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The lost royal ‘zoo’ at Windsor

Royal menageries became homes for the many animals that were given in previous centuries as political presents from their respective countries and thereby entered a life of exalted captivity, the nature of any zoo now being a controversial one.

The oldest baroque zoo was founded at the Austrian imperial summer residence of Schönbrunn, in 1760, just as there was a Royal Menagerie in the fabled gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles. Animals were often exchanged as diplomatic gifts to court the friendship of the monarch. These ranged from the most exotic, such as the polar bear given to Henry III by the King of Norway in 1252, to the more conventional personal presents, such as the two lap-dogs which Henry VIII gifted in 1541 to his fifth queen, Katherine Howard (this type of dog was the only one allowed at court outside of the 1526 sumptuary set of rules to reform the Royal Household, known as the Eltham Ordinances). Much less known is the fact that there was once a Royal Menagerie at Windsor, or that it was once home to the first giraffe ever to arrive in England.

The Tower of London was the location of the magnificent Royal Menagerie, which dated back to the medieval period and was properly established at the western entrance, during the reign of Edward III. Animals which were political gifts were sent to the Tower of London and formed part of this exotic royal ark, such as the three leopards sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as a present to Henry III, or the magnificent African elephant given by the King of France to Henry III in 1255. The elephant was tended to by a Keeper, called Henry of Flores, who was given the formidable title, ‘Master of the Beast’ (Impey and Parnell, The Tower of London, 33). The Lion Tower was so named because it actually contained lions in the sixteenth century and had done so since at least the 1330s.

The Menagerie was already a popular destination by the time of Elizabeth I and during her reign already contained ‘three Lionesses, one Lion of great size…a Tyger, a Lynx; a Wolf… Porqupine, and an Eagle’, according to a German visitor in 1598 (Ibid, 102). Stow’s London records the Royal Menagerie as also containing two Swedish owls, two ‘Cats of the Mountains’ and a jackal, in June 1704. There were even two lions that had been stuffed, one which had belonged to Charles II, the other to Mary II, William III’s co-regent (Ibid, 103). During the reign of George IV’s younger brother William IV, the Royal Menagerie closed at the Tower of London. The animals which were owned by the monarch were duly given to the zoo of the Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park (Ibid, 105).

Another Royal Menagerie existed, too. All but vanished today, it was located in Windsor Great Park. The park is full of hidden connections with George IV, for whom the menagerie was built. The Copper Horse is the name given to the oversize equestrian statue at the end of the Long Walk in Windsor, depicting George III as a Roman Emperor and commissioned by his son, George IV. It bears a Latin inscription, proclaiming George III as the ‘best of fathers’ when the reality had been a sad further example of the deep running tensions that existed between the Georgian kings and their heirs.

Royal Lodge, some three miles from Windsor Castle in the Great Park, was used by the Prince Regent – later George IV – as a cottage, and was the place for example, where the future Queen Victoria listened to a band playing in the conservatory, with the King. She later remembered in her vivid ‘memoir’ of 1872: ‘He was large and gouty but with a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days’ (Quoted in A. N. Wilson, Victoria, A Life, 47).

George IV took the young Princess Victoria to Virginia Water at the edge of the Great Park and showed her the Fishing Temple there, where he liked to fish (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 20). Virginia Water owed its wondrous Roman columns to George IV, who loved the place and used it as his playground, occasionally rowing on the waters and sipping cherry gin with a pet cockatoo on his shoulder.

George IV’s Royal Menagerie was at Sandpit Gate, where he kept the exotic animals given to him by sultans and kings, such as wapitis, chamois and gazelles. Most famously, there was a Nubian giraffe, which was given to the King by an Egyptian pasha, in 1827. He stood some ten and a half feet high and was eighteen months old. The giraffe was painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse in October 1827, by order of George IV. The King must have viewed the arrival of this giraffe as especially important, because he probably acquired the other picture of him by the British School, in the Royal Collection. Sadly, the Nubian giraffe never developed properly, no doubt because of the cold, English climate in bitter contrast to that of Northern Africa. When the Egyptian giraffe died in 1829, George IV arranged to have him stuffed. The Menagerie Keeper who supervised the giraffe was one Edward Cross. He was attended to by two Arabian keepers, and there were also two Egyptian cows.

George IV showed the young Princess Victoria his Menagerie personally. A charming engraving in the Royal Collection shows the King driving his horse-drawn carriage past the gate, perhaps on his way to Virginia Water.

The Menagerie was first established by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland – son of George II – who employed a servant, Thomas Sandby, to live at the Gate from around 1746 onwards. A Mr Clark was the Keeper living there by 1792 when George IV was still Prince of Wales. An oil painting by John Frederick Lewis in the Royal Collection shows Clark as an elderly man, ‘John Clark(e) with the animals at Sandpit Gate, ca. 1825’. It was painted for George IV and is a remarkable image – as the old Keeper is surrounded by animals, which include parrots, a wallaby and an ostrich, amongst the more traditional deer and horses. Three ‘liger’ cubs were bred between a lion and a tigress at Sandpit Gate, in 1824. Richard Barrett Davis was appointed George IV’s animal painter and must have had access to the Menagerie because he painted the ‘liger’ cubs in 1824. The painting was later sold through Sotheby’s in 2014.

The Royal Menagerie was maintained until 1830, the year of George IV’s death. Animals continued to haunt the site of the Menagerie, however. Cattle grazed there as well as the resident deer. Sandpit Gate seems to have been a favourite place for Queen Victoria to either ride or drive to and take tea – several watercolours that she made there survive – and she continued to like doing this until as late as around 1899.

Nothing remains of the former Royal Menagerie. Despite the contentious nature of zoos, formerly belonging to the Crown or otherwise, it represents a lost royal Noah’s Ark.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.