Royal Menageries: How an Elephant Wound Up in Charlemagne’s Court

From ancient Rome to Charlemagne’s court to the Tower of London and beyond, roaring lions and trumpeting elephants have been traveling across Europe for thousands of years.

Jun 14, 2023By Marianne Plasse, BA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art History
how elephants wound up in charlemagnes court
Royal Menagerie, Exeter ‘Change, Strand, 1816, via British Library


Humans have been domesticating animals for over ten thousand years. Sheep, pigs, cattle, dogs, and other species, have shared millennia of history alongside us. Animals have not only been a source of food and companionship throughout these many centuries; they have also become a source of curiosity and enjoyment. This article will expand upon the history of animal collections and menageries, from the ancient Roman spectacle of man against lions in the Colosseum to the delight of modern zoos, with a particular look at the imperial and royal interest in menageries throughout European medieval history, from the court of Charlemagne to the Tower of London.


Animal Husbandry, Ancient Zoos, & Gladiator Fights: Paving the Way for Royal Menageries

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Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Plowing farmer, circa 1200 BCE, via World History Encyclopedia


Animals have fascinated humankind for thousands of years, and this fascination has rapidly led to a thirst for entertainment. Domestication began in “ancient Middle Eastern and Asian society” with the keeping and breeding of “sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses” to serve as food sources, as tools of labor in the fields, and as raw materials in their daily lives.


Yet, ancient societies soon used animals not only for utilitarian purposes but also for entertainment. These were the first animal collections around the world. One aspect that differentiated these animal collections from modern zoos was, historically, that they were not open to the public. Indeed, collecting rare beasts was a show of kingly or imperial power. Animal collections contained antelopes in Sakkarah, Egypt, while “Roman emperors kept lions, tigers, crocodiles, elephants, and other impressive animals.”


From China to Egypt to Greece to Rome, animal collections were a tool to display the ruler’s sheer power throughout the ancient world. Beyond Antiquity, this representation of power through animal collections continued for thousands of years: the Emperor of China Kublai Khan’s menagerie included animals such as tigers and elephants, and the Aztec Emperor Montezuma’s enormous aviary employed three hundred people.


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But animals and entertainment did not only go hand in hand in the ancient world when representing the power of kings and emperors. They also entertained the masses during hunts (named venationes) and gladiator fights. In ancient Rome, some animals were paraded, others were trained for tricks, and many more, from elephants to hyenas to zebras and lions, were trained to fight in the arena. The extensive trade of these animals, which came from India or Africa to be slaughtered in ancient Rome, sustained these activities.


The Peculiar Medieval Interest in Animals, Real and Imaginary

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The Unicorn Defends Himself (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495-1505, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Roman Empire fell in 476 BCE, and with it came the end of the Colosseum’s glory days of gladiator fights. The Middle Ages began and would last in Europe for over a thousand years. There are many common misconceptions about these times. History has labeled them “the Dark Ages,” and these hundreds of years of history are seen as a period of profound regression, especially in terms of culture and science.


Of course, there was a scientific decline at the time. Yet, in terms of animal keeping, we can see a clear continuity between ancient times and the medieval era. Animal domestication was still in full swing, and curiosity about animals still existed, especially in royal courts. One way to see this interest in animals is through illuminated manuscripts and medieval bestiaries.


Tales and legends of real animals (like cats and hedgehogs) and fantastical creatures (like griffins and unicorns) were collected and illustrated in manuscripts and on stained glass windows in cathedrals. In turn, these illustrations gave people a better understanding of the world around them. Some of these creatures were also associated with Christian allegories. If a virgin were to sit in a forest, a unicorn would come to her, associating the woman with the Virgin Mary.


Charlemagne & Harun al-Rashid: A Common Thirst for Knowledge

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The tribute the Caliph Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne by Jacob Jordaens, 1663, via Wikiart


As mentioned before, Kings were the first to keep animal collections in their courts, and this tradition continued during the Middle Ages. Such a ruler was Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, who was the son of King Pepin the Short and took up the throne after his father’s death in 768. Charlemagne, in turn, became King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, and Holy Roman Emperor until he died in 814. He was the sole ruler after his co-reign with his brother Carloman the 1st ended. He expanded his kingdom into an empire, revitalized Christian traditions, and reigned over a relatively peaceful territory until his death.


Charlemagne’s contemporary was a man named Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad, who ruled over Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate from 786 CE until he died in 809. Well-respected and regarded as a “wise and just ruler,” Harun al-Rashid was a patron of the arts, music, and poetry throughout his life. During his reign, Baghdad flourished in terms of architecture, where Harun al-Rashid built the most beautiful palace of his time in the city, and his reign was one of peace and stability.


These rulers had one thing in common: their thirst for knowledge. They both pushed for education. Charlemagne insisted on improving literacy among his subjects as well as their learning of Latin. Meanwhile, Harun al-Rashid’s patronage of the arts and literature followed his desire to establish his House of Wisdom. This House, where books from far and wide were compiled and translated into Arabic, was an institution that could be compared with the Library of Alexandria. Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid were curious about the world around them hundreds of years before the Renaissance.


Charlemagne’s Royal Menagerie: Abul-Abbas in Carolingian France

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Elephant and Castle (Fresco in San Baudelio de Berlanga, Spain), circa 12th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Diplomatic relations were in full swing during the Middle Ages. Emperor Charlemagne himself maintained good ties with Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad, whose court traded with China and whose influence stretched from India to Muslim Spain. These good diplomatic relations between these two rulers would culminate around 798 when Harun al-Rashid sent an incredible gift to the court of Charlemagne: a white elephant named Abul-Abbas.


