An African elephant arrived at Whitsand, on the coast of England, in late November 1254, a gift from the king of France, Louis IX, to Henry III of England. The elephant was said to have been acquired by Louis during a crusade to Palestine. A mandate in the Close Rolls, dated 7 January 39 Henry III (1255), orders the Sheriff of Kent “with John Gouch, to provide for bringing the King’s elephant from Whitsand to Dover, and if possible to London by water” [The New York Times, 11 June 1882].
A royal menagerie was established at the Tower of London in 1235, when Henry III received a wedding gift of three leopards from Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry was presented a bear in 1246 by the mayor of Northampton. A Norwegian polar bear joined the menagery in 1252; it was controlled by a muzzle attached to an iron chain and, when secured by a strong rope, was allowed to catch fish in the Thames.
In 1255, Henry ordered elaborate arrangements to be made for the accommodation of his elephant at the royal menagerie in the Tower of London. “We command you,” he wrote to the Sheriff of London, “that ye cause without delay, to be built at our Tower of London, one house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep, for our elephant.”
Matthew Paris (1200-1259), a Benedictine monk of St. Alban’s Abbey, said of the beast, “We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England.” He drew the animal twice; the illustration posted here shows the elephant being fed by its keeper, “Henricus de Flor.”
In 1258, about three years after it began its captivity in the Tower, the elephant died—apparently the result of being given too much red wine to drink. Additionally, the chilly climate and cramped quarters likely did nothing to ensure the creature's longevity.