Castles on Elephants

The Elephant and Castle.

A familiar sight, as you trundle through Southwark on the A3. Like so many pub names in London, this is an ancient one, and beloved of us all because it’s just so damn weird.

As is its effigy, perched up there above the traffic fumes.  Brightly coloured, there he is, thousands of miles from his native habitat and sporting an accessory from another age.

A castle.

There are other elephants and castles. There’s one carved into a bench in Chester Cathedral that look like this:

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

See: no-one in mediaeval times had actually seen an elephant. Let alone those great warlike defensive contraptions they wore on their back during ancient conflicts.  See that strange head, and the hooves? The mediaeval carvers had to rely on hearsay. Who could describe those huge drum-feet with accuracy to an English carpenter who has only ever been as far as the coast of England?

I saw him again, the other day. I was wandering through the Victoria and Albert Museum, and their great galleries of mediaeval knick-knackery, when who should I find sitting in a little glass case but this perfectly formed fantastical would-be elephant:


What a charmer. This is a mystery from the East; a tale waiting to be told. A candlestick in the form of what is not, but could so easily have been, an elephant.


38 thoughts on “Castles on Elephants

  1. The V&A elephant is merely a camel with a long shnozzle, is it not? I’m hoping for a follow up post where you discuss the origins of the name along with Victorian speculations about links with Isabella of Castille…

    Joan Aiken’s alternate histories starring Dido Twite feature a real elephant with its howdah going up the Roman road (Stane Street, is it?) to the Elephant and Castle from the south coast in The Cuckoo Tree. I guess this is her fantastical explanation of the name.

    1. Fantastic, Chris: Maddie and I have never read that adventure of Dido’s. I love the way Joan Aiken takes the familiar and expertly finds a context which brings it into sharp relief. A wonderful exercise for a writer: find an artefact and write it in as the centre of a scene.

  2. I can only imagine what I’d come up with if I’d never seen an elephant and someone tried to describe one to me. Interesting post.

    1. Hi Librarylady….wonderful parlour game to find rare animals and get people to draw them. A wonder how people would draw the Ayeaye? Now: Library Lady. Your Rosie Bear would’t also be a librarian and ICT whizkid, would she? It’s just I know ( and could not do without) a Rosie Bear….

  3. Hi Kate, I hope this posts… having an ‘issue or two’ this evening…
    I love these carvings. I love the creations that are based on descriptions, rather than how they look, and, in all fairness, they aren’t a million miles off, are they? A little horse-like, which is to be expected, I suppose. I never knew of the Elephant and Castle in Chester – I shall have to check it out the next time I’m there!

    1. It posted 😀 Thanks Tom! I have never been to see the Chester elephant and castle. There’s an elephant without the castle on a misericord at Exeter. But what’s an elephant without a castle?

  4. Not bad triesat all, and when you come to think of it they are rather more logical than the actuality. That tends to remind me of scientific types, now that I come to think of it.

  5. I love the bench carving and the beautiful candlestick. The Romans knew about elephants didn’t they? I’m thinking about Hannibal taking the elephants to the Alps. I may have my history mixed up. If the Romans had seen elephants, would there have been drawings and things around that might have been preserved during the Dark Ages? This is pure speculation, but it’s fun.

    1. I think you’re definitely on to something, Gale. There was, once, in Roman times, such a thing as the Elephantry; they would send lines of elephants to charge and terrify the opposition.
      I found this lovely old pic of soldiers in their castle on top of the elephant here:

  6. I always wondered, but never committed to finding out, if the Elephant and Castle combination had something to do with chess… since early chess royalty sometimes rode elephants and castles are also a piece on the board… and chess would have made its way to Britain by then, right? Charlemagne was a fan, after all… and he was just across the channel 😉

    ::wanders off to figure out the source of her mad ramblings::

    1. I love mad ramblings, they’re my favourite. I have no idea whether there’s a link – the castle is a familiar symbol in defence of high places. I’m thinking about the foc’sle or forecastle – the little castles they built at either end of warships. It is no surprise that they turned up in a defensive game like chess.
      Lovely pic here:

  7. Kate, I promised I would be back. I went to India (via the book of face) to ask my friends for help. These are their replies


    “Ramana Rajgopaul: Wikipedia gives quite a bit of information on the background. I have never wondered about the history till today thinking that the name simply went back to colonial days and some foot soldier who would have seen an elephant with a castle shaped platform on top in battle. I am glad that you raised the question as it has given me some more information,

    And from Ramana’s sister Padmini:

    Padmini Natarajan: More than a candlestick stand it looks like a castle/rook piece from a chess board. Remember chess was a popular game in India…we invented it and everybody played it….in palaces, harems, homes, street corners and in barracks.

    I hope this helps in some small way.

    1. Grannymar, that’s great! Thank you! Chris at Calmgrove commented on the traditional idea that Elaphant and Castle is a bastardisation of the words Infanta De Castilla, after Eleanor of Castille, the first queen consort of Edward I. The candlestick is dated between 1200 and 1400 and Eleanor lived between 1241 and 1290. I think your contacts have something, though: the rook in chess is so similar to the elephant’s accessory.

  8. Amazing, is it not?, where imaginations take our minds and our skills just on what we hear. I would love to see these and now must make a trip into our big city for I believe our Art Institute of Chicago has some in their collection.
    Well, I’ll make that trip soon as the latest batch of snow has melted.

  9. I think my favorite part of this story is that it captured your imagination. I’m very familiar with the concept of following an odd train of thought and letting it amble freely. I sort of hate to admit that I don’t think I would have noticed the “castles on elephants” theme. I’m thrilled that you drew my attention in this direction and it creates a deeper curiosity about a number of things. I find the things that interest any one of us as fascinating as the topic itself. Hope you enjoy your weekend, Kate.

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