napoleon is comically portrayed by caricaturist William Elmes “with a white feather in his tail”, Henri IV is ideally depicted with a white feather in his helmet, leading the troops. A real contradiction–and I’m not sure I’m buying the “cowardly cock” theory either. Just look at one of British artist Hilton Lark Pratt’s white-tailed fighting cocks: that’s one tough bird!
William Elmes’, “Little Bony sneaking into Paris with a white feather in his tail”, 1813, Napoleonic Period Collection, University of Washington Digital Collections; Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry, 19th century, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Hilton Lark Pratt (1838-1875), “Fighting Cock”, National Trust for Scotland