The rose has always symbolised love, transience, and beauty. But where did these symbols begin? Its connections with romance are believed to have begun in Egypt, where Cleopatra used them to decorate her boudoir floor in a bid to seduce Mark Anthony. The rose was the symbol of the beloved lady or of the prize of her love itself.
The Virgin Mary
A medieval devotional verse (a religious verse written about such subjects as Jesus) often refers to the Virgin Mary as a “rose without thorns” because she had no original sins. A wild rose’s five petals are often thought to represent Mary’s five joys (the five moments that gave Mary her greatest joy): the five letters that make up her name, Maria, the Assumption, the Ascension, the Resurrection, the Nativity, and the Annunciation.
The rose used as the queen of flowers was a privileged symbol for Mary at this time. Mary was often depicted in medieval art in a rose garden, which represents Eden, as well as a place suitable for lovers to retire in. The Christmas rose, with its five petals, symbolises the nativity, appearing in seasonal hymns and medieval carols. It’s thought that a rose’s stems were twined around the heart of Christ during his Passion, and its flowers symbolise both martyrdom and worldly love, which might explain why they later formed a relationship with Valentine’s Day.
Rose imagery was everywhere in Europe from the 12th century onwards, thanks to the increasing religious devotion made to Mary. The medieval rose, with is Christian presentation of love and sacrifice, came to represent such a strong idea of religion that it grew into the field of architecture, used in rose windows and in the construction of Gothic churches. The 13th century revered the rose every bit as much as the periods that came before it. It was in this century that we saw the rosary (a collection of prayer beads as a garland of roses) make a major appearance.
Christianity used the rose to represent the Virgin, and it symbolised early love and beauty in secular literature, so it was no surprise when Queen Elizabeth 1, who knew about the association between the rose and virginity, adopted the flower as her emblem. In doing so, she tied her royal identity to holy virginity and courtly love. Portraits of the queen sometimes reveal the white eglantine known as the queen’s rose. This symbolised her chastity and formed associations between the Virgin Mary (the queen of heaven) and the queen of England.
Kings and queens
The rose is also used as part of England’s royal heraldic imagery. For example, red and white roses were used to represent the liveries of the houses of Lancaster and York, respectively. The civil war that occurred between the two houses (1455-1485) became known as the Wars of the Roses.
In one scene from Henry 1V, Shakespeare depicted a small group of lords picking roses of different colours from the Temple-garden as a method of choosing which side to represent in the pending conflict.