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All creatures of our God and kings

06 April 2018

Pat Ashworth looks at the implications of some unlikely gifts, beyond the challenge of wrapping

Art Collection 4/Alamy

Durer’s woodcut of Ganda, the rhinoceros gifted to, and from, the King of Portugal (1515)

Durer’s woodcut of Ganda, the rhinoceros gifted to, and from, the King of Portugal (1515)

WHEN President Trump visited Pope Francis at the Vatican last year, his gift to the Pope was a large, gold-embossed boxed set of the writings of Martin Luther King.

The Pope could be considered fortunate. One of his predecessors, Leo X, was famously given a rhinoceros by King Manuel I of Portugal, in 1515. However, the poor creature, named Ganda, drowned on the voyage to the Vatican. It had been shackled to the ship, and was unable to escape when the vessel was wrecked in a storm off the northern coast of Italy.

The Portuguese king used his exotic animals as accessories, to show how powerful a sovereign he was. He liked to ride in cavalcade with the rhino at its head; but he became bored with the animal, which had been first given to him by Sultan Muzaffar Shah II of Cambay.

Professor Giorgo Riello, of the University of Warwick, and co-editor of a new book from Cambridge University Press, Global Gifts: The material culture of diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia, has researched the story of Ganda, immortalised in a print by Albrecht Dürer which became one of the most famous and influential animal images in history.

Religious leaders have long been associated with animals. There are many paradoxes here, since, for most of history, Christians largely ignored animal suffering of the kind endured by Ganda, and regarded animals without much compassion. St Augustine concluded that they existed entirely for the benefit of humanity; and St Thomas Aquinas’s hierarchical view of the universe put humanity above animals, who therefore existed to serve humankind.

The zoologist Caroline Grigson observes in her 2016 history of exotic animals in England, Menagerie, that, until well into the 19th century, new or spectacular animals were designated in published books and advertisements as examples of the Wonders of Creation.

Medieval psalters, such as the Queen Mary Psalter, featured bestiary sequences in their illustrations. The title page of the booklet describing Stephen Polito’s Collection of Living Beasts and Birds, in 1803, quotes Psalm 104: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.” Even the Prospectus for the nascent Zoological Society, Grigson observes, in 1825, defined zoology as a “branch of Natural Theology, teaching . . . the wisdom and power of the Creator”.

Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/AlamyThe elephant sent by St Louis to Henry III in 1255, depicted in Matthew Paris’s Historia Major  

ANIMALS arrived in crate-loads from France at the Tower of London’s Royal Menagerie, set up in 1204. Henry I procured lions, leopards, camels, and lynxes — which he took with him when he toured — as a sign of his royal status. In 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, sent Henry III three leopards.

Monkeys were imported as early as the 13th century. In 1284, the Abbess of Romsey Abbey was reprimanded by the Archbishop for keeping “monkeys, or a number of small dogs in her own chamber”, and for diverting the best food from the nuns to the animals.

The story of Henry III’s elephant demonstrates more of the paradoxes to be found in church actions and attitudes. The British Library holds an image drawn by the St Albans chronicler, Matthew Paris, of the famous elephant: a diplomatic gift from King Louis IX of France that caused a sensation when it arrived in England in 1255. Special accommodation, 40 feet by 20 feet, had to be provided at the Tower, and the upkeep of the animal and its keeper proved highly expensive.

When the elephant died, in 1257, it was buried in the bailey at the Tower. But, according to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1258 a request was made for the bones to be dug up and given to the sacristan at Westminster Abbey, “for doing with them what the King had instructed him”. The Library has suggested that, since the skull of a lion has been excavated at the Tower, “perhaps we should be looking in Poets’ Corner for the remains of Matthew Paris’s elephant?”

ST THOMAS MORE’s story demonstrates how prickly the subject of exotic animals could become. More kept a menagerie at his house, the Old Barge, close by St Paul’s Cathedral. When the family moved to Chelsea, he acquired several monkeys, of whom he was said to be inordinately fond.

“One of his amusements is in observing the forms, characters, and instincts of different animals,” his friend Erasmus wrote in 1517. “Accordingly, there is scarcely any kind of bird that he does not keep about his residence, and the same of other animals not quite so common, as monkeys, ferrets, weasels and the like.”

In Britain, in 2006, there was much interest when a Holbein exhibition at the Tate included a pen-and-ink drawing of Sir Thomas and his family, given to Erasmus as a present in 1526 and later expanded into a large, eight-foot by 13-foot painting. The drawing showed a small spaniel nestling at More’s feet, and a small, brown monkey sitting by Dame Alice in the bottom right-hand corner. The monkey is holding the end of a chain, that hangs loosely from its collar.

When, in 1935, More was canonised, Eric Gill was commissioned to carve an image of the saint for Westminster Cathedral. He included the monkey, depicted clinging to More’s robe. After Gill died in 1940, with the completed carving still in his studio, Cardinal Griffin ordered that the monkey be removed before the figure was put in place on the altar of the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in the cathedral, and this was done.

“Presumably the monkey had been considered improper or unsuitably frivolous for a saint and erased,” Professor Grigson suggests. “Others might regard its erasure as an act of humourless vandalism.”

 Archbishop Runcie with one of his prize pigs at the Royal Agricultural Show, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, July 1987

SOME saints, by contrast, are lauded for their kinship with animals. St Hugh of Lincoln’s pet swan — which is said to have fed from crumbs on his sleeve at mealtimes, and greeted him whenever he returned from travelling — is immortalised, with the saint, in a Burlison and Grylls stained-glass window in St Chrysostom’s, Manchester.

