Shell life: is this the world's oldest pet tortoise?

It’s not the longest-lived of tortoises, but with a provenance that stretches back over 400 years, the pet tortoise of Archbishop William Laud has got to be one of the most venerable

Name: The Archbishop’s tortoise
Species: Testudo graeca
Dates: c1570-1753
Claim to fame: Archbishop’s pet
Where now: Lambeth Palace, London

Arthur Benson was rummaging through storage rooms at Lambeth Palace – the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury – when he came across a tortoise.

“I was turning over some dusty relics – old parchment deeds, faded stiff church-vestments, seals and crosses, that repose in an oak press in the Muniment-room, – there I came upon a tortoise-shell at the back of the shelf,” he wrote in 1887. Picking it up, Benson (the incumbent Archbishop’s son) found a strip of paper pasted onto its shell, with a faded note “in antique brown characters”:

“The Shell of a Tortoise, which was put into the Garden at Lambeth in the year 1633, where it remained until 1753, when it was unfortunately (or mortally) killed by the overflowing of the river.”

Archbishop William Laud’s tortoise
A 19th-century drawing of Archbishop William Laud’s tortoise. Reproduced from The Church of England by HDM Spence-Jones, 1898 Photograph:

It is impossible to know when or where this tortoise hatched out of its egg, but in around 1628 it seems to have found its way into the hands of an ambitious cleric William Laud at St John’s College Oxford. In July that year, Laud became the Bishop of London and moved to Fulham Palace, taking the tortoise with him. Within five years, he’d been promoted to the top job – the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Portrait of William Laud
The man with the tortoise, William Laud. This is a copy of a famous painting by Anthony van Dyck Photograph:

On 18 September 1633, Laud made his way from Fulham Palace to Lambeth Palace but not without incident. “My coach, horses, and men sank to the bottom of the Thames in the ferry-boat, which was overladen,” he wrote in his diary, “but I praise God for it, I lost neither man nor horse.” Nor, it seems, his tortoise, which we assume was on board at the time.

The tortoise survived Laud too, English civil war politics leading to the archbishop’s imprisonment at the Tower of London and ultimately his beheading in 1645.

“It lived on through the civil war, the Interregnum, the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Queen Anne, and George I and II, quietly munching cabbages in the vast garden of the palace,” writes Caroline Grigson in her recent and very brilliant book Menagerie (which is where I first read about the Archbishop’s tortoise).

It’s true that the Thames burst its banks on 22 March 1753, but the tortoise may have had a rather different fate than the flooding proposed by Benson. In one account, cited by Grigson, the tortoise died “in consequence of the carelessness of a labourer in the garden, who, for a trifling wager, dug it up from its winter retreat, and neglected to replace it.”

The tortoise had lived for at least 125 years and if, as some of Laud’s biographers suggest, it was in its 60s when Laud got his hands on it in 1628, then it could easily have been approaching 200.

Whatever its fate and whatever its age, the primate in residence at the time of the tortoise’s death was Thomas Herring and he filled the chelonian void with a larger specimen (probably a red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria) from the Caribbean. “Perhaps he felt guilty about the careless demise of Laud’s tortoise,” suggests a spokesperson for Lambeth Palace.

“I have put a tortoise in my garden here,” Herring wrote to the lord chancellor and the 1st Earl of Hardwicke Philip Yorke. “I hope he will like my coleworts, as well those of St. Kits, his native country. His house is a curious dome, & painted by the best hand in the universe. I have no foreboding from the circumstance that the first Archbp that introduced a tortoise here, lost his head.”

By the 1820s, it appears that Laud’s tortoise had made it onto display in the palace, hanging near a chimney in the library. The shell obviously went into storage for a time, was discovered by Benson in the 1880s and eventually saw the light of day once more. The testudine relic is currently on display in the Guard Room.

Tale ends

The act of researching the archbishop’s tortoise’s story has raised several questions that I have not been able to answer to my satisfaction. If you can help solve any of these outstanding animal-related mysteries, please leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter @WayOfThePanda.

  1. Do you know of a pet tortoise with a more venerable provenance?
  2. How did William Laud come by his tortoise? Did he really receive it in Oxford in 1628? I’m a bit suspicious because he was Bishop of Bath and Wells at the time.
  3. Are there any records of the tortoise’s time at Fulham Palace?
  4. How, exactly, did the tortoise die?

If there is a zoological specimen with a great story that you would like to see profiled, please contact Henry Nicholls @WayOfThePanda.


Henry Nicholls

The GuardianTramp

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