Sunday, October 25

Medieval Royal Beasts

Collections of exotic and curious animals have a long history, with Menageries known from ancient times. Yet most medieval people had never seen such animals in real life. They knew they existed, having heard of them from the Bible, or seeing them represented in carvings or pictures. The other source of knowledge about animals came from bestiaries. A Bestiary is a collection of descriptions of a wide variety of animals, birds and fish- real and imaginary. And because this was the medieval period, each description contained a hefty dollop of moralising explanation (of which more later).

Yet from the 12th century, people were looking increasingly to other lands. The Crusades, long-distance pilgrimages and international diplomacy, along with ever-expanding trade routes made for experiences that were out of the ordinary. And this applied to animals, too.

Elephant & Hare

Now those creatures that had previously been out of reach could be brought back to Europe from far-flung countries. Their rarity made them a luxury and a means to display huge amounts of wealth and the highest status. These displays of exotic animals were not something to be shared with the public in many cases, but to impress other rulers or aristocracy who came to visit.

Medieval royal menageries existed in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland- and England. William the Conqueror had a collection of exotic beasts. But it was his son, Henry I, who would house the collections at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. What he held there may surprise you. In around 1110, Henry enclosed a park to keep lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and a porcupine.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

I did mention earlier that, for the medievals, each animal had to be put in a moral context as well as a physical one. Lions were on the A-list. They were used as symbol for God and of course a winged Lion is used to represent St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists. They were often shown in pictures as sleeping with open eyes, an image which implied vigilance and to symbolise Christ’s continued life after the crucifixion.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

Lions of course were also the ultimate status symbol. The lion was believed to rule the animal kingdom. The Aberdeen Bestiary (written and illuminated in England around 1200) states with great authority:
“The lion is the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none.”

So if you were a man who could keep a lion, captured and within your power, then it must surely have added to your powerful image. (Perhaps a bit like the modern equivalent of driving a very expensive, fast car.) To be said to have lion-like features was to signify bravery. In Arthurian romances, the lion is presented as being a suitable companion for a chivalric knight.

Leopards and female lions were often confused with each other in their pictorial representation. But as regards their moral context: lions, they are not. The Aberdeen Bestiary has this:
“The leopard is a spotted wild animal who is very swift.”


So far, so good.  Then:
It is produced by the adultery between a lioness and a pard. Of the pard: the pard is a species which has a mottled skin, is extremely swift and thirsts for blood; for it kills at a single bound… Their mating produces a third species. As Pliny says in his Natural History: the lion mates with the pard, or the pard with the lioness, and from both degenerate.
Many of you will be asking, what’s a pard? My only answer can be Leo + pard. See? And it was all going on in those pens at Woodstock. Woodstock, where we also had lynxes in the pens.

Today, we know lynxes as members of the cat family. They are traditionally linked with keenness of sight. The expression lynx-eyed is recorded from the late 16th century. For a medieval knight with excellent eyesight, the lynx was an ideal animal to put on his coat of arms.


But the lynx was known to the medievals for something else, too: the lynx stone. A lynx stone (or Ligurium/ Lyngurium) was used in an obscure type of medieval and early modern medicine: the therapeutic application of gemstones. Now, curing yourself by deft application of a diamond or two sounds like it might be quite nice.  Unfortunately, the lynx stone was a gem stone made of frozen lynx urine.

The Aberdeen Bestiary knows all about it:
Ligurium comes from the urine of the lynx. You can see through the middle of the stone as through glass. The beast hides its urine in the sand lest it should be found. The virtue of ligurium is that it takes away stomach-ache and staunches.
In case anyone has tummy trouble and are thinking of heading for the nearest lynx: please don’t. Although the lynx is represented over and over with its little gem of wee beneath its hairy self, the lynx stone *whispers* isn’t real.


Woodstock had camels, too. Because of the Crusades, these animals were becoming increasingly well-known. Many Crusaders appreciated them as a working animal.  This writer of a bestiary was still a bit sniffy about them however: “Camels can become unrestrained with lust.”


Even our last named resident at Woodstock, the porcupine, wasn’t let off the hook. Most of the accounts in bestiaries claim that porcupines simply spear fruit to bring home to their families. Others prefer a more robust use of porcupine quills. One is that the quills can be symbolically pointing towards one’s enemies. The other is that the porcupine is a symbol for sin, and just as when a sinner is challenged and presents denial, the porcupine rolls into a ball and presents even more sharp points.  It says a lot about the medieval mindset that even a poor old porcupine can be drafted in as a representation for sin. (I do hope hedgehogs were let off.)

