The Tower Elephant

The first known elephant in England arrived in 1255. It was made a gift to Henry III by Louis IX of France, who himself had received it from his former captor, the Sultan of Egypt. Chronicler Matthew Paris drew a picture of it, noting that it was 10 years old and 10 feet tall. It was housed at the Tower of London in a pen built to measure 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. The elephant upstaged the former famous occupant of the Tower, a polar bear given to Henry by the King of Norway. A special rope was made to allow the bear to swim and fish in the Thames. What happened to the bear is unknown. The same goes with the herd of buffalo sent to Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall. Matthew reports their arrival in 1252, describing their horns and fondness for water, but they disappear after that.
In 1241, Richard was welcomed in the Italian city of Cremona by a band playing on top of an elephant. Matthew drew a picture of it based on Richard’s account, but that animal reflected the images Matthew saw in bestiaries. Now he joined enormous crowds to see the elephant in the Tower, which sadly survived only two years, dying on Valentine’s Day in 1257.
Eighteen months later, Henry had its bones moved from the Tower yard to Westminster Abbey. As he was then reconstructing the abbey to become a royal mausoleum, he felt the elephant, which was marveled for its gentleness and fidelity, deserved its own resting place within the walls. Like all relics in the abbey, the bones disappeared during the Tudor era.

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