The Queen’s Ass
In his biography of the late Queen Charlotte, John Watkins presented a sugared, almost hagiographic, account of her life, a life of domestic happiness and patronage of charitable institutions. When it came to the matter of “The Queen’s Ass” however, Watkins allowed himself a mere flustered few lines. He had not even been alive when either of Queen Charlotte’s zebra had been in London, but he certainly knew of them decades after they first arrived.
In September 1761 King George III married the seventeen-year-old Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. A somewhat belated wedding present arrived the following year, in July 1762 aboard the HMS Terpsichore. Sir Thomas Adams, the captain of the ship, had wanted to give a pair of zebra to the new queen, but only the female made it to England alive. This zebra, and later another, became a celebrity and both Charlotte and her eldest son George became strongly associated with the “Queen’s Ass”.
The two zebra that came into the queen’s possession attracted large crowds to their stable at Buckingham Gate. The first zebra that arrived in 1762 could be seen feeding in a paddock near Buckingham House as a gratuity of the queen. A painting of the zebra was made from life and hung in the mews stables for those who could not get close enough for a better view. Another painting was made by George Stubbs in 1763 (above), and is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art.
This zebra was by no means docile; a keeper needed to warn visitors to avoid a kick when they approached her. Although entry to see the zebra was supposed to be free, the Queen’s Guard intended to make a little extra from exposing the Queen’s Ass to public view. Sooner or later the petty pilfering caught the attention of the newspapers and the ensuing public outcry in 1764 caused the Queen’s regiment to order the Guard to refrain from such “unbecoming practices in the future”. The zebra was drawing in scores of visitors from home and abroad; “What must foreigners, who judge the whole by the characteristics of the few, think of such sordid doings?” opined one news columnist. The crowds that gathered around the zebra were also tempting targets for pickpockets, and so the ambience in the zebra’s accommodation was more rabble than regal.
The queen’s first zebra had been in the city scarcely a month before London’s satirists churned out a slew of ass related songs, ballads, and satires. In August 1762 the crude yet imaginatively named “FART-inando” the “ASS-trologer” published a song called “The Asses of Great Britain”. Other rump-related humour was bawdier and attempted to get laughs at the expense of Queen Charlotte. As a young woman she was an easy target for London’s more salacious satirists. Her zebra in particular inspired a tediously lengthy ten verse allegorical song. The highlight of which was: “What prospect so charming! What can surpass? The delicate sight of her M______’s A___?”
Eventually the zebra was given away or sold off; her fearsome temper and the less than polite crowds attracted to Buckingham Gate no doubt persuaded Queen Charlotte to part easily with the zebra. Yet, although the zebra was no longer on display at Buckingham Gate she was still strongly associated with the Queen. The zebra made a distinct impression on the people of Oxford and fellows of the university, as reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal: “of all the natural curiosities exhibited at this university, nothing ever drew the attention of the curious so much as the beautiful and astonishing zebra lately belonging to Her Majesty and generally called ‘The Queen’s Ass’ ”. This joke was certainly one that died hard. When she eventually did actually die the zebra was stuffed and then put on display at the Blue Boar Inn in York, a great deal less salubrious than her accommodations at Buckingham Gate. The afterlife of Queen Charlotte’s second zebra was a little more dignified. When it died, this zebra was presented to the Leverian Museum in London, where the relationship between the Queen and her zebra was noted in guides to the collection.
Watkins might have furnished his biography with at least a few of the less crass jokes. He didn’t, instead he noted merely that “a female zebra attracted much notice and excited considerable amusement”. And amuse she did, and for a long time; several generations of Georgian Londoners knew of “The Queen’s Ass”.
Christopher Plumb is an independent historian. He has worked as a television and museum consultant and holds at PhD from the University of Manchester.