When people speak about white deer they are often alluding to the quite common white fallow deer. We have white deer on our farm in Auchtermuchty but they are the very rare form of white red deer. White deer appear very rarely amongst herds of red deer in the wild and so have inevitably formed the basis for legends and myths wherever red deer exist through a great variety of cultures across the northern hemisphere. Their appearance was generally held to portend important events and English and Scottish monarchs made strenuous efforts to capture and preserve white deer. However no captive herds of white red deer were established in Britain until recently.
As I describe in my book, ‘Gardens of Earthly Delight – the history of deer parks’ there are three particular iconographic symbols relating to deer in parks: there is the connection with water which we know from the psalms: – ‘as pants the hart for cooling streams when heated in the chase, so longs my soul, O God, for Thee’, then there is the tame controlled stag or ‘le cerf prive’ which we associate with stags wearing collars in mythology and legends of secret gardens and, thirdly, there is the white deer. And this is referring to the white hart or the white red deer and only occasionally the white fallow deer.
White deer are not albinos nor is the whiteness associated with age although aged red deer do develop occasional white hairs on the head, this is quite different from those rarities which are born white, sometimes known as ‘leucistic’. White fallow may reflect the fact that fallow have been through an extreme ‘genetic bottleneck’. Originating to the east of the Mediterranean in Anatolia in what is now Turkey where a relict population remains, fallow deer were transported by the agency of human beings through the islands and around the coast of the Mediterranean sea in prehistory. From Sicily fallow deer probably came to Britain in the 12th century becoming the most popular deer species within parks. Being inbred causes more different strains and colours to become apparent and when fallow deer were emparked people selected them for their different colours and white became popular. The same may be true of roe deer introduced to Britain in small numbers and which quite frequently appear as white or skewbald. These always excite interest in the media who wrongly call them white harts. In fact, of course, the hart is a mature red deer stag which is not often white.
For red deer however the white deer has always been very uncommon. White hinds and white stags by their rarity fostered an enormous body of legend rather in the same way that Moby Dick, the white whale, or the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland attract mysticism: Alice and Ahab both hunted the white animal and became ‘other worldly’.
The following is an extract adapted from my book, ‘Gardens of Earthly Delight – the History of Deer Parks’ from a chapter in which I discuss the symbolism of white deer and especially white harts, hart, of course, being the medieval name for an adult red deer stag.
‘In England, there is a legend of King Henry III sparing the life of a white hart which was subsequently killed by Thomas de la Lynde whose family were then required by the King to pay a fine in perpetuity. The story features in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and the fine is supposed to have been paid up until the reign of Queen Victoria.
In free ranging wild red deer white individuals are very rare, however where there is a degree of in-breeding as on islands or more commonly in parks, then white deer occur more frequently. These animals are not albinos nor is the whiteness associated with age, although aged red stags may show a few grey hairs. In the case of fallow deer which have already passed through a 'genetic bottleneck' different coloured forms, including white, are normal but white red deer remain rare.
Considering their rarity, or more likely because of it, white hinds and stags feature as symbols in many literary and visual representations of deer. This is an extension of the mystique surrounding other white quarry such as Ahab's Moby Dick and more whimsically, Alice's White Rabbit. In these strange hunts the hunter becomes obsessed and ‘other worldly’ as did Ahab and Alice.
Adult white red deer, white harts, were also believed to have strong associations with royalty. Their death was believed until very recently to presage the death of Highland chieftains in several parts of Scotland. Sometimes even the sight of a white stag was sufficient.
Much symbolism is associated especially with the mature white red deer or white hart. In Sir Thomas Malory's thirteenth century Quest for the Holy Grail:
And well ought our Lorde be signifyed to an harte. For the harte, whan he is olde, he waxith yonge agayne in his wyght skynne. ……..and for that cause appered our Lorde as a whyghte harte withoute spot.'
The value placed on white deer within historical times is demonstrated by the action of James I of England, a fanatically keen hunter, who was told by the Earl of Mar in 1621 that at a deer drive held on Rannoch Moor by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy at a place called 'Corrichiba' a white hind had been seen. The king sent an English forester skilled in catching deer, called John Scandaver or Scavander, north to catch the hind and bring it to London for safekeeping however Scavander was unsuccessful. The story of this strange episode in the reign of James I was told in a book published in 1963 entitled ‘The White Hind’ written by James Ferguson of Kilkerran. This story supports the Scottish tradition that all white deer should be reserved for the chief and not killed; indeed one of the MacLeod chiefs is recorded to have had a man executed for killing a white stag. With that in mind Thomas de la Lynde got off quite lightly when he incurred the wrath of Henry III by killing a white stag (see above).
