Friday, May 10, 2019

Unicorns and Their Priceless Horns with Toni Mount

My guest today is a well-regarded historian who also happens to write some of my favorite historical fiction! Toni Mount's Foxley series is the ideal blend of carefully crafted historic setting and complex character development - and each book features a fascinating mystery. In celebration of the release of The Colour of Lies, it is my great pleasure to welcome Toni to my blog today with an interesting look at unicorns and what our medieval forefathers thought of these mythical beasts. 

Be sure to get your copy of The Colour of Lies, available now on Amazon. I've already downloaded mine!

Welcome, Toni!

~ Samantha


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
Since there were references made to unicorns in the Bible – seven in all – these confirmed their existence beyond question and, besides, there was tangible evidence in the form of unicorn horns, sometimes known as ‘alicorn’ or simply ‘the horn’. These were not the horns of rhinoceros, which aren’t made of horn anyway but of consolidated hair, nor of goats. Whereas the appearance of the creature varied from something goat-like of the size of a small dog to an ass the size of a great ox, from c.1200 the horn is consistently described as a tapering ivory spiral 6-9 feet long [2-2.5 metres]. This made a dog-sized unicorn most unlikely so a large, cloven-hoofed horse-like animal, usually white with a goat’s beard and fleet of foot, became a more common image of the fabulous beast in order to balance the length of horn.

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 [77] 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
Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are medium sized members of the family of toothed whales. They have just two canine teeth, one of which grows out beyond the lip of the male and, less frequently, of the female, creating a spiralled tusk. What seems to be a strange quirk of evolution is only now beginning to be understood. The tusk would appear to be a formidable weapon: a perfect spear, yet it is full of sensitive nerve-endings and any damage would be extremely painful – a nine-foot-long toothache is something to be avoided. Since males have the tusk more often than females, could it be a visual indicator of strength and virility, rather than for use in combat? What is now known is that in the whale family, renowned for their sonar capabilities, narwhals are probably the best and their tusks act as efficient echo-location receivers, which doesn’t explain why fewer females are similarly equipped. Two years ago, a team of scientists in the Canadian Arctic were using drones to film a pod of narwhals and saw them putting their tusks to use in catching prey, tapping codfish on the head to stun them, making them an easy meal.(3) But the narwhal’s tusk remains a bit of a mystery – which is probably fitting for an object so long mythologised.

Detail of a medieval tapestry showing a unicorn
This explains the true origin of unicorn horns but how did biological specimens from the Canadian Arctic appear in Europe centuries before Europeans knew that the American continent existed? Although today, narwhals are found in the icy waters between Greenland and Canada, they were more widespread in the medieval period, from northern Scandinavia, east into the Russian Arctic and west to Iceland, occasionally, being washed as far south as Britain and Denmark. (4) Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Scots and Englishmen all traded with Iceland in the North Atlantic, exchanging grain, salt, honey, copper pots and textiles – things the Icelanders lacked – for dried herring, salted cod, fish-skin leather, shark-skin for use as emery paper and ‘unicorn horns’. Trade was conducted by barter system: so much woollen cloth for so many barrels of herring, since Iceland had no use for coinage. The foreign ships would also take their own supplies of wood and a cooper to make the barrels to hold the fish on the return voyage, because Iceland had so few trees and no wood to spare. On the journey to Iceland, the ship’s hold would be full of goods for sale and flat staves, rather than ready-constructed barrels, took up less cargo space.

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 [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 is a history teacher, a writer, and an experienced public speaker - and describes herself as an enthusiastic life-long-learner; she is a member of the Richard III Society Research Committee and a library volunteer, where she leads the creative writing group.

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 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 recruited her to create a range of online history courses for, 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:

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post about unicorns and the fantastic Friday blog tour! It's always fun to learn about new books and explore different genres.
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