From Greek and Roman times to the present day, the rose has been a timeless symbol of beauty, transience and love. The rose’s romantic connections are thought to originate from Egypt, where Cleopatra famously carpeted the floor of her boudoir with mounds of rose petals to seduce Mark Antony.
In courtly love, for example, the rose was the iconic symbol of the beloved lady – or of the prize of her love itself – a personification that found its most exquisite representation in the 13th-century French epic poem Le Roman de La Rose, a medieval illustrated allegory that documents the art of chivalric love and its many facets. Written by Guillaume de Lorris, it was completed 40 years later by Jean de Meun.
The Virgin Mary
In medieval devotional verse (religious verse devoted to subjects such as Jesus Christ), the Virgin Mary is often referred to as a “rose without thorns”, since she was free of original sin. In fact, the five petals of the wild rose are often equated with the five joys of Mary (the five key moments that gave Mary joy, which were the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Assumption) and the five letters in her full name, Maria.
At this time, the rose as the queen of flowers was a privileged symbol for Mary, as seen in this lyric dated 1420:
There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu;
For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space;
Medieval art often depicts the Virgin Mary in an enclosed rose garden – a representation of Eden, but also a place where courtly lovers could retire. The Christmas rose – a hardy white flower with five petals that blooms at Christmas time – is a symbol of the Nativity and appears in medieval carols and seasonal hymns to the Virgin.
‘The Madonna of the Rose Garden’ (Madonna del Roseto) by Michelino da Besozzo, c1425. Found in the collection of Musei Civici, Verona. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
It is said that the rose’s thorny stems were twined around Christ’s head during his Passion, and its red flowers are a symbol both of worldly love and of martyrdom, which is possibly why they have, over time, become associated with St Valentine’s Day.
From the 12th century, rose imagery exploded across Europe with the spread of religious devotion to Mary. The medieval rose, laden with Christian symbolism of love and sacrifice, was now such a strong religious idea that it bloomed into architecture and became incorporated into the building of Gothic churches in the form of rose windows.
The rose continued to be revered into the 13th century, where we have the major appearance of the rosary (Latin: rosarium), a set of prayer beads created as a garland of roses.
The Christian tradition took the rose as representative of the Virgin, and secular literature celebrated the rose as a symbol of earthly love and beauty, so it is little surprise that the canny queen Elizabeth I – fully aware of the rose’s associations with virginity – took this flower as her emblem. In so doing she tied the strands of courtly love and holy virginity together in her own queenly identity.
In portraits of Elizabeth I we sometimes also see the white eglantine, known as the queen’s rose. This was used to symbolise the queen’s chastity and make associations between the queen of England and the queen of heaven (the Virgin Mary).
Elizabeth I. Version of the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower, from the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Kings and queens
The rose is also part of the heraldic imagery of the kings and queens of England. The liveries of the houses of York and Lancaster, for example, were represented by white and red roses respectively, and the civil war that broke out between these two houses between 1455 and 1485 was later termed the Wars of the Roses.
In Henry VI Part I Act II Scene IV, Shakespeare depicts a small gathering of lords plucking different coloured roses from the Temple-garden as a way of choosing sides in the upcoming conflict. The Earl of Warwick, who chooses a white rose, remarks:
And here I prophesy: this brawl today,
Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,
Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.
Interestingly, the term ‘the Wars of the Roses’ was only used after 1829 when Sir Walter Scott referred to that conflict as such in his novel, Anne of Geierstein.
The Wars of the Roses ended with the clever and strategic Henry VII being crowned king of England. In marrying Elizabeth of York in 1486 he combined two dynasties and two roses, giving birth to the famous Tudor Rose, which was both white and red. This became known as “the flower of England”, and is today the country’s national flower.
The ancient world
Further back in time, we find the same veneration and symbolism surrounding the rose, with a strong emphasis on its powers of seduction and associations with mortality.
The scent of roses permeated the ancient world, where petals were scattered across the floor, the bed or the dinner table. Rose oil was distilled for use as a perfume, breath sweetener or medicine, and rose water was popular for cosmetic use and in food. The Romans offered roses to statues of the gods and used roses to wreathe tombs.
The rose was sacred to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and to her Greek equivalent, Aphrodite. Botticelli’s famous 15th-century painting The Birth of Venus shows the goddess on her scallop shell, blown in by Zephyrus, being showered in pale pink roses.
‘The Birth of Venus’ 1486. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
The Greek poet Sappho, meanwhile, praises the flower in a poem entitled Song of the Rose, which has been attributed to her:
If Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!