The vulnerable white stag is a frequent feature of love chase literature. The late 14thcentury allegorical poem, Le dit du cerf blanc (the story of the white stag) features an emparked stag. Here there is actually no hunt and the narrator, who is the lover, acts to protect the stag with help from the Queen of Love who in the conclusion disappears to leave the lover alone with the white stag. The poem opens with the narrator walking out in a spring morning of great beauty, encountering the queen of love and explaining to her his concern for a stag within his park.
Then I said to her, 'Gracious lady, the truth is that I have in my retreat a park that I love, and it is right that I should, for my treasure lies therein. It is the chamber of my body; in it I have stored grievous sorrow that I have known – whether it was right or wrong – and I have devoted my reflection, thought, and feeling, to its being well closed in upon every side. Now for a long time I have held a white stag captive there; he was so fine, so exuberant, and joyous, that to be near him was all my joy; because of this I had a mind to keep him. But he went from me and he'll tell you why: for he was so desirous of finding diversion that would be to his liking, that in no harness or control would he remain. Nor was he content with the good things in the park that had nourished him, nor did he long for anything except to leave my park.'
The stag has broken out and when recaptured and tied with a golden chain broke that too. In following, the narrator is taken to a paradise garden where the stag becomes obsessed with a rose bush and whilst so transfixed is attacked by a swarm of biting flies which drives him into a rocky desert where, after being driven frantic with pain, he finally returns to the paradise garden and once more approaches the rose bush. Immediately the stag's sufferings disappear and he allows himself once more to be tied with a gold chain this time to the rose bush. The Queen of Love admits to having forged the chain herself and confirms that the stag will not run away again and then she disappears.
As Marcelle Thiebaux explains, the rose provides a link with the Roman de la Rose, the flies recall the plague in Exodus and there are obvious references to the fall and the Garden of Eden. From our point of view the explained use of the park as the lover's body containing his heart is unusual but emphasises how familiar readers were with the concept of deer in a park – and their ability to jump out!
The connexion between white deer and golden chains is common: in Petrarch's sonnet 190 and in the Decameron, Gabriotto dreams of a white hind chained to him with a gold chain.
White red deer were pivotal in the foundation myths of countries as disparate as Hungary and Japan. In Hungary it was believed that a white stag led the brothers Hunor and Magor to Scythia, an action which preceded the formation of the Hun and Magyar people. In 1937 the American author, Kate Seredy, published a children’s book entitled ‘The White Stag’ based on this foundation myth.
A white hart wearing a collar and chain was the badge of King Richard II of England. It may have been associated with him as a pun on his name ‘Rich-hart’ but the significance is certainly much more profound. Richard’s mother, the Fair Maid of Kent had a white hind as her motif and Richard had livery badges of a white hart produced and distributed them at an October tournament at Smithfield in 1390. He had a company of archers numbering around 400 wear a livery decorated with white harts and all through his life this motif of a collared white hart was used. A white hart was captured, presented to King Richard and kept at Windsor in 1393. Most impressive of all in connecting Richard II with white deer is the use of the white hart motif in the famous painting known as The Wilton Diptych for all to see in the national Gallery in London. Painted around 1400 it is recognised as a painting about divine kingship with the symbolism of the white hart motif central. Since King Richard was the first to require drinking houses to display inn signs, in 1393, many became White Hart inns and to this day their inn signs normally portray a white stag wearing a collar and chain.
I, John Fletcher, became fascinated by white deer and their legends and began to breed them on my farm in about 2010. Through my friend, Brett Graham, the renowned chef and one time proprietor of the Michelin starred restaurants: the Ledbury (two stars) and the Harwood Arms (one star) in London, we recently collaborated in the establishment of white red deer herds at Aynhoe Park, and for the Duke of Buccleuch at Boughton House, in Northamptonshire. I have since introduced my white deer to St Osyth Priory park in Essex and to Thornhill Park in Dorset.
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