WEIRD NORFOLK: Unicorns found in Castle Rising
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Deep below the village of Castle Rising, hidden in the otherworld beneath our feet, the remains of unicorns were found.
In an 1831 publication The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, a curious tale is told about what was found when a deep hole was being bored into the ground to find a fresh water supply.
Wells were regularly hundreds of feet deep and workers would be lowered into the hole, taking candles to light their way, and would dig and send up earth to the surface.
The deepest hand-dug well in the world is in Brighton and is 1,285 feet deep – it took four years until water was reached in March 1858.
In The Mirror, MD Rees Price wrote: “This took place at Castle Rising near Lynn in Norfolk, a coast on which the sea has been for many years greatly encroaching…
“Happening to be acquainted with several persons whose business it is to bore the earth in various parts of the kingdom to the depth of a thousand feet or more, for the purpose of raising a supply of pure water, I have received from them, from time to time, an account of the nature of the substances which they meet with at the respective depths, one instance of which I beg leave to communicate to you.
“At the depth of 600ft, several horns, which they supposed to be those of the unicorn, were found and they were straight, about two feet in length and one inch in circumference, and hollow, the medullary substance being petrified.”
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Forty feet further down, there were oyster shells (“The shells were half open as if occasioned by fright at some sudden commotion of the earth…) while at 660ft there was a large oak tree “…it was quite black and its texture extremely hard”.
Had the horns been found in Siberia, it would have been likely they were the fossilised remains of a member of the Elasmotherium family, an extinct species of rhinoceros, which had a large, thick horn on their forehead.
The horns could be fossilised narwhal tusks – the whales are now found in Arctic waters, but they once lived off the Norfolk coast 700,000 years ago.
Or, of course, they could be unicorn skeletons.
Unicorn horns, or what traders claimed were unicorn horns, were hot property in medieval England and when explorer Martin Frobisher led an expedition in search of a passage to India in 1577, he brought magic home with him.
He found the corpse of a ‘sea unicorn’ on an island with a horn that was 12ft long: “this horn is wreathed and straight, like in fashion to a taper made of wax, and may truly thought to be the sea-unicorn,” he wrote.
Back in England, Frobisher presented the horn to Queen Elizabeth, who was enchanted and commanded it be stored with her crown jewels.
The ‘unicorn horns’ were literally worth their weight in gold, passing hands for £10,000 which would have paid for a castle.
As the study of nature progressed, Frobisher’s sea unicorn was unveiled as a type of whale, a narwhal, and the horn revealed to be a tooth, but one must never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The Vikings had sold narwhal tusks without explaining their origin, Danish rulers were crowned on thrones of ‘unicorn horns’ and Mary Queen of Scots used powdered ‘unicorn horn’ to determine if food was poisoned.
Greek writers were convinced of the reality of unicorns, and 5th century accounts describe creatures with 28 inch horns that lived in India.
In the Middle Ages, the unicorn became a beast with one horn that could only be tamed by a virgin and evolved into an emblem of chaste love and faithful marriage.