The rose had other more complex symbolism for the Romans, however. The Rosalia was a Roman feast to remember the dead in which roses played a significant part, and the Roman custom of hanging a rose overhead (or painting or carving one on the ceiling) in confidential meetings was a reminder that nothing that was discussed could be repeated outside the room where the meeting had taken place. The term sub rosa is today used to describe such meetings and means ‘under the rose’. Henry VIII made this practice more widespread, and the carving of roses into ceilings is a design which we still see today.
Across the centuries the rose retained its privileged position as queen of flowers, gaining new varieties and meanings through the centuries. We find the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace (1617–57) calling upon the rose to adorn his lover’s chamber in much the way that Cleopatra adorned hers many centuries earlier:
Rosie is her Bower,
Her floore is all this Flower;
Her Bed a Rosie nest,
By a Bed of Roses prest.
Adored by the Romantics and particularly by the Victorians, who created a complex language of flowers, new symbolism attached itself in ever more layers to the different colours and styles of roses. It was the red rose, however, that pushed ahead of the rest to become a towering symbol of beauty, transience and sexual love. One of the nation’s best-loved and most-quoted poems is A Red, Red Rose by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–96), written in 1794:
O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
Robert Burns, c1785. Original artwork is a drawing by Skirving. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Another of the most famous rose poems in the English language, Go, Lovely Rose, was written by the rather unwholesome poet and politician Edmund Waller (1606–87) and later set to music by composer Roger Quilter. It was written in a frenzy of unrequited longing for Lady Dorothy Sidney, a beautiful and very clever young woman of 18.
Waller was the originator of the failed Waller’s Plot of 1643 – to seize London for Charles I – in which he was shown to be a coward after betraying his friends and brother-in-law to save his own neck. After the death of his first wife, Waller became romantically obsessed with Lady Dorothy Sidney. She rejected his advances and in 1639 married Henry Spencer, later to become the Earl of Sunderland. This struck such a blow to Waller’s heart that he went insane for a short period of time. Go, Lovely Rose was most likely addressed to Lady Dorothy during this period of infatuation on one of numerous visits to her house, when she would probably have refused to see him. Much later in life Waller visited Lady Dorothy again, and she asked him: “When, Mr Waller, will you write such fine verses upon me again?” And he replied: “O Madam, when your ladyship is as young again.”
Waller’s poem uses the idea of the rose as a love messenger. The poet speaks directly to it, as if to a person, and commands the flower to go to his beloved, speak to her and then die in her hands, thus reminding her of how fragile beauty is, how brief life is, and that beauty unseen is worthless. It is a most elegant version of the ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ theme, meaning live life for now and live it to the full, which comes from a line in the poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (1591–1674). The stylishly romantic understatement in Go, Lovely Rose would have appealed greatly to Quilter’s musical sensibility, resulting in one of the most beautiful songs ever to be written in English. Indeed, Quilter’s masterpiece is arguably as iconic as Waller’s verse.
Roger Quilter (1877–1953) was a composer much taken with roses, and one who was drawn to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in his choice of poetry adaptations. He was a great fan of Shakespeare’s songs, for example, and set all of the words he chose with exquisite care.
Roger Quilter. (Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)
At heart a romantic, Quilter set to music at least five poems that reference the rose: the renowned Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, a poem by Tennyson from The Princess, A Medley (1847); A Last Year’s Rose (William Henley 1849–1903); The Time of Roses (Thomas Hood 1799–1845); Damask Roses (a lovely conceit on lips and roses written by an anonymous Elizabethan poet); and arguably the composer’s most famous song, Go, Lovely Rose:
Go, lovely Rose –
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung,
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.
Small is the worth,
Of beauty from the light retired:
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.
Then die – that she,
The common fate of all things rare,
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!
Today the red rose has become an emblem of romantic love to the point of cliché, while we still see the white rose, along with the lily, as a symbol of innocence, grace and purity. Yet, coiled within the lovely, scented petals of this adored flower are centuries of fascinating meaning. For, even in the cynical 21st century, roses continue to delight our senses whenever we come across them – in poetry, art, song, or twined around a trellis in the garden.
Author and University of Oxford lecturer Nicola Harrison specialises in the interpretation of song. Her series of books The Wordsmith’s Guide to English Song (Compton, 2016) explores the literary, historical, mythological and artistic background to the poetry set to music by two British composers, Roger Quilter and Ivor Gurney.
To find out more about Nicola, visit www.nicolaharrison.co.uk
This article was first published by History Extra in 2016