Abul-Abbas crossed the Mediterranean Sea and arrived in Europe in the northern Italian city of Portovenere. The last stretch of its journey saw the elephant passing the Alps in spring to arrive the following year in Aachen, where Charlemagne had established his court. The caliph sent other gifts along with Abul-Abbas, such as a mechanical clock that counted the hours using a mechanical bird. Abul-Abbas’ handler, a man named Isaac, accompanied the animal as Emperor Charlemagne exhibited it in many locations across his empire until Charlemagne finally housed it in the southern region of Bavaria.


Unfortunately, the poor animal saw its tragic end on the battlefield when Charlemagne sent it to fight the army of the Danish king Godfred. Still, the mere presence of Abul-Abbas at the court of Charlemagne is an incredible illustration of the diplomatic relations between the two rulers, where royal menageries were a show of strength and power.


King John & the Tower of London’s Menagerie

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Illustration of the Tower of London castle, circa 15th century, via World History Encyclopedia


Across the Channel from Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire stood the City of London in what would eventually become England in 927. William the Conqueror’s arrival circa 1077 marked the construction of one of London’s most famous landmarks, the Tower of London. Over the last thousand years, the location, colloquially known to the English people as “the Tower,” “has served as a fortress, palace, prison, treasury, arsenal, and zoo.”


Yes, a zoo. Under King John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216 CE, the Tower of London housed lions and bears. This Royal Menagerie would only grow over the years. Indeed, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gifted Henry III three leopards (which might have been lions), the English king had the idea to transform the Tower into a much bigger zoo. The king of Norway gifted him a polar bear, and the king of France sent him an African elephant. The rulers and their handlers kept these animals in cramped conditions where many did not survive.


Over the next few hundred years, the menagerie at the Tower of London grew even more until it contained eagles, pumas, and jackals. Interest in the Royal Menagerie declined at the beginning of the 19th century. A showman named Alfred Cops revitalized this fascination for animals by bringing three hundred more animals to the Tower. Yet, its menagerie was eventually closed when animal rights were brought into question by the RSPCA, founded in 1824.


The Renaissance: the Birth of Zoology as a Field of Study

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The Grinning Tiger, circa 16th century, via The Guardian


Royal Menageries might have begun as a product of the ancient past, but they did flourish during the Middle Ages.


The medieval era ended, brought upon by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and by a renewed thirst for scientific study, and the Renaissance began. Charlemagne was not the only Holy Roman Emperor with a particular interest in animals that came to his court from far and wide.


The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II followed in the footsteps of Charlemagne and King John in England. Not unlike Harun al-Rashid, he was a patron of the arts, had ambitious tastes in architecture, and was an art collector. Emperor Maximilian II had established the menagerie, and Emperor Rudolf II maintained it. Among the animals in the menagerie were “lions, leopards, eagles, and many species of birds” (See Further Reading, Ivana Horacek, p. 128-129), as well as possibly an antelope and a dodo bird, which were depicted by artists of the day.


In France, Louis XIV installed his Royal Menagerie near the Grand Canal at Versailles. Cats and dogs cohabited with coatis and black-crowned cranes. At least three hundred animals lived in the Sun King’s chateau, as depicted in Nicasius Bernaerts’ paintings, and were an inspiration for artists like Claude Perrault and helped in naturalism studies at the Royal Academy of Sciences. The animals in the Sun King’s Royal Menagerie also served a political purpose, as they became symbols inspired by the ancient world and the medieval ages, used in the palace’s décor.


The Legacy of Royal Menageries: from 19th-Century Traveling Circuses to Modern Zoos

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Girl In White Sleeveless Top And Skirt Near Aquarium, 2017, via Pexels


As the Renaissance gave way to the modern era, Europeans transported their interest in animal collections to colonial America. The 19th century soon arrived with its technological advancements in the transportation industry – such as the train – and American expansionism spanned the country from coast to coast, following the imperialist ideology of the Monroe Doctrine. In these changing times, travel was improved now more than ever. More and more Traveling Menageries moved across the country to entertain the masses.


This paved the way for the modern circus. As horse shows delighted audiences during the 18th century, the circus soon added more animals to its roster. Many circuses bought traveling menageries. Gradually, they merged together. Now, elephants could do tricks and carry performers, as lions jumped through hoops. Unfortunately, animal rights activists have accused circus shows of animal abuse, as the owners kept animals in boxes and crates while not performing in shows.


Across the pond in Europe, the Tower of London menagerie was emptied in 1835. Handlers took the animals to the Zoological Society’s Gardens in Regent’s Park. They joined the rattlesnakes, giraffes, and elephants that were already there. Thus, the first modern zoo was born in 1829. Some believe zoos are unethical today, as animals arrive there to be bred in captivity. Yet, zoos such as the London Zoo are also seen as a cornerstone for the conservation of endangered species.


Of Royal Menageries: Prestige, Entertainment, & Animal Rights

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The Menagerie, entrance view by Adam Perelle, via France Today


Animal collections have been a constant throughout history. Whereas many think that the Middle Ages were a step back in culture and curiosity, menageries show that the medieval era was, in fact, in continuity with ancient times. These menageries also set up the future of animal keeping in circuses and zoos. While many ethical issues have been associated with these entertainment institutions, especially with circuses, indeed, animals have always fascinated the human mind for thousands of years.


Further Reading:


Horacek, I (2015). Alchemy of the gift: things and material transformations at the court of Rudolf II, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Accessible online here

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By Marianne PlasseBA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art HistoryMarianne completed her bachelor's degree in History as well as an undergraduate certificate in Art History at the University of Montreal along with an undergraduate certificate in Proofreading at Laval University. Her areas of interest are the Mediterranean world during ancient times, European History from the fifteenth through to the twentieth centuries, and North American History from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. I have a soft spot for Greek mythology, Impressionist painting, Charlie Chaplin comedies, and comic book movies.