Matthew Paris and the Elephant at the Tower

The British Library medieval manuscripts blog has just posted an image and description of the famous elephant that was given a diplomatic gift by King Louis IX of France to King Henry III of England in 1255 and kept at the Tower of London. The image was drawn by the chronicler Matthew Paris who described the sensation that its arrival caused in England. As the BL blog describes, Matthew Paris went to see the elephant and produced two drawings of it, based on his observations of it. The first is found in a BL manuscript (Cotton Nero D I) and the second is found on a flyleaf at the front of MS 16 in the Parker Library, now bound separately as MS 16I.

Henry III's Elephant by Matthew Paris (CCCC MS 16, f. ivr)
Henry III’s Elephant by Matthew Paris (CCCC MS 16, f. ivr)

The two drawing are remarkably similar, though the Corpus drawing seems more polished, with its incorporation of the figure of Henry de Flor’, the animal’s keeper (magister bestie) which Matthew explicitly included to give an indication of the animal’s size. The representation of the trunk is also more realistic in the Corpus drawing, showing how the animal uses it for eating.

To learn more about the elephant before and after its arrival at the Tower of London, we have to turn to government records, or more precisely to Richard Cassidy and Michael Clasby’s investigation of them as part of the Henry III Fine Rolls project. Since Louis gave Henry the elephant in France, it was English officials who had the headache of transporting it across the Channel. The rolls show that the sheriff of Kent claimed £6 17s. 5d. for the transportation of the elephant. More than £22 was spent by the sheriff of London on constructing the special accommodation for the elephant at the Tower and the bill for the upkeep of the animal and its keeper for the nine months from December 1255 to September 1256 came to £24 14s. 3½d., a considerable sum of money when a knight could live on £15 a year.

More intriguing are the records that show what happened to the elephant after its death in 1257. It was buried in the bailey of the Tower but in 1258 a request was made to dig up its bones and give them to the sacristan of Westminster Abbey ‘for doing with them what the king had instructed him’. Cassidy and Clasby can find no trace in the administrative records of what this might be but speculate that the king wanted the relics of such a fantastical and mythical beast to be treated with particular respect. Although the skull of a lion from the royal menagerie has been excavated at the Tower, perhaps we should be looking in Poets’ Corner for the remains of Matthew Paris’ elephant?

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