Matthew Paris and Henry III’s elephant
By Richard Cassidy and Michael Clasby
Published Online – Henry III Fine Rolls Project website (2012)
Introduction: Matthew Paris’s drawings of Henry III’s elephant are well-known, and popular accounts of the Tower of London often mention the elephant’s brief residence there. These accounts mostly derive from Paris, and from references in the Liberate and Close rolls which were noted long ago by Thomas Madox and Frederic Madden. There are also some further references to the elephant in the Exchequer records which add a little detail to its short, unhappy story.
Matthew himself made three references to elephants in his Great Chronicle. The first entry in 1229 records an alliance between Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Sultan of Babylon, which was sealed by an exchange of gifts, one of which was an elephant which the Sultan gave to Frederick. This entry was not in Roger of Wendover’s Chronicle, which Matthew used as a source for this period. The fact that he chose to add the information indicates the significance he, and his contemporaries, gave to this event.
The second reference occurs in 1241. Richard, earl of Cornwall, passed through Italy on his way home from the Holy Land. Richard was Henry III’s brother and the Emperor’s brother-in-law, and had reinforced the Emperor’s achievements in the Holy Land during his own crusade. As a result he was given safe conduct by the Emperor, and fêted by the towns through which he passed. At Cremona in northern Italy the people came out to greet him led by an elephant. Matthew includes a drawing of an elephant in the margin of his manuscript. This drawing, however, differs from the drawing Matthew made of Henry’s elephant later in his Chronicle. The elephant at Cremona is shown as a standard depiction of an ‘elephant and castle’ in the style of the medieval bestiary illustrations, whereas Matthew claims that he drew his version of Henry’s elephant from life. Matthew would probably have known of a bestiary from the St Albans Abbey book collection.
Matthew’s third reference to an elephant is in his chronicle for 1255:
Of an elephant in England. About this same time, too, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of England. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries on this side the Alps; wherefore the people flocked together to see the novel sight.