From Mastiffs to Unicorns: The Surprising Animals of the Tudors

I am often to be found, on my days at Hampton Court Palace, loitering near the tapestries in the Great Watching Chamber or staring at the beautiful family portrait of Henry VIII & co. Not only are these incredible works of art – and their survival through five centuries of political upheaval is mind boggling – but they also enable interaction with the public on a surprising topic of conversation. Because these images, among a number of others dotted around the palace, are full of animals. Not just the dogs, horses and deer you would expect a Tudor monarch to be surrounded by, but elephants, bulls, a griffin, a warthog, even a clothed monkey.

Henry VIII Dynasty Portrait c.1545: Note the Monkey in the right hand corner

It is often surprising to visitors that these animals were not only known to Henry VIII’s court but in some cases lived alongside it. There are a number of paintings of members of the royal family – Catherine of Aragon, Prince Edward, Margaret of Scotland – holding small monkeys. Court records also contain a reference to the making of gowns for Henry VIII’s pet ape in 1544. (It had a delightful red and green striped number, and a blue leather coat.) At the Tower of London, the ‘Lion Tower’ held not only the king of beasts but also leopards, a porcupine and tigers.

Catherine of Aragon with monkey (Lucas Horenboult)

Catherine of Aragon with monkey (Lucas Horenboult)

Edward VI  with monkey (Hans Holbein, c.1541)

Edward VI with monkey (Hans Holbein, c.1541)

Alongside these exotic animals, which conferred status and glamour on their owner, were the working creatures. No royal palace was complete without its mews full of sakers, lanners, merlins (falcons to you and me) or its kennels full of guard dogs and hunting hounds, or its stables stuffed with horses suited to carrying the slowly plodding gentry, the warrior in armour and the swift-moving messenger. There was even an appointed royal otter hunter, paid three pence a day to deal with a peculiarly Tudor pest.

An Italian Cout lady with lapdog (1532-33 Lady by Agnolo Bronzino)

An Italian Cout lady with lapdog (1532-33 Lady by Agnolo Bronzino)


But there are some creatures who testify to a courtly interest that went beyond merely the predatory. Dogs seem to have been a common feature of the early Tudor Court, to such an extent that Cardinal Wolsey’s Household Ordinances of 1526 banned them for the mess and nuisance they were causing. He could not however ban lapdogs, the small creatures ladies of Court were particularly keen on. Anne Boleyn had a lapdog called Purqouy that died after a fall, and was so beloved by the Queen that no one but the King was willing to break the news of its demise.


Thomas More and his family. Note the dogs and monkey to right.

Thomas More and his family. Note the dogs and monkey to right.

One of the great resources of the Henrician age, the letters of the Lisle family, contains numerous references to animals. In many circumstances they are being exchanged as gifts. The Tudor Court put a high value on its animals, and the trade in falcons, hunting dogs and horses was a key part of the network of political and social connections between people whose estates might be at some distance from the London/ Surrey base of Henry VIII’s key palaces.

A lanner falcon, used for Tudor hunting.

A lanner falcon, used for Tudor hunting.

When the disgraced Duke of Suffolk wanted to remind Cardinal Wolsey to plead his case with the King he sent him a goshawk. The hunting bird itself was expensive, but even more so was the training it had been given at Suffolk’s orders, and the Duke himself testified to her ability:

“for and sche doo as wyell as I have seen her doo I dowth not boot sche schall contynt your grace.”

(‘If she does as well as I have seen her do I doubt not but she shall content your grace.)

Honor, Lady Lisle, sent her connections at Court, Thomas Culpeper and William Coffin (both gentlemen of the privy chamber) a hawk each. Both responded with letters stating their willingness to serve her in return.

Not all such gifts met with success. Thomas Cromwell’s son Richard was given a horse by the Lisles in 1537 but already their trusted servant, John Husee, wrote that he feared it was a wasted gesture, ‘for now at the later end he did little good in it’ (i.e. he was doing little to serve their interests at the moment.) The merlin sent to the Lord Privy Seal in 1538 also came to nothing, for it died after its first flight.

And sometimes you can’t help but wonder if the effort was worth the reward. In summer 1537 Lord and Lady Lisle sent the Lord Admiral a seal – a suitably nautical gift. It sat at Wapping for five weeks, literally eating up Husee’s salary as it devoured six pence worth of fish a day. When finally the Admiral got around to receiving it, he – understandably – claimed he had nowhere to keep a seal and told Husee to bake it and send it to his wife. Husee grumbled that clearly the Admiral was unwilling to keep anything that cost him too much, and we presume the seal did indeed end up on a platter.

Hunting with dogs: Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phoebus (1387/8)

Hunting with dogs: Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phoebus (1387/8)

Amidst the ‘brace of bandogs’ (guard dogs), mastiffs and falcons sent and received by the Lisles, a few other animals stand out. In 1540 Lady Lisle sent a water-spaniel and greyhound to a friend, which could retrieve the bolts and heads of crossbows in water as well as on land.







Margaret of Austria with both a dog and monkey.

Margaret of Austria with both a dog and monkey.

Lady Lisle comes across as a veritable Dr Doolittle, surrounded by creatures. At one point she may have had four monkeys in her home. In November 1534 she was given two marmosets and a long-tailed monkey from Brazil. According to the instructions she was given for their treatment, these were to be kept near the fire or chimney in their boite de nuit, fed only apples and nuts or almonds and to drink only warmed milk. It is not clear whether these animals were still in situ when Ysabeau de Bies sent her ‘a little monkey that knoweth all manner of tricks’. Lady Lisle did her best to pass on some of these primate companions, offering one as a gift to Queen Anne Boleyn. She was given a timely message that the Queen could not stand the sight of monkeys and instead sent a lapdog – the unfortunate Purqouy.

Perhaps the most unusual creature that appears in the Lisle Letters is a unicorn. In 1537 Anthoinette de Saveuses wrote to Lady Lisle asking her about setting a tip of the animal’s horn in a piece of jewellery ‘on account of the property that the said unicorn doth possess’. She then offered the piece as a gift to her unwell friend for ‘it will do you much good’.

A unicorn horn given  to Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1540.

A unicorn horn given to Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1540.


Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 2: 1515-1518 (1864), No.1604

Muriel St. Clair Byrne, Lisle Letters, The: An Abridgement (University of Chicago Press, 1983)

Barbara J. Harris, ‘Women and Politics in Early Tudor England’ The Historical Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 259-281

– English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (Maney, 2007)

Alison Simms, Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England

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