Saturday 15 September 2018

Were there camels in medieval Britain? A brief note on Bactrian camels and dromedaries in fifteenth-century Kent

The following brief note is concerned with an intriguing fifteenth-century reference to both Bactrian camels and dromedaries (aka Arabian camels) in England, examining both the context of these specific animals in late medieval Kent before moving on to look at the wider evidence for the presence of camels in medieval Britain and Ireland.

King Arthur riding a camel on a glass roundel of c. 1500; click here for a larger version of this picture (image: Met Museum).

Previous posts on here have discussed the archaeological and textual evidence for the presence and use of camels in Roman and early medieval Europe, but have only touched on their presence in medieval Britain and Ireland. The prompt for the present discussion is an intriguing reference in the fifteenth-century work known as John Stone's Chronicle, f. 78b:
In the year of the Lord 1466, on the twelfth day of the month of December, namely, on the vigil of St. Lucy the Virgin, there came to Canterbury [gap in text] the Lord Patriarch of Antioch, who, in honor of the king and queen, had here four dromedaries and two camels. And this had never before been seen in England.(1)
Needless to say, this is a most intriguing reference, indicating the presence of both two-humped Bactrian camels and single-humped dromedaries (or Arabian camels) in medieval Kent! The chronicle itself is preserved in a fifteenth-century manuscript, CCCC MS 417, written by a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, in 1467, with contemporary additions through until 1472, and as such can be considered an exemplary witness. The context of the presence of six camels at Canterbury is rather more mysterious. In particular, the identity of the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who seems to have brought these camels to Canterbury 'in honour of the king and queen', has often been unclear. The first editor of the text, W. G. Searle, identified him simply as 'Peter II, Maronite patriarch' of Antioch, following W. F. Hook's suggestion in his 1867 Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury.(2) However, it seems likely that he was, in fact, Ludovico Severi da Bologna, a Franciscan observant who styled himself as Patriarch of Antioch and papal legate to the East.

One of a number of gold camels bearing flower baskets that march across the fifteenth-century Erpingham Chasuble, embroidered in late medieval England (image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, used under their non-commercial licence). 

A miniature of a camel from a manuscript probably made for King Edward IV of England (1461–70, 1471–83), who was the king in whose honour the six camels were paraded by the Patriarch of Antioch in 1466; from MS Royal 15 E III f. 200 (image: British Library).

Although Ludovico da Bologna is sometimes described as a fraud, this is arguably unfair. Ludovico first appears in a papal bull of 1454, when he is residing in Jerusalem and is granted privileges and dispensation by Pope Nicholas V to travel to Ethiopia and India, and in 1456 he is again engaged to act as Pope Callixtus III's messenger to Ethiopia. In 1457 Ludovico is sent by the pope with letters of recommendation to the Christians of Persia and Georgia, and the next pope, Pius II, confirmed these tasks and the perogatives granted to him in 1458. In 1460, Ludovico returned from the East accompanied by what seem to be genuine ambassadors from a number of eastern rulers including David Megas Komnenos, the Emperor of Trezibond, and George VIII of Georgia, who were seeking aid against the Ottomans, and Uzun Hasan, the Turkoman ruler of Persia, who was said to be ready to provide military assistance. Upon meeting with Pope Pius II, the ambassadors not only specified the readiness of their kingdoms to engage in military action, but also requested that Pope Pius II name Ludovico as Patriarch of Antioch, something that the pope agreed to do but stipulated that Ludovico should not use the title until he was consecrated as such by him after both the completion of his mission and the territorial jurisdiction of the patriarchate had been defined. Ludovico's party was then sent on by the pope to Milan, France and Burgundy—where they were received with apparent enthusiasm and great celebrations—in order to obtain and confirm commitments for a future crusade against the Ottomans, before returning to Italy in 1461.