But it was all change in 1210. For here, we find that the Royal Menagerie is setting up shop at none other than the Tower of London and the first lions are recorded here in that year.

The Tower of London
(C) E.M. Powell

In 1235, King Henry III received three lions from the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. These three beasts were soon depicted on the King of England’s arms, but were referred to as leopards, not lions. They were most likely lions, as Norman lions were not usually depicted with manes.

It wasn’t only lions at the Tower. King Haakon of Norway sent Henry III a ‘white bear’ in 1252, and it is believed that this was a polar bear.  The bear was taken to the Thames to swim and to catch fish.

Even if it was a polar bear, many medieval people were still familiar with bears as animals, either as animals to be hunted or used in the hideous amusement of bearbaiting. One could not say that the new arrival in Lent 1255 was in any way familiar: a male African elephant, gifted to Henry III by King Louis IX of France.

Benedictine chronicler Matthew Paris hastened to the Tower to witness this astounding beast for himself, along with those who flocked to see the novel sight.” According to Matthew the elephant was:
ten years old and ten feet high, was greyish-black, and had no fur but a very hard, rough hide. It was ponderous and robust, and indeed was a prodigious and monstrous animal. It used its trunk to obtain food and drink, and had small eyes in the upper part of its head.
He then drew it, too.

Elephant, by Matthew Paris

The Aberdeen Bestiary also has its say on elephants: “The elephant strikes fear into bulls, yet fears the mouse.” And charmingly, if strangely: “The little elephant has this characteristic, that when some of its hair and bones have been burnt, nothing evil approaches, not even a dragon.” Phew.

But whatever the fate of a little elephant, its big brother at the Tower did not survive for long. It is recorded that he died on 14 February 1257, just two short years later. One cannot imagine that his ‘grooms’ (despite being extremely well-paid) had much of an idea of how to properly care for him. His life in his cramped surroundings must have been bewildering and wretched. It can’t have been much better for the polar bear, led to swim in the crowded and noisy Thames, or for any of the other creatures who lived there.

Royal Beasts- Polar Bear
Jonathan Cardy- Public Domain

Regrettably, none of the Menagerie’s animals lived for very long, although the Menagerie itself continued to grow over the centuries. In the 1830s, it finally left the Tower for its new home at Regent’s Park. In 2011, Historic Royal Palaces commissioned artist Kendra Haste to recreate some of the animals in sculpture. The installation, Royal Beasts, will be in place until 2021. The beasts are back.


The Aberdeen Bestiary: (Note: you can view the whole Bestiary online & I highly recommend it.)
Cassidy, Richard & Clasby, Michael: 
Curl, James S, & Wilson, Susan, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford University Press (3rd ed) online 2015
Historic Royal Palaces: Experience the Tower of London (2013)
James Stevens  and Susan Wilson
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Berg (2007)
Walton, Steven .

All images are in the Public Domain
Note: I first published this post (or an edited version of it) on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 17th 2015.

Tuesday, October 13

Hugh de Lacy: Anglo-Norman King of Ireland?

The 26th of July marks the anniversary of the death of one of Henry II's most successful lords, the Anglo-Norman Hugh de Lacy. De Lacy died on that day in 1186 at Durrow, now part of County Offaly, in the Republic of Ireland. His obituary in the Irish annals calls him "King of Meath, Bréifne and Airgialla".

De Lacy did not meet a peaceful end or even one in the heat of battle, where he might have been prepared. His was a brutal and sudden end, even by medieval standards: he was beheaded as he inspected his new castle at Durrow. So why was this Anglo-Norman knight referred to in such lofty terms, and what caused him to be so viciously cut down?

Hugh de Lacy- as drawn by Gerald of Wales
De Lacy was originally Lord of Weobley in Herefordshire. His father had joined the Knights Templar and had signed his lordship to Robert, his eldest son. Robert died childless, so Hugh inherited the title, which he had not expected to do, and became an important tenant of the crown. That wasn't enough to satisfy him. He married Rose of Monmouth, the widow of the powerful Baderon, increasing his prosperity. And he liked to acquire land, whether in England Wales or Normandy. he also had a rather unfortunate tendency to just take it.

