“Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?” – Jon 39:3, King James Bible (1616)
Exotic animals in England in the 17th century were a staple part of society. Travelers, explorers, and representatives of the import/export industry would send and ship non-native animals to England for display, for curiosity collections among the upper classes, and for use in production of perfumes, apothecary remedies, and even ink pens or clothing accessories.
Exotic animals were used in everything from perfume and apothecary creations to harvested for their pelts and feathers to be used in clothing or accessories. While cats and dogs were common household pets, the more exotic animals like parrots and even monkeys were also imported to the newly formed United Kingdom to take up residence at the homes of the UK’s most prominent citizens who saw the possession of exotic animals as a status symbol.
From the mundane to the extraordinary, I decided to take a look at the animal life of the 17th century. Here’s a few of the most surprising animals I discovered and their place in Stuart England.
Monkeys were often kept by the elite of the 17th century, who saw ownership of these curious creatures as a symbol of their status. After all, to purchase a monkey was quite involved logistically since it was much more complicated than running out to a pet store. Therefore, to own a monkey was a way to flaunt your power and wealth as it required both to own one. It is recorded that one prominent Stuart lady, the daughter of James I, Elizabeth Stuart, owned not only monkeys but also parrots. According to the Oxford University Press, household records from Elizabeth’s childhood record “Elizabeth spent 8 shillings and 3 pence on ‘strewing herbs, and cotton to make beds for her grace’s monkeys’, ‘mending parrot’s cages’, and ‘for shearing her grace’s rough dog.’”
Elizabeth Stuart is just one example of a lady of prominence owning a parrot. Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond is immortalized in a wax effigy that features her pet parrot. Her parrot was an African Grey parrot that lived with Frances Stuart for close to 40 years. After it died, the bird was stuffed, and despite what Westminster Abbey’s blog calls “Primitive” measures to preserve the animal, the entire skeleton of the bird survives to this day, making it the oldest known stuffed bird in existence.
The earliest known image of a rhinoceros was drawn as a woodcut in 1515 in Italy. That same year, another famous and much more detailed woodcut of a rhinoceros would be drawn by Albrecht Duer who drew the animal from a description provided about a live rhino that had been given as a gift to the King of Portugal. While most of the instances of rhinoceroses are drawings and woodcuts included in naturalist texts there was one instance of a live rhinoceros in England in the year 1684.
Dated October 10, 1684, this London newspaper records an advertisement for a Rhinoceros. The animal was shipped to England from India and placed on display at a tavern where patrons could pay money to look at and to ride the “Rhynoceros.”
“Proud as a peacock” is a well known English saying that stems from the prevalence of peacocks in England. These birds, known as blue peafowl, do not have what bird experts call an “established” presence in the country, but they have remained popular in England since at least Roman times when the birds were first introduced from India by the Romans.
What made the peacock popular for Stuart England was the use of their beautiful feathers in decoration as well as their popularity as an elegant dinner dish on the tables of England’s nobility. In this 1618 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, you can see a peacock served at the table with it’s full plumage and even it’s head salvaged for decoration on the dinner table.
The peacock was frequently used as a symbol of pride. You can see this usage of the peacock’s reputation in this drawing of James II of Scotland who is depicted in caricature as an owl kneeling to the Pope, who is caricatured as a peacock.
Lions, Tigers, and…Eagles?
By 1622, Lord Protector Olive Cromwell had outlawed animal fighting, but animals were still kept in the Tower of London. There’s a record of eleven lions, two leopards, three eagles, two pumas, a tiger, and a jackal being housed there that year.
Sports in Stuart England often included pets with popular pastimes like bull and bear baiting both involving dogs, often pit bulls, being trained to attack bulls or bears in an arena for the purpose of entertaining a gathered group of spectators. Beyond spectator sports, activities like falconry involved the use of birds to capture prey and was a popular form of hunting for the monarchy.
Dogs and cats were the most common household pets, but cats were also used by the military as a weapon. Published in official military manuals, one strategy for burning down a town including strapping flammable material to the back of a cat, lighting it on fire, and setting the cat loose in the town. The cat being extremely hard to catch anyway, it’s even harder to catch once it’s on fire, so the cat would mercilessly spread fire over an entire town during this death run.
For 16-17th century London, the ostrich was known, and considered incredibly exotic, rare, and consequently, images of ostriches were used to communicate great wealth. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, Ostrich feathers were used to create the decorative panache combatants wore during a jousting match in the 16th century, and some historians report that ostrich feathers were used as quill pens during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Colored ostrich feathers were also popular in the 16th century. Read more about that here. Not native to England, ostriches were imported from Northern Africa to England for their feathers. I was unable to find any ostrich farmers in Stuart England, but the sheer volume of feathers that were in demand for clothing and ink pens would have made it practical to try and raise them on a farm, so I wouldn’t be surprised to discover a farm did exist for Stuart England.
Ostriches, along with elephants, lions, and rhinoceros were among the animals kept in the Tower of London. This menagerie of animals was considered the first zoo, and many of the inhabitants were there because explorers or even dignitaries would give the exotic animals to the King as a gift and the gifted animals had to be kept somewhere.
As an example of animals returned from exotic lands as a gift for the King, there were two polar bear cubs brought back from an expedition to the Arctic to be given as a gift to James I in the early 17th century.
We know about Poole’s polar bear cargo because Samuel Purchas writes about it in Pilgrimes (1625).
we slue 26. Seales, and espied three white Beares: wee went aboord for Shot and Powder, and comming to the Ice againe, we found a shee-Beare and two young ones: Master Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee was slayne, wee got the young ones, and brought them home into England, where they are aliue in Paris Garden.
By 1611, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn had, as Aubrey notes in today’s episode, received the royal warrant from King James to be in charge of the various bears, bulls, and mastiffs in the King’s care. Which means they were specifically in charge of the polar bear cubs which Poole had gifted the King. King James loved animal blood sports and is reported to have kept quite the zoo inside the Tower of London. As shareholders in the Fortune Theater and investors in Bear Garden, Henslowe and Alleyn bought their own zoo, and several critics have pointed out that the young bears could have performed in playhouses as well as baiting rings.
During that 1595 expedition, Barents lost two of his men to a ferocious polar bear attack. In his diary, Gerrit de Veer recounts the episode by saying the bear pursued the first man, before he “bit his head in sunder, and suckt out his blood” The rest of the crew takes off running, and the bear chases them, grabbing his second victim “which she tare in peeces” The story was written down close to 15 years later, and published in English in 1609, the same year Jonas Poole returned to England with two polar bear cubs for King James, and the same year William Shakespeare wrote A Winter’s Tale and included the not only famous, but curiously unique “exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction.
From elephants to monkeys and parrots, it seems Stuart England had more than their fair share of surprising exotic animals in the streets and homes around England.
Cassidy Cash is a Shakespeare historian and host of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare. Cassidy runs a vibrant membership community for Shakespeare enthusiasts and creates history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare history. Learn more at www.cassidycash.com