by Cassandra Harrington
Thursday, 6
April 2023
Explainer
16:00

The truth about King Charles’s ‘Green Man’

The foliate head is a rebuke of the technological age
by Cassandra Harrington
An actor dressed as the Holly Man, the winter guise of the Green Man. Credit: Getty

In the early hours of 4th April, social media reacted with frenzy at the release of the invitations to the Coronation of King Charles III. Evocative of the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement, the intricate watercolour and gouache invitations, designed by Andrew Jamieson, are decorated with a plethora of semantically charged flora and fauna from the British Isles. However, it was the vegetal figure at the lower border, adorned with the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom, that got everyone talking. Was that… a ‘Green Man’

The Coronation invitation, with the Green Man seen at the lower border

Today, their semiotic implications are often unavoidable. To the 21st-century viewer, a leafy face emanating sprigs of vegetation as it gazes languidly out from the page might conjure up ideas of death and resurrection, growth and decay, transience and ephemerality, or even a cyclical movement that is continuous in transformation yet always on the verge of collapse. Perhaps something archetypal and a vestige of the still-bright past, in the common memory of folk rituals and annual rites. However, where do they come from, really? Is there actually a connection to paganism? The true history of the motif is far more nuanced. 


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Adapted from the lexicon of antiquity, foliate figures were distributed in abundance throughout the cathedrals, churches, and monasteries of medieval Europe, appearing across a wide range of material objects. Of Gallo-Roman origin, by the 12th century they had become ubiquitous, flourishing in the liminal zones of manuscripts and buildings. Referred to as ‘tête de feuilles’ (‘foliate heads’) in the High Gothic period, since 1939 these enigmatic figures have often been referred to as ‘Green Men’ in the anglophone world. 

It was a term coined in 1939 by Lady Raglan, who concluded that the medieval foliate heads she saw in English churches were derived from the myth of Robin Hood and the Jack-in-the-Green of May Day: potentially a pagan woodland deity of some kind. Her theory was balderdash, but it became popular nonetheless. The so-called ‘Green Man’ is a post-19th-century Frazerian invention, sustained by nationalistic sentimentality and romanticism. Intriguingly, it is not ‘an ancient figure from British folklore’, as the Royal Household has proclaimed, but a European import. In a post-Brexit UK, the sad irony of this is not lost. 

Indeed, during their heyday these leafy denizens flourished across the art and architecture of Europe. They died down with early modern memento mori and were resurrected with the 19th-century Gothic revival. It was only during the 20th century that the motif was adopted by the New Age movement and neo-paganism; this cultural appropriation has been preserved and propagated by modern art, literature, film, nature festivals and online communities. 

Now, in 2023, it seems we are about to see a new classical revivalism take to the stage. But how much can we hope for in the new Carolean era? Released in the approach to the Easter weekend, the Coronation invitation foliate head is boldly ornamented with a crown of thorns, topped with a golden acorn. Reminiscent of its medieval antecedents, the iconography of the Coronation invitation interweaves contemporary concerns with historic thought and ever-changing ideas.

In our age of technology, industrialisation and ecological disaster, the current climate crisis looms ever-ominously on the horizon. Much agricultural produce is air-freighted, the cost of food is at an all-time high, and wildlife and habitats are increasingly under threat from ill-advised development. Public green spaces are scarce, and ‘sustainability’ in proposals for new architectural development feels more like a buzzword to justify huge steel-framed skyscrapers clad in concrete and glass: a new kind of ‘greenhouse effect’ in microcosm. 

Isn’t this the epitome of what King Charles had been campaigning against in all his decades as Prince of Wales, and as a patron of the arts and humanities? Indeed, on the Coronation invitations we see a ‘Green Man’ in his own image, and perhaps a harbinger for the reign to come.

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Paul K
Paul K
1 month ago

The so-called ‘Green Man’ is a post-19th-century Frazerian invention, sustained by nationalistic sentimentality and romanticism. Intriguingly, it is not ‘an ancient figure from British folklore’, as the Royal Household has proclaimed, but a European import.

I’d be interested to see the evidence for this claim. As far as I am aware, the origins and meaning of this figure are entirely mysterious. There is certainly nothing ‘nationalistic’ or ‘post-19th-century’ about it, given that it appears on the roof bosses of medieval churches.

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul K

I thought traditionally they were carved in ‘green’ ie: not seasoned wood, normally oak, which is easier to work when still ‘green’, especially for intricate carving. Then the stone masons took this traditional design and did it in stone instead, I thought some masons even had styles of ‘green men’ unique to them, as a kind of signature.
My understanding of them really doesn’t match this article. I could be wrong.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul K

“Entirely mysterious” indeed!
There’s speculation that he represents a remnant of the previous occupant population after a new population has arrived. He’s gone wild, living/hiding in the woods and gradually becoming a magical creature (a la the Green Knight) in the minds of the new occupants. In the British Isles he could be one of the people who were there before the Picts came. Or even the last of the Neanderthals. That’s a very long time ago!
Charles and Camilla should be commended for including such an ancient and venerable character in their celebration.

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
1 month ago

‘The cost of food is at an all time high’ Well hold tight because if the Greens get their way it will cost far more when they ban fertiliser and insist that every food item has to be delivered by bike or by horse and cart. Then there will be reparations to be made to the African farmers strugglng to make a living despite the Greens’ best efforts to kill them off. Which brings up reparations for slavery – when will they compensate the African chiefs for the loss of a sizeable income when we banned slavery? And when are we to be compensated by the North Africans for taking slaves from the communities on the South Coast of England, not to mention the Scandinavia countries for their similar nefarious activities? Oh for fertiliser’s sake get real! (And the only climate crisis is in your head!)

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

Looks like a Green Aslan to me.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 month ago

Perhaps you will find clues in Poundbury.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Burger King Charles 111 is just walking into the arms of the national socialist eco sandaloid, islamaphobic and lgbtQ + transexual supporting fifth column… it is truly frightening how staggeringly naieve and misinformed he is.

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
1 month ago

I ceased being a Royalist on the death of our lovely Queen. Her replacement is rapidly descending to my expectations as one of the greatest jokes of the century. But I’m not laughing.

Chris Amies
Chris Amies
1 month ago

I know what you mean. Even a couple of years before her death I suspected the Monarchy wouldn’t survive her in any real form. Charles has been too well known and too much in the public eye for too long.
However, I would also be wary of the right-wing press tarnishing his image, as he is seen as championing causes (mostly environmental) that they are not fond of.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Amies

Charles’ environmentalism doesn’t spring from the same source as present-day Thunbergian ecomania. In fact he espouses the same conservationist instincts that many on the right used to champion, but have now abandoned. With Charles you can’t help but feel that this is a man genuinely in tune with nature.