Be sure to get your copy of The Colour of Lies, available now on Amazon. I've already downloaded mine!
Guest Post by Toni Mount: Fabulous Unicorns and their Priceless Horns
In my latest Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies, set in London in the 1470s, the trouble begins with the theft of three exceptionally valuable items: unicorn horns. In the Middle Ages, nobody doubted that creatures with a single horn existed somewhere in the world but they were so illusive and descriptions of them so variable, it was unsurprising that they proved difficult to locate and impossible to identify, yet their horns were real enough, if rare indeed. A unicorn horn could be worth twenty times its weight in gold and a large one could weigh 14 pounds. Even in small pieces or powdered – a form used medicinally to treat any and every ailment, from plague to piles – it was worth ten times the value of gold.
Here is an entry from a bestiary book – a medieval book about creatures, whether real or mythological – from the first half of the thirteenth century, explaining about the unicorn:
The unicorn, which is also called rhinoceros in Greek, has this nature: it is a little beast, not unlike a young goat, and extraordinarily swift. It has a horn in the middle of its brow and no hunter can catch it. But it can be caught in the following fashion: a maiden who is a virgin is led to the place where it dwells and is left there alone in the forest. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it leaps into her lap and embraces her and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it and display it in the king’s palace.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual unicorn of whom it is said: ‘My beloved is like the son of the unicorns’ [Song of Songs ch.2, v.9]; and in the Psalms: ‘My horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn [ch.92, v.10]. ...
The unicorn often fights elephants; it wounds them in the stomach and kills them. (1)
|A ‘unicorn’ horn – image from the Science Museum
In 1303, King Edward I of England had his unicorn horn stolen from the treasury at Westminster but it proved too big to hide and impossible to sell and was discovered underneath the bed of one of the thieves. John of Hesse visited the Holy Land in 1389 and saw a unicorn dip its horn into a river to purify the water for the other animals to drink. It was this magical property of neutralising poisons and rendering unclean substances palatable that made the horn such a precious gift or possession of kings who went in fear of assassination by poisoning. In 1553, the pope gave the King of France a horn inlaid with gold, valued at £20,000. Such wonders were said to have come from India or maybe Abyssinia [Ethiopia], from the court of Prester John – himself a mythical monarch supposed to have ruled a Christian kingdom in Africa for 500 years. A visitor to Abyssinia in 1535, said the unicorns were like large horses and very fierce. The Elizabethan traveller, Edward Webbe, was more informative and saw quite different, amiable creatures:
I have seen in a place like a park adjoining unto Prester John’s Court, three score and seventeen  unicorns and elephants all alive at one time and they were so tame that I have played with them as one would play with young lambs. (2)In 1577, the English naval captain and explorer, Martin Frobisher, presented Queen Elizabeth I with a unicorn horn from a very different source. It became known as the Horn of Windsor, valued at the incredible sum of £100,000, despite lacking any gold decoration. Frobisher had found it on the shore of Baffin Island, Canada, attached to a ‘great dead fish’. Here at last is a definitive clue to the kind of creature that could produce such an exquisite and solitary spiral of ivory: not a fish but a mammal, yet neither goat nor horse – it is the narwhal.
A Narwhal swimming in Arctic waters
Detail of a medieval tapestry showing a unicorn
In my latest Seb Foxley novel, The Colour of Lies, traders have come to London from across Europe and beyond for the St Bartholomew Fayre, held every August, the largest trade-fair in medieval England. The Bristol merchant, Richard Ameryck, has three unicorn horns for sale and expects to make a hefty profit from their sale. But they are stolen one night and – human nature being what it is – are used as both weapons and medicinal remedies. Can Seb Foxley uncover the culprit and retrieve the priceless unicorn horns, bring the murderer to justice and see that the innocent go free? It seems that unicorns are troublesome creatures and always hard to pin down.
(1) Barber, Richard, Bestiary, [Boydell, 1999], pp.36-37.
(2) Hathaway, Nancy, The Unicorn, [Penguin Books, 1980], p.129].
(3) You can view this video clip at https://www.sciencealert.com/never-before-seen-behaviour-reveals-the-violent-purpose-of-the-narwhal-s-tusk [accessed 23.4.2019]
(4) Lavers, Chris, The Natural History of Unicorns, [Granta, 2010], pp.98-99.
Readers might also be interested in Cherry, John, Mythical Beasts, [British Museum Press, 1995]. This book has a great chapter on Unicorns, pp.44-71 with excellent illustrations.
Connect with Toni
Toni attended Gravesend Grammar School and originally studied chemistry at college. She worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry before stopping work to have her family. Inspired by Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour Toni decided she too wanted to write a Richard III novel, which she did, but back in the 1980s was told there was no market for more historic novels and it remains unpublished.
Having enjoyed history as a child she joined an adult history class and ultimately started teaching classes herself. Her BA (with First-class Honours), her Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. Toni’s Certificate in Education (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich. She earned her Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 by the study of a medieval medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library.
After submitting an idea for her first book, about the lives of ordinary people in the middle-ages, Everyday Life in Medieval London was published in 2014 by Amberley Publishing – the first print run sold out quickly and it was voted ‘Best history book of the year’ at Christmas 2014 on Goodreads.com. The Medieval Housewife was published in November 2014 and Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark, the mysteries of medieval medicine (later renamed in paperback as Medieval Medicine its mysteries and science) was first released in May 2015. A Year in The life of Medieval England, a diary of everyday incidents through an entire year, was published in 2016.
Having taught history to adults madeglobal.com recruited her to create a range of online history courses for medievalcourses.com, but she still wanted to write a medieval novel: The Colour of Poison the first Sebastian Foxley murder mystery was the result, published by madeglobal in 2016.
Shortly before publication Tim at madeglobal asked if this was going to be a series – although nothing else was planned, Toni said “yes” and now The Colour of Lies (published in April 2019) is the seventh book in that series.
Toni is married with two grown up children and lives with her husband in Kent, England. When she is not writing, teaching or speaking to history groups - or volunteering - she reads endlessly, with several books on the go at any one time. She is currently working on The Colour of Shadows the next Sebastian Foxley murder mystery and The World of Isaac Newton, her next non-fiction.
Her websites include:
You can follow Toni on social media at: