Devon enchanted by rare sighting of the mysterious white hart


Michael McCarthy,Environment Editor
Saturday 24 September 2011 00:00

The White Hart is back amongst us. The legendary animal, once the badge of England's most tragic king, has been seen and photographed in Devon in recent days.

A white hart is a white red deer stag, an extremely rare beast (unlike white fallow deer, which can be seen in several places around the country, including Richmond Park in south-west London).

It is so uncommon, in fact, and looks so ghostly, especially in the light of early morning or the gloaming of a late summer evening, that in the Middle Ages it became semi-mythical, and its sighting came to symbolise various aspects of fate, from good fortune to bad fortune, and from romantic love to the presence of Christ on earth. It was perhaps its Christian symbolism which led to its adoption as a personal emblem by Richard II, the late 14th century monarch who was medieval England's greatest patron of the arts.

Richard not only encouraged and patronised poets such as Chaucer, he also commissioned the loveliest surviving medieval English painting, the Wilton Diptych (now in the National Gallery), a double panel which shows the king on his knees paying homage to the Virgin Mary and her child, surrounded by angels. On the exterior of one of the panels is a painting of Richard's white hart, with a golden coronet around its throat.

The white hart was also worn as a badge by Richard's personal bodyguard, the Cheshire archers, who were renowned for their toughness, but were unable to prevent the king's overthrow in 1399 by his thuggish cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who assumed the throne as Henry IV and condemned Richard to a mysterious death in prison.

However, the Cheshire archers fought back and joined the rebellion of Henry Percy, or Hotspur, against the new king, and might have been on the winning side had Hotspur himself not been killed at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 – as anyone familiar with Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One will remember only too vividly.

Since then, the white hart has lost some of its more mysterious resonance, and has been kept alive in English culture mainly as a pub name – in fact, The White Hart said to be the fifth most popular pub name in Britain, after The Crown, The Red Lion, The Royal Oak, and The Swan. Yet for all the loss of its old mythical associations, there is still something magical about the animal itself, shown here captured by the photographer Ian Crisp in recent days, somewhere in North Devon between Hatherleigh and the Cornish border. He's keeping the exact location secret in case trophy hunters try to shoot him.

In the Middle Ages, that would be seen as tempting fate. And who knows? Maybe it still is.

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