The same church records that St Godric of Finchale had a pet cow, and St Kentigern (Mungo) a pet wolf. It notes cheerfully that, in more recent times, “those visiting Bishop Alec Graham at Newcastle were sometimes warned that he may sit on the floor while his pet Labrador occupies the episcopal seat.”

Then there are Archbishop Robert Runcie’s pigs: a herd of 60 Berkshire hogs that was as much a commercial venture as a hobby, and in which he found an oasis of tranquillity at times of stress. The press, on his appointment to Canterbury, delighted in coupling this pursuit with the new Archbishop’s war service, proclaiming him the “pig-keeping war hero”.

On a visit to the United States, in 1981, he toured the 400-acre Brenton Brothers pig farm in Iowa, which, according to The New York Times, he described as “magnificent”.

The paper reported: “‘I’ve not seen porkers in such good condition as that in a long time,’ [Dr Runcie said] gazing at the Brenton hogs.

“‘I love my pigs,’ the Archbishop said, ‘but I don’t mind eating them.’” (One of his boars, affectionately nicknamed “Cogs” in honour of his archiepiscopal predecessor, ended up as Sunday roast after what was described as his “failure to fornicate up to expectation”.)

On the Iowan visit, Dr Runcie was given a piglet, but, by the time the Customs formalities surrounding swine health regulations at O’Hare Airport had been cleared — three months later — the 40lb animal was weighing in at 100lb.

On 24 July that year, The Guardian reported that there “seemed about as much chance of the archbishop’s porker evading the regulations as of passing through the eye of a needle”. The pig underwent blood tests “to demonstrate its bounding vigour”, and the office of Senator Roger Jepsen declared: “Once we get the import certificate, we’re going to have a little bon voyage party in Des Moines, and then we’re going to shift him and put him on a flight for Britain.” The paper’s headline was, “Archbishop’s Gift Pig May Fly.”

DR RUNCIE’s pigs resided on a farm near St Albans rather than at Lambeth Palace, unlike the tortoise that Archbishop Laud introduced to the household in 1633. It had come with him from Fulham Palace, his residence as Bishop of London, and survived the catastrophe of that house move, as recorded in his diary: “My coach, horses, and men sank to the bottom of the Thames in the ferry-boat, which was overladen,” he wrote, “but praise God for it, I lost neither man nor horse.”

A supporter of Charles I, Laud found himself on the wrong side of history in the Civil War: accused of treason, he was sent to the Tower, and subsequently beheaded in 1645. The tortoise, as Professor Grigson records, “lived on through the Civil War, the interregnum, the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Queen Anne, and George I, quietly munching cabbages in the vast garden of the Palace”.

There are conflicting accounts of what became of the tortoise, whose shell is preserved in Lambeth Palace to this day, and displayed in the Guard Room. One story comes from Arthur Benson, a son of Archbishop Edward White Benson, who, in 1887, wrote that he had come across “a tortoise-shell at the back of the shelf” while he had been “turning over some dusty relics — old parchment deeds, faded, stiff church-vestments, seals and crosses, that repose in an oak press in the Muniment room”.

Pasted on to the shell, Benson said, was a faded note “in antique brown characters”, declaring it to be “The Shell of a Tortoise, which was put into the Garden at Lambeth, where it remained until 1753, when it was unfortunately (or mortally) killed by the overflowing of the river.”

Professor Grigson offers another account of how the creature died, which was “in consequence of the carelessness of a labourer in the garden, who, for a trifling wager, dug it up from its winter retreat and neglected to replace it”.

It was eventually replaced by Archbishop Thomas Herring, who had been appointed in 1747. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor and the Earl of Hardwicke: “I have put a tortoise in my garden here. . . I have no foreboding from the circumstance that the first Archbishop that introduced a tortoise here lost his head.”

There appears to have been overwhelming ignorance in the early days of how to look after the “straunge beasts and fowles” brought over here by companies such as the East India Company (founded in 1600). George IV took delivery of England’s first living giraffe in 1827, and put it on view to the general public at Windsor.

In a confined space, the animal’s knees became so weak that it took two men with slings, pulley, and windlass to hoist her into a standing position, and then to reverse the procedure to let her recline. The animal died two years later, much as the famous elephant, Chunee, had done in the Exeter Change menagerie in 1826 — housed in a cage in which he could barely turn round.

ANIMAL issues are theological issues, and should be on the Churches’ agenda, argues the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, established 30 years ago. The director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, has spent a lifetime urging the Church to overcome its indifference to animals.

In 2001, he was awarded a Lambeth doctorate in recognition of his “unique and massive pioneering work at a scholarly level in the area of the theology of creation with particular reference to the rights and welfare of God’s sentient creatures”.

In 2011, he wrote: “Christian theology needs animals to save itself, and ourselves, from idolatry. By ‘idolatry’, I mean the attempt to deify the human species by regarding the interests of human beings as the sole or exclusive concern of God the creator. . .

”To think that animals can be de­fined by what they do for us, or how they meet our needs, is profoundly untheological. The truth is that we are spiritually blind in our relations to other creatures, as blind as men have been to women, whites have been to blacks, and straights have been to gays.”

Global Gifts: The material culture of diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia by Zoltan Biedermann, Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (editors) is published by OUP at £75.

Menagerie: The history of exotic animals in England by Caroline Grigson, published by OUP, is available in hardback at £25, and will be published in paperback on 1 May 2018, pre-order price £12.99.

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