The Chapel at Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath
We know quite a lot about de Lacy as a person, as Gerald of Wales, the famous chronicler at Henry II's court, wrote extensively of him. He was probably not the most handsome of men. Gerald's description certainly does not flatter: "What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.'"Gerald even included a picture of him in his Conquest of Ireland. 

As for personality, Gerald tends to bounce from one opinion to another (and Gerald was always good for an opinion). He describes de Lacy as "resolute and reliable...restrained from excess by French sobriety. A man of great honesty and good sense." But less favourably when "after the death of his wife [Rose of Monmouth], he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not for just one woman, but for many."

The view from the top of Trim Castle
In 1171, de Lacy went with Henry II to Ireland. The Norman grip on the country was in the very earliest stages and there was a lot of what de Lacy liked up for grabs: land. The kingdom of Mide (Meath) was a particularly attractive prize and de Lacy made sure he won it. In a fight with the native Irish ruler, Tigernan Ua Ruairc, de Lacy was the victor. He achieved that victory through the beheading of Ua Ruairc, in an ominous foreshadowing of his own terrible end. Henry granted him Meath and gave him Dublin as well.

Trim Castle
De Lacy proved to be an invaluable asset in Ireland. Even Gerald is pleased: he says de Lacy 'made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles."  Trim Castle, his seat in Meath, still stands today and is remarkable in its size and scale.

Staircase, Trim Castle
The trouble was, de Lacy was a bit too good at what he did- certainly as far as Henry was concerned. The King tried to clip de Lacy's wings, recalling him to England several times and granting the lordship of Ireland to Henry's own son, John, who was just nine years old at the time. But de Lacy was one step ahead. His first wife, Rose, had died around 1180. He married again, but this time he took an Irish wife, a daughter of the High-King Rory O'Connor (Ruaidri Ua Conchobair) of Connacht. Some records name this woman as Rose also, but this is likely to be a confusion.

The marriage of Strongbow & Aoife
Daniel Maclise, mid 19th century
This marriage was not well received by Henry. He had suspicions that de Lacy was attempting a strategic marriage in the same way that another of his men, Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (Strongbow) had done a decade earlier. Gerald certainly had a dim view of de Lacy's ambitions: "He was avaricious and greedy for gold and more ambitious for his own advancement and pre-eminence than was proper."

John, Lord of Ireland
Henry's solution was to send his son, John, now nineteen, to Ireland in 1185 to assert his authority as Lord of Ireland. John's mission, which started with him pulling the beards of the Irish dignitaries who came to greet him at Waterford, was not a success. He came back after nine months, complaining to his father that de Lacy had been conspiring against him. This is highly unlikely. John was more than capable of failures of his own making.

Whether de Lacy had designs on taking Ireland from Henry, we will never know, for his life was brutally cut short. On July 26th, 1186, de Lacy was inspecting his new castle at Durrow when he was murdered by a single assassin. Contemporary accounts tell us that the murderer had concealed an axe beneath his cloak, and he took de Lacy’s head off with one savage blow, and his head and body fell into the ditch of the castle.

Durrow today- the motte where de Lacy died is in the trees beyond.

The murderer was sent by a chieftain of Meath, Sinnach Ua Catharnaig, a man known as The Fox. Sinnach claimed that he ordered the murder to atone for the wanton destruction of land sacred to the great saint, Columcille, on which de Lacy had built his castle at Durrow. It's more likely that is was simple revenge. One of Sinnach’s sons was slain by Henry’s men some eight years ago, when Hugh de Lacy was the King’s representative in Ireland. Sinnach had always vowed to avenge that death.

Whatever the real motive, it solved a problem for Henry. The powerful threat that was Hugh de Lacy was no more. Chronicler William of Newburgh recorded that 'the news was gladly received by Henry.'

Saint Columcille's Well, Durrow
I visited various sites that relate to Hugh de Lacy when researching my novel of medieval Ireland, The Lord of Ireland. Durrow is a very quiet, beautiful place. I can see why anyone would chose to live there, as de Lacy did. And the well and the ancient high cross are still standing, just as they were the day he died, 829 years ago.

Durrow High Cross- ninth century
All photos are copyright E.M. Powell 2015.

Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Durrow Abbey Conservation Plan, Office of Public Works, (2005)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese, Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, A Question of Timing: Walter de Lacy's seisin of Meath 1189-94, proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 109C, pp. 165-194 (2009)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
This post first appeared on the English Historical Authors Blog on 25th July 2015. I wrote it to coincide with the anniversary of Hugh de Lacy's death.

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