After a look at mechanical elephants in our parks and gardens I thought perhaps I should look at the place of the real thing there as well. Garden menageries have a long history: the earliest recorded in Britain from the early 12th century in the grounds of what is now Blenheim Palace. The chronicler, William of Malmesbury, writing around 1130, noted that Henry I “was extremely fond of the wonders of distant countries, begging with great delight, as I have observed, from foreign kings, lions, leopards, lynxes or camels – animals which England does not produce. He had a park called Woodstock in which he used to place the favourites of this kind.”
Sadly no elephants but instead in 1110 Henry walled in part of the grounds to contain his collection and “he had placed there also a creature called the porcupine, sent to him by William of Montpellier… covered with bristly hairs which it naturally darts against the dogs when pursuing it; moreover these are, as I have seen, more than a span long, sharp at each extremity, like the quills of a goose where the feather ceases, but rather thicker and speckled, as it were with back and white.”
Unfortunately there is no trace of Henry’s private zoo since the decaying mediaeval palace was pulled down and all its the gardens obliterated when Blenheim was built for the Duke of Marlborough in the early 18thc.
Henry I’s royal menagerie was later moved to the Tower of London, and it was there in 1255 that Matthew Paris, a monk from St Albans Abbey, was able to draw from life a “beast about ten years old, possessing a rough hide rather than fur”. The creature had “small eyes at the top of its head, and eats and drinks with a trunk.”
A gift to Henry III from the king of France, and probably captured during his time on crusade, it was “a beast most strange and woonderfull to the English people, sith most seldome or neuer any of that kind had béene séene in England before that time.” (Raphael Holinshed Chronicles, vol. 3, 1586] It was housed a specially built wooden house, some 20 ft by 40ft, at a cost of £22. Its spacious surroundings were no guarantee of longevity though and the poor animal died within a couple of years. Its skeleton was later disinterred although no-one knows quite why. It may have been put on display as the bones of a biblical giant like Goliath or more probably used to make fake saints relics and ivory reliquaries to house them!
You can discover more about Matthew Paris and his elephant drawings and descriptions at the blog page of the Parker Library in Cambridge:
Even as late as the Tudor period, the elephant must have seemed as mysterious and strange as many of the mythical creatures in mediaeval bestiaries – dragons, cyclops, mermaids and, of course, unicorns. But strangely, unlike many other exotic or legendary animals it was never adopted as an heraldic symbol by the crown or any other leading families in England. These heraldic beasts were an important element of elite Tudor gardens and I’m going to return to them at some point in the future.
Commentators still depended mainly on classical or scriptural sources for their knowledge. The very word elephant must have formed a vivid mental image even though they had hardly ever been seen in this country.
As a result the animal is often portrayed as a military weapon which it had been in the west since the time of Alexander the Great : “the stronge & mighty elephaunte With a castell on his backe” [William Nevill, The Castell of Pleasure, 1530], or associated with the biblical Behemoth: “the greatest beast on earth” [John Meerbecke, A booke of notes and common places, 1581].
Perhaps because of these associations elephants were clearly popular royal gifts.
Henry VIII was given an elephant together with its keepers, although we don’t know who gave it to him. It might have been one of the few living things to disobey his royal wishes: “There is an elephant given to the king, but none can guide him but they that came with the present.” [Thomas Horton, Vulgaria, 1519, f.192v].
Elizabeth I received her elephant from France. It had been sent to Henri IV by sea from India but apparently when the king discovered the cost of feeding it he had it forwarded to “madame ma bonne suer” over the channel. What happened to it I have been unable to find out, so if you have any information do let me know.
James I also received a pachydermous gift, along with 5 camels, this time from the King of Spain in 1623. However it didn’t last long since its keepers were told to give it nothing but wine to drink to help ward off the cold!
