On Thursday, The One Minute Writer asked its readers very simply to write about a knot. The first knot that came to my mind was the Stafford Knot, which represents the county of Staffordshire, England. It can be seen everywhere in the county–emblazoned on road signs, carved into buildings, pressed into bricks, embroidered in military insignias (to represent the local regiments), embossed on police badges, glazed onto the bottoms of local pottery, and spray-painted as graffiti in area parks. At a local antique fair I even picked up an old horse brass for my collection, cast in the shape of this famous knot.
The knot itself is nothing special. It’s merely an overhand knot, the simplest of the single-strand knots. Rather, its uniqueness lies in the mystery shrouding the true origins of the knot as the county symbol. For those who favor datable relics to ensure historical accuracy, it seems the earliest verifiable appearance of the knot was on a seal (now housed in the British Museum) that belonged to Joan, Lady of Wake, who died childless in 1443. How the knot came to be part of her seal, and from whom it was passed, are still unanswered questions. At the time of her death, her personal possessions, including the seal, passed to her nephew, Humphrey, Earl of Stafford. Humphrey adopted the Knot of Rope (thereafter to be called the Stafford Knot) as his badge and both he and his descendants used it to adorn the livery of their servants and retainers for easy recognition. In the feudal system, the townsmen of Stafford were lieges of the Stafford family, so they also used the Stafford Knot as a badge. Over time, feudalism ended and free citizens of Stafford adopted the badge as their own, ultimately including it in the Borough’s coat of arms, where it remains today.
For those who prefer their history a little more macabre, legend has it that the Stafford Knot really symbolizes the execution of three criminals sentenced to die by hanging in Stafford. It seems that when the executioner arrived in the borough, he realized he had only one length of rope. He thought it a bit cruel to hang the condemned one by one using the same rope for each execution, so he fashioned a knot that would allow all three to hang simultaneously. Who says there was no compassion in medieval times?
And those who like pure romanticism in their version of history will gravitate to the Dark Ages story of Ethelfreda, daughter of Alfred the Great, wife of Ethelred, Lady of the Mercians, and all-around bad-ass. In the early 900s, after her husband’s death, she assumed control of his armies and set about building fortresses all over middle England from which to harass and repel the invading Vikings. Legend has it that during a speech to rally local lords from three different geographical areas, she removed her girdle and said, “With this girdle, I bind us all as one.” Apparently, the speech worked, for the region became collectively known as Staffordshire.
Regardless of the true origins of the Stafford Knot, it is a beloved and easily recognizable symbol of Stafford and Staffordshire today, even making its way onto the dance floor where dancers move in formation to the shape of the knot. What clearer illustration of the motto, “The Knot Unites,” could one ask for?