Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Tower of London: of Elephants and Wine

“We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England.”
Matthew Paris
Look closely - can you see the sculpture is made from chicken wire?
This blog post was inspired by the wonderful elephant sculpture on display at the Tower of London. I wanted to find out about elephant keeping at the Tower, which it transpires was well-intentioned but misinformed. Read on…

A Jumbo-sized Gift

The first elephant at the Tower was a gift from King Louis IX to King Henry III. The animal was a trophy from the crusades in Palestine, but it's quite possible the present was a major headache for Henry. A mandate records, 7 January 1239, orders for the Sheriff of Kent to arrange transport (presumably at his own expense) for the beast.

"…to provide bringing the King's elephant from Whistsand to Dover, and if possible to London by water."
Henry III's tomb

Housing the Beast

Henry's menagerie at the Tower was started in 1235 with the gift of three leopards as a wedding present from Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor. One can only imagine what an awe-inspiring sight his collection must have been, but it seems Henry didn't expect to shoulder the cost himself, but deferred this to the Sheriff of London.

“We command you,” Henry wrote to the Sheriff of London, “that ye cause without delay, to be built at our Tower of London, one house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep, for our elephant.”

Interestingly, the wooden elephant house at 20 by 40 foot was roughly the same dimensions as the recently decommissioned elephant house at London Zoo - only the later housed three, rather than one, elephant!
Whilst the kudos of the animals was appreciated by royalty, the expense was not. When James I was gifted an elephant in 1623, from Spain, someone pithily records:

'the Lord Treasurer will be little in love with presents which cost the King as much to maintain as a garrison'

Ancient and modern: The Tower with the Shard in the background
Author's own photograph.
A Great Draw

In the 13th century few people had ever seen an elephant. Drawings of them were created from descriptions, rather than life, and so ended up looking like horses with long noses. When the elephant arrived at the Tower, such was the draw, that the monk and historian, Matthew Paris, travelled specifically from the abbey at St Albans to study and drawn the animal.

Matthew's drawing is one of the first naturalistic pictures of an elephant. He depicted it with the keeper, Henricus de Flor, in order to show the scale, and described it has having:
"Small eyes on top of his head, and eats and drinks with a trunk."

One of the first naturalistic pictures of an elephant -
By Matthew Paris of Henry III's elephant and his keeper.
 Keeping Out the Cold

Sadly, for many centuries no one bothered to find out what care the elephants needed to stay healthy. This was typified by James I's elephant, which came with instructions to give it only wine to drink in the winter months, to 'keep out the cold'. The poor animal drank over a gallon of red wine a day, without anyone stopping to query how an elephant would acquire wine in the wild. This elephant didn't live long, but worse still, no lessons were learnt and for another couple of centuries the myth remained and Tower elephants were given wine to drink.

And finally

When Henry III's original elephant died, its grave was near the chapel on Tower Green, close to where Anne Boleyn was later to be buried. However, the bones were later dug up and it is said that 13th century bone and ivory caskets that house reliquaries, (kept at the Victoria and Albert museum) are made from the remains of that elephant.

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