The cowslip flower is one of the more spectacular of our spring flowers – the Latin name, Primula veris, translates as the “Firstling of Spring”. And although it is something of a latecomer amongst the first flowers, its sudden arrival from the long-present leaf rosette is striking. The English name on the other hand is corrupted to obscurity – could it be a “cow's lip”? A “cow slip”? Or even a “cow's leek”? Its sister, the primrose, is simply the Prima rosa – the first rose of the year.
The cowslip suffered greatly at the hands of the Common Agricultural Policy up to the 1980s, disappearing under the plough, or being ousted by the rising fertility of grassland. But today it is rallying, and becoming a more common sight on motorway verges such as the M50 around Dublin last year. It is one of a group of plants that instantly tells the botanist that a patch of grassland is either old, unploughed land, or will be rich in other rarities.
But the cowslip also hides an even more remarkable secret. Devotion to the five wounds of Christ was widespread in England on the eve of the Reformation. These fatal wounds were the proof of the resurrection to Doubting Thomas, and in turn to all believers. With Elizabeth I's accession to the throne of England in 1558, such idolatrous practices were outlawed, and the symbolism of the wounds became a covert symbol of the ‘old' religion.
In one of his last plays, Cymbeline, Shakespeare evokes an imperfection on the face of Imogen as “cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops I' th'bottom of a cowslip”. Such allegorical codes add a formerly overlooked richness to the Bard's coded references to the great religious struggle. Imogen is a cipher for the Catholic church, and her travails at the hands of a wicked stepmother and stepbrother demonstrate the tensions of the Reformation. A history virtually expunged from the official English view of the ‘Golden Age' when ‘Good Queen Bess' ruled England.