Queen Charlotte’s Zebra
Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
An Unusual Wedding Present
Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of King George III of Great Britain (1738-1820), obtained her first zebra in 1762 as a belated wedding present.
It quickly became a celebrity. John Watkins, in his biography of the Queen, wrote that of all her wedding gifts, the zebra ‘attracted the most notice, and excited considerable amusement.’ Crowds flocked to see the Queen’s zebra as it grazed at Buckingham palace and it was so popular that a painting of the animal was commissioned from George Stubbs (1724-1806), an artist best known for his paintings of horses and other animals, for those who could not get a good enough view. So many came to see the zebra that some of the Queen’s guard tried charging the public for a glimpse of the ‘charming beast’.
The zebra’s personality, however, was anything but charming. Georgian naturalists initially believed that zebras might be tameable; hoping that they could be trained to pull the carriages of the rich around London. Unfortunately, the animal became known for kicking, biting, and generally ‘ungovernable behaviour’. The Queen’s next zebra was much the same, and while at the Tower of London grabbed its keeper with its teeth and tossed him to the ground. To try to calm them down, the animals were often confined and were given tobacco as part of their diet. These methods failed though and the Georgians reluctantly gave up dreams of the ‘wild and vicious zebra’ being of any practical use to them.
The Queen’s Ass!
Exotic animals such as zebras were not new to Britain. From the Early 13th Century, the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London had hosted a variety of creatures, including monkeys and kangaroos. What perhaps was new was how Queen Charlotte’s zebras became so culturally significant to the Georgians. They were known as the ‘Queen’s Ass’ and developed into a constant element of political satire and ‘saucy humour’. It was common to find satirical prints and songs about the ‘Queen’s Ass’ for decades after the zebra was first brought to Buckingham Palace. A French philosopher, Voltaire, in reference to the craze around the Queen’s zebras commented: ‘the English love to amuse themselves with oddities of every kind’. The zebra even took on the aspect of a royal mascot in Georgian culture, with two Royal Navy warships being named HMS Zebra in the late eighteenth century. It had become quite significant to the culture of Georgian Britain. Indeed, alongside all of the jokes and satire, the queen’s zebras came to represent a deeper dimension in Georgian society. Christopher Plumb has written in his book, The Georgian Menagerie (2015), that the zebra became ‘an animal used to convey and articulate a wide range of cultural concerns in the late eighteenth century’. The legacy of Queen Charlotte’s zebras shows us how 18th century Britons were immersed in a culture of spectatorship, the menagerie and were fascinated by the exotic.
To find out more about the history of the zebra listen to our podcast!
By Corey Watson
- Queen Charlotte
- The Queen-s [ass] – satirical print
- The Queen’s Ass – Humorous Song
- John Watkins, Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia Charlotte Queen Of Great Britain
- Christopher Plumb, The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London
- Samuel J.M.M. Alberti (ed)., The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (2011)
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