It is at this point that things seem to have gone somewhat awry, as Ludovico da Bologna and his party for some reason decided not to wait any longer for Pope Pius II to do as he promised and instead had Ludovico consecrated as Patriarch of Antioch immediately in Venice, a decision that aroused papal wrath and saw Ludovico having to leave Venice to escape this. In the long-term, however, this dispute over his proper consecration as patriarch seems not to have greatly affected Ludovico's ability to function as a papal envoy and diplomat. In 1465, for example, he is recorded as acting as papal legate for Pope Paul II (1464–71) to the first Crimean khan Hac─▒ I Giray and then subsequently ambassador from the khan to Casimir IV Jagiellon, King of Poland, with Ludovico using the title Patriarch of Antioch whilst in Poland. Similarly, in 1468–9 he seems to have been present in Denmark as papal ambassador and 'Patriarch', where he helped in ending the rivalries between Denmark and Sweden, and in 1471 he was in Rome meeting with Pope Paul II on behalf of the Uzun Hasan of Persia. In 1472, the new pope, Sixtus IV, reconfirmed and republished Ludovico's nomination to Patriarch of Antioch and invited him to resume negotiations for an anti-Ottoman alliance. Ludovico was subsequently also appointed by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, as his ambassador to Persia in 1473, and in 1475 he was recorded in Persia in audience with Uzun Hasan, who sent back positive messages with him to Europe.

In light of all of the above, it thus seems highly likely that the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who arrived in England in December 1466 can be identified as Ludovico Severi da Bologna. Not only was he clearly active as a diplomat in this period, visiting a number of northern European countries as a papal ambassador using just this title, but he also clearly had close connections to a number of eastern rulers and states that might have provided the camels that he brought with him 'in honor of the king and queen' of England, if they weren't sourced in Europe itself. The visit of 1466 was presumably an otherwise-unrecorded diplomatic endeavour by Ludovico acting as 'Patriarch of Antioch' to promote positive relations and commitments for an anti-Ottoman alliance between the rulers of East and Europe.

A miniature of a man riding a camel, probably drawn in south-east England (possibly Rochester, Kent); from the mid-thirteenth-century MS Royal 12 F XIII f. 38v (image: British Library).

If this is the immediate political context for the presence of four dromedaries (Arabian camels) and two Bactrian camels in fifteenth-century Kent, what of the wider context of camels in medieval Britain? Whilst John Stone's assertion that such a mixed troop of six Bactrian and Arabian camels 'had never before been seen in England' could be true, it is demonstrably not the case that 1466 represented the first appearance of camels in Britain since the Roman era. Indeed, the earliest reference to camels as definitely present in medieval Britain comes rather from the beginning of the twelfth century. William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth century, records the following of the menagerie of King Henry I of England (1100–35) installed at Woodstock near Oxford, which he had apparently visited himself:
Henry took a passionate delight in the marvels of other countries, with much affability... asking foreign kings to send him animals not found in England—lions, leopards, lynxes, camels—and he had a park called Woodstock in which he kept his pets of this description. He had put there an animal called a porcupine, sent him by William of Montpellier, which is mentioned by Pliny in the eighth book of his Natural History and in Isidore in his Etymologies; they report the existence of an animal in Africa, called by the Africans a kind of hedgehog, covered with bristling splines, which it has the power to shoot out at dohgs pursuing it. The spines, as I have seen for myself, are a palm or more in length, and sharp at both ends, something like goose quills at the point where the feather-part leaves off, but rather thicker, and as it were striped black and white.(3)
Moreover, the king of England was not the sole possessor of camels in Britain and Ireland then, with the Irish Annals of Inisfallen recording under 1105 that 'in the above year a camel, an animal of remarkable size, was brought from the king of Alba to Muirchertach Ua Briain', indicating that the rulers of both Scotland and Ireland had camels amongst their own royal menageries in the early twelfth century. Whether there were any camels in medieval Britain or Ireland before the start of the twelfth century is undocumented, although Rodulf Tortarius writing, according to Mark Hagger, at the end of the eleventh century in his Epistula IX, recounts that William the Conqueror provided the citizens of Caen in Normandy with a wild animal show involving lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and ostriches that Rodulf himself witnessed. If correct, this obviously raises the distinct possibility that an Anglo-Norman royal menagerie containing camels may have been at least occasionally present in William's English domains too, and that Henry I's menagerie at Woodstock could furthermore have been partly an inheritance from his father.