All in all, I suspect that Wilfrid Blunt was right when he remarked: “Interfauna is always a less satisfactory service than Interflora.” [Blunt, The Ark in the Park, 1976, p.161]
Despite forcing his elephant to become a dipsomaniac, James rated his collection of animals very highly and had the Lion Tower extended to provide a large viewing platform for guests. This was, however, was not so that the animals could be better observed out of scientific interest, but in order to allow viewers to watch them being baited by dogs in the pit below. Exotic beasts might have been extremely rare and expensive but they were still disposable toys. James not only maintained the menagerie in the Tower of London but set up a second one in St James’ Park, which contained many varieties of exotic birds, particularly from North America, as well a beaver and, believe it or not, an American Indian.
By the mid 18thc and the establishment of British rule in India elephants had become a slightly more common sight in Britain, as had many other exotic animals. A menagerie became a ‘must-have’ feature on many landed estates the length and breadth of the country, although I have only found evidence of an elephant being kept in one of them.
A quick look at our database suggests that at least 21 sites had menageries associated with them, while Sally Festing’s research, (“Menageries and the landscape garden“, Journal of Garden History 1988, 8:4, p104-117) names 43, with a strong suspicion that many more examples have been lost without record. More about some of them in my next post.
The royal menagerie in the Tower was open to the public, with an admission fee of threepence at the beginning of the 18thc rising to a shilling by the end. There was, however,an alternative way of paying: with a dog or a cat which could be fed to the lions!
By the time George IV came to the throne the collection had dwindled down to almost nothing: a grizzly bear, assorted birds and surprisingly an elephant. George rebuilt the collection and opened another private menagerie in the Great Park at Windsor Castle which was soon full of exotic animals from the ever-growing empire, including a giraffe, wapiti, zebus, gnus, quaggas, llamas, emus, ostriches and parrots
However, his brother and successor, William IV, was not interested in the collections and both the Windsor and Tower menageries were quickly closed down after he came to throne. In 1831 the surviving 150 animals, including kangaroos, camels, bears, and llamas, but by now no elephant, were transferred to the care of the newly formed Zoological Society in Regents Park.
As The Mirror of Literature said: “The gardens, independent of their zoological attractions, are a delightful promenade, being laid out with great taste, and the parterres boasting a beautiful display of flowers. The animals, too, are seen to much greater advantage than when shut up in a menagerie, and have the luxury of fresh air, instead of unwholesome respiration in a room or caravan.”
Elephants were clearly seen as a desirable and necessary requirement for a menagerie and two were quickly acquired by the Zoological Society for Regent’s Park. They lived in what was claimed to be “luxurious accommodation” of “capacious dimensions”, but “built in a style of inappropriate rusticity”. They also had “a little park or paddock. The fence is of iron, and light but substantial. Within the area are a few lime-trees, the lower branches of which are thinned by the Elephant repeatedly twisting off their foliage with his trunk, as adroitly as a gardener would gather fruit.” But it was a large pool where “In hot weather he enjoys his ablutions …with great gusto, exhibiting the liveliest tokens of satisfaction and delight. Our artist has endeavoured to represent the noble creature in his bath, though the pencil can afford but an imperfect idea of the extasy of the animal on this occasion.” (The Mirror of Literature, 4 August 1832].
When I initially started writing this post I didn’t really expect to find much research to draw upon, and so thought it might lead to just one or two more short posts about menageries and aviaries in parks and gardens over the coming weeks and months. How wrong could I be? There is, in fact, a lively group of researchers out there – archaeologists, zoologists, cultural historians, as well as a few garden historians who have produced some really interesting work over the past few years. The best place to start if you are interested in knowing more is the Bartlett Society, named in honour of Abraham Bartlett, the great nineteenth-century superintendent of the Zoological Society of London’s gardens at Regent’s Park:
The historical research that really got me excited was a recent PhD thesis (Manchester 2010) by Christopher Plumb on exotic animals in 18thc England. It’s erudite, fascinating and rather macabre by turns, and amazingly, Dr Plumb has made it freely available on the web, although he is also turning it into a book. If you are interested in man’s evolving relationship with animals or in topics such as “The Queen’s Ass”, “Exotic animals as luxury ingredients”, or “Eroticising the eel” then I strongly urge you to take a look.
And there’s a whole chapter on elephants in Britain 1675-1830! So expect some more posts over the coming months about keeping animals in our gardens and parks.