These days everyone knows what an elephant looks like. Until there were zoos this was not the case. Most people in Europe had never heard of an elephant, let alone seen one.
The early history of the elephant in Great Britain is quite short. The show-off emperor Claudius decided to show the English their place. In a triumphal march through Colchester which was then the capital city – with its own amphitheatres and even a chariot circus, Claudius showed off the first and last elephant the English would see for a thousand years.
The first time an elephant lived in England on a full time basis is when the French king Louis IX gave his English contemporary Henry III a specimen as a royal gift for his zoo in the Tower of London in 1255. It had a grand life, feasting on beef, but unfortunately finally died after only two years. The most likely cause is from too much red wine.
Since that time elephants were only written about or drawn. Comments in English on the elephant were frequent. Over the next started about 100 years later. There was a variety of spellings (ollgaunce, elifans, olyfaunt, elephant, elephante, olyfaunz, eleuant) until elephant became the standard spelling around about 1750. This is why oliphaunts – the big elephant-like animals in the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is actually taking up word used in mediaeval English, something that Tolkien well knew, as he was a specialist on the subject.
Features of the elephant were highlighted, but what counted most was size. John Trevisa mentions the beast several times in his 1398 book – nose like a trumpet, huge body, frightened of mice, follows the stars and has a strong nose.
But it was a real long time before the elephant was seen by many in England. The most famous elephant in England was Jumbo the circus elephant that was transferred from Paris and landed up in the United States. But that was 700 years on.