Two Bactrian camels positioned above Duke William of Normandy, later King William I of England, on the Bayeux Tapestry, probably made in England in the 1070s (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Camels in the eleventh-century Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39v (image: British Library).

Looking forward in time from Henry I, the medieval English royal menagerie seems to have regularly included camels. For example, in 1235 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent a camel to King Henry III of England 'as a token of the continuation of his regard', and Henry's son King Edward I is recorded as having kept a camel at his palace at Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, for the amusement of his children. Edward II likewise kept a camel at Kings Langley Palace—his camel-keeper was called Ralph Camyle and the animal's feed included hay, beans, barley and oats, with the area of the royal park responsible for producing the camel's fodder apparently being subsequently known as Camylesland. Edward II is also recorded as being the recipient of two camels in 1317 from the wealthy Genoese merchant Antonio di Pessagno in return for appointing him steward of Gascony, and camels continued to be kept during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II too. Indeed, the latter granted John Wyntirbourne 'the keepership of the king's camel' for life in January 1393 and apparently receiving a camel and a pelican from the people of London at around the same time, the two events presumably being related. Finally, moving into the fifteenth century, Henry VI is recorded as having received 'of late three camels and an ostrich from Turkey' in March 1443 from an Italian merchant named Nicholas Jone of Bologna, and in 1472 Edward IV sent a camel to Ireland, this being potentially one of the beasts brought to England in 1466 by the Patriarch of Antioch 'in honor of the king and queen'.

In conclusion, it seems possible to elucidate the context of the intriguing reference to both Bactrian camels and dromedaries in medieval Kent found in John Stone's Chronicle for 1466. Firstly, the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who paraded six of these beasts in Canterbury can be identified as Ludovico Severi da Bologna, an important papal diplomat who was promoting positive relations and a potential anti-Ottoman alliance between the rulers of East and Europe in this period. The four dromedaries and two Bactrian camels that John Stone saw were presumably intended as gifts for King Edward IV as part of this diplomatic effort, and in this light it is interesting to note the possibility that one of these camels was subsequently 'regifted' by Edward IV to Ireland a few years later. Secondly, although John Stone expressed astonishment at the sight of these six exotic beasts, it ought to be emphasised that they were by no means the first camels to be physically present in medieval Britain. Indeed, there is solid evidence for the presence of such creatures in England, Scotland and Ireland at least as far back as the early twelfth century, with potential hints of an even earlier presence, and English kings are recorded as receiving a number of camels as gifts from other rulers as well as townsfolk and merchants at various points in previous reigns.

A Barbary macaque riding backwards on a camel, England, c. AD 1300; note, there is both documentary and archaeological evidence for the presence of Barbary macaques in medieval Britain and Ireland. Click here for a larger version of this illustration (image: MS. Douce 151 f.26r).

A kneeling camel misericord carving, c. 1390, in the Church of St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire (image: Spencer Means, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1.     M. Connor (ed. & trans.), John Stone's Chronicle: Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, 1417–1472 (Kalamazoo, 2010), p. 116, and W. G. Searle (ed.), Christ Church, Canterbury: I. The Chronicle of John Stone (Cambridge, 1902), p. 97; my thanks to Richard Hopper for drawing my attention to this reference.
2.     W. G. Searle (ed.), Christ Church, Canterbury: I. The Chronicle of John Stone (Cambridge, 1902), p. 122; W. F. Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London, 1867), vol. v, p. 357.
3.     William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, v.409.2–3, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, & M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 740–1.

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