The lion and the unicorn are famous, but the poor yale just hasn’t had great press over the years. Pity.
To understand the yale at all, you have to understand that mythic beasts were as real as real beasts to people who hadn’t actually seen them. Those people (talking about you, Pliny the Elder) wrote books describing creatures that other people liked, and gradually, the beasts took on a life in story and symbols, if not in flesh and bone.
I first met the Yale of Beaufort at Kew Gardens in London, where he is one of a series of Portland stone sculptures of Royal Beasts. These are the animals you see on coats of arms, and the ones at Kew each have a royal connection.
The Yale of Beaufort isn’t the first British yale, but he is probably the best known. There was an earlier Yale of Bedford, brown. The Yale of Beaufort is white, has gold horns and is generally a gentle beast who likes the water. All yales have one distinctive feature: they can swivel their horns independently. In battle, they can attack with one or both, and if they want to show a more peaceful disposition, they can turn their horns to a more passive position. They stand for “proud defence”.
The yale has one enemy that I’ve found notes on: the evil snake-and-rooster-like creature called the basilisk. It will wait until the yale is asleep, then sting the yale between the eyes. The yale’s eyes then swell up and explode. (Sounds rather unpleasant for bystanders as well as the yale himself.)
A yale can’t kill a basilisk. Only a weasel can. Throw the basilisk into the weasel’s hole and the smell will kill the basilisk, but unfortunately, the basilisk’s potent venom will kill the weasel. However, the yale comes out ahead.
The yale in the picture is the Yale of Beaufort, shown here at Hampton Court Palace in the Tudor Garden near the chapel. Lady Margaret Beaufort brought the yale into the royal family of the day. Her only child became King Henry VII, father of King Henry VIII, who is probably the most famous resident of Hampton Court.
I wonder if any of the royals realize that by killing weasels to make their ermine-trimmed robes, they are robbing the yale of his only defence against the basilisk. Perhaps they should be told before it’s too late.
I got the information about the yale by scouring a variety of websites. A particularly good one is The Medieval Bestiary.
Disclosure: I had this adventure on September 28, 2012 at Hampton Court Palace on my own. I paid my own way. No yales were harmed in the writing of this piece.