Animals given to royalty could, of course, become pets – but they could often be presented in the form of political gifts, adding therefore to the monarch’s personal sense of majestas. An example of this is the bay horse and three brood mares, sent to Henry VIII by Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua in 1514. The personal prestige of the monarch was also flattered by the exotic nature of some of these animals, which served to underline the shared network of political power and diplomatic relations and also confirm the monarch’s own status.
Sometimes these animals formed a bid for royal favour in courtly terms, such as the horse sent to Henry VIII by the Duke of Termoli. The real expectation was not really an animal in return – although Henry VIII, delighted with the Mantuan horses, did oblige likewise – but instead, the friendship of the monarch, considered to be a worthy exchange. Whilst Henry VIII, for example, was presented with hawks by contemporary European rulers, such as the King of France, there was a clear line between the animals which were involved in traditional royal pursuits and blood sports, such the packs of hunting dogs and of course, the King’s horses – and the animals which were personal or political gifts. Some of these animals formed the beginnings of royal menageries, and whilst the aim of the present study is not to condone or explore the ethical considerations of this – the RSPCA was founded in 1824 – it hopes to explore the historical context of how these animals came to be in royal ownership.
For there was a definite distinction between such departments of the Tudor Royal Household as the ‘Kennels’ and the ‘Stables’ involved in royal sports and pastimes, and the domestic sphere of pets, as for example, when Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard gave “two lap dogs” to her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, for New Year 1540 – originally from a besotted Henry VIII to his teenage bride. Henry VIII’s most beloved personal pets also included his greyhounds, however, at a time when greyhounds also formed a part of his royal packs of hunting dogs. He adored his pet spaniels and loved his beagles, although he also kept ferrets. Outside of the obvious traditional choice of dogs and to a much lesser extent, cats, I have tried to focus on other animals that can claim a royal connection, in this brief look.
There had been a Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London since the medieval period; a proper space for it was designated at the western entrance to the Tower, since at least the reign of Edward III. The Menagerie was the residence of the most exotic of royal gifts; in 1235, Henry III was given three leopards by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. In 1252, Henry III was given a bear – presumably a polar bear – by the King of Norway, Haakon IV. Louis IX of France made the gift of a magnificent African elephant in 1255. A lion and a lynx were added in the reign of Edward I; a large brown bear was apparently given to Henry VIII by Emperor Maximilian.
The Lion’s Tower (later demolished) actually contained lions in the sixteenth century. It was already attracting curious Londoners by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, because a visitor in 1598 noted that it included: “three Lionesses, one Lion… a Tyger, a Lynx; a Wolf… Porqupine, and an Eagle…” (Edward Impey and Geoffrey Parnell, The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History, Pg 102). The Menagerie continued to be popular in the early nineteenth century, as Regency engravings by Thomas Rowlandson demonstrate. The concern, however, for animal welfare led to the Royal Menagerie’s eventual closure – as well the expense involved. The remaining animals went to form the nucleus of what later became the London Zoo in Regent’s Park. The artist Kendra Haste created wire sculptures of some of the animals from the Royal Menagerie for Historic Royal Palaces in 2010. This was not the only Royal Menagerie, however. King George IV kept some of the animals given to him as gifts by various “pashas and sultans” in his own zoo at Sandpit Gate within Windsor Park.
Caged birds were permitted at Hampton Court Palace; these included “nightingales and canaries” which hung in the palace windows (Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, Pg 31). In later British history, the Princess of Wales – the future Queen Alexandra – would keep caged birds in her Dressing Room at Sandringham. She also owned a pet cockatoo called Cocky; perhaps the one held in the Saloon at Marlborough House. Edward VII also kept songbirds at Marlborough House and later at Buckingham Palace. George IV, whose taste for the magnificent influenced everything from his residences down to his clothing, drank cherry gin when in his barge at Virginia Water, with a cockatoo on his shoulder.
The Eltham Ordinances of 1526 forbade any dogs at court except for “lap-dogs”, such as those given by Henry VIII to Queen Katherine Howard. Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, had a pet monkey (Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, Pg 31); Henry VIII was also offered “two monkeys” in 1539. There were monkeys at the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London in the eighteenth century. The royal love of monkeys continued to find an echo at continental courts over three centuries later. At least one monkey was kept at the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XV; it belonged to the Princesse de Chimay and following the rigid Versailles etiquette in place as to rank and rouge, copied its mistress and put on her rouge and powder, surely a sight that would have shocked whoever encountered it. Madame Du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, also favoured white monkeys (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette, Pg 121).
Marie Antoinette would not have been shocked by the number of animals at Versailles; she, of course, created her own private domain ‘en plein air’ at her hameau, the Petit Trianon. In keeping her own pets at Versailles, she was very much keeping up the tradition long established here, dating back to the reign of Louis XIV, with his beloved ‘sporting dogs’ – who had their own special room in the Palace, the Cabinet des Chiens – and of course, the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. This menagerie contained an elephant during the reign of Louis XVI; we know this because Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II visited Versailles in 1777 and joked of the fact that there was a female elephant in the Austrian imperial menagerie – so, perhaps, the occasion for yet another alliance between the two reigning families: “We could make a marriage” (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette, Pg 183). The Austrian imperial menagerie was, of course, the ‘Schönbrunn Zoo’, at the magnificent summer residence of the Habsburgs outside Vienna. Today, it is the oldest baroque zoo still in operation.
Parrots seem to have been a particularly favoured choice for royalty. A portrait believed to portray Marguerite de Valois, later Queen of Navarre but better known to history as Marguerite d’Angouleme, was painted by the French court painter Jean Clouet, showing his sitter with a parrot perched on her shoulder, kept today at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Somewhat charmingly, it has been suggested that this might be an allusion to the fact that Marguerite may have talked a great deal; equally, the parrot’s shade of green could denote passion in its subject’s character and therefore stand for love, in symbolic terms. Madame Du Barry also had her own parakeet at Louis XV’s Versailles. On English soil, Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen, owned parrots as pets, alongside her beloved greyhounds, feeding the latter with milk.
Queen Victoria had her own “scarlet, blue, brown, yellow & purple” parrot, named ‘Lory’, which was presented to her by her uncle, Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in May 1836. ‘Lory’ appears to have been an especially beloved pet of the young Queen, because he features twice in paintings by Sir Edwin Landseer, once in a group painting now at Clarence House, ‘Her Majesty’s Favourite Pets’ (1838) with the Queen’s dogs, Hector the Scottish deerhound, Nero the greyhound and her beloved spaniel Dash; and in a particular sign of royal favour, on his own in the painting ‘The Lory’ (1837-38) as a present to her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, also had a pet grey parrot. We know this because Princess Victoria compared it with ‘Lory’ in her journal. Queen Victoria later also is thought to have owned an African grey parrot, named Coco. Amongst the hundreds of dogs owned by her family, Queen Victoria was also presented with a pair of Tibetan goats – a gift from the Persian Shah, on the occasion of her accession.
Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice had a pet lamb named ‘Milly’, who was among Alice’s gifts for her fifth birthday. ‘Milly’ was a present from the Corporation of Newport, Isle of Wight: “a live lamb all decked out with ribbons…. We had it tamed for her by Toward’s daughter. It is a sweet, gentle little thing and enchanted Alice and all the children” (Michael Turner, Osborne House, Pg 36). ‘Milly’ was painted at Barton Farm by the animal painter Thomas Sidney Cooper, who then gave the result to the young Princess Alice. Lady Lyttleton, who supervised the royal children, recalled her own impression: “Princess Alice’s pet lamb is the cause of many tears. He will not take his mistress, but runs away… though she… said to him in her sweetest tones, after kissing his nose often, ‘Milly, dear Milly! Do you like me?” (Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland: Biographical Sketch and Letters, Pg 4).
In time, Princess Alice’s own children would create something of a ‘menagerie’ of their own in miniature at Darmstadt, including two ponies from Queen Victoria, a baby wild boar, a baby roe, a pet hare named ‘Tommy’, goats, Turkish ducks, (Christopher Warwick, Ella, Princess, Saint & Martyr, Pg 40) guinea pigs, white rabbits and a pet fox, which ‘smelt abominably’. There was also a pet lamb belonging to Princess Elisabeth “Ella”, also called ‘Milly’, a pleasing echo to Princess Alice’s British childhood.
Parrots were even sculpted – presumably from life – by Faberge. Edward VII had himself been the subject of a sketch by Queen Victoria, when still a young Prince of Wales in 1843, with a green parrot, though presumably not ‘Lory’ because he was not described as ‘Lory’ by the Queen, who would almost certainly have identified him as such. Queen Alexandra greatly liked parrots.
British royalty’s most celebrated parrot, was undoubtedly ‘Charlotte’, the pet parrot of George V. This parrot had been gifted to the King in 1916 and was especially popular. Evidence of a birdcage can be seen in photographs of George V’s Sitting Room at Buckingham Palace -although ‘Charlotte’ is not inside it- and this could point to the fact that songbirds were at Buckingham Palace during the reign of his father, Edward VII. Instead, ‘Charlotte’ features in a photograph of the future Queen Elizabeth II, together with her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary and Alexander, Earl of Athlone, in 1928.
Parrots also followed the young Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria, history’s legendary Empress Elisabeth of Austria, to Vienna. Elisabeth adored her pet parrots, which she brought with her from her beloved Bavarian home of Schloss Possenhofen on Lake Starnberg; perhaps with unnecessary task mastery, her mother-in-law, the formidable Archduchess Sophie, recommended Emperor Franz Joseph to take them away from her, as if the young Empress stared at the parrots too much whilst she was pregnant, her unborn baby might be apt to resemble them. This was especially humiliating for the homesick young Empress, who loved the animals she had brought with her from Possenhofen. Her brother, Prince Karl Theodor was called ‘Gackel’ (Rooster) and her sister Princess Mathilde ‘Spatz’ (Sparrow) in the family, which on at least one occasion caused a confusion of etiquette, when a servant arrived to greet them at the railroad station, carrying two bird cages (Brigitte Hamann, Elisabeth, The Reluctant Empress, Pg 60).
Looking at royal pets allows us a rare and privileged glimpse into the private world of royalty because it seems, it is sometimes animals which can render what is essentially a public life, more personal. The enduring British love of animals might also encourage us to explore how these animals made the palatial buildings in which they were housed in homes, as did their royal owners.