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Elephant and Castle

Q From Barbara Roth: Sometimes American readers are completely bewildered by Briticisms. This is one puzzler: what is the origin of Elephant and Castle? Is it really from Infanta of Castile?

A As non-Brits may be puzzled by any reference to Elephant and Castle, let alone where the name came from, let me explain first that it’s a district in south London, an important road junction since at least the eighteenth century. It is now notorious for its two vast traffic circulatory systems around a rather tatty shopping centre and some brutalist architecture that houses a government department. Its name derives from the sign of a public house in the area, which shows an elephant surmounted by a castle.

As you say, it’s often asserted that the name is a corruption of Infanta de Castile, usually said to be a reference to Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I (in Spain and Portugal, the infanta was the eldest daughter of the monarch without a claim to the throne). That would put Elephant and Castle in the same class of pub name as Goat and Compasses but, like the story of the way that name came into being, it’s almost certainly false.

Not the least of the problems is that Eleanor of Castile wasn’t an infanta (or at least wasn’t known as that — the term only appeared in English about 1600); the one infanta that the British have heard about from school history lessons is Maria, a daughter of Philip III of Spain, who was once controversially engaged to Charles I. But she had no connection with Castile. The form Infanta de Castile seems to be a conflation of vague memories of two Iberian royal women separated by 300 years.

The castle here is actually a howdah on the back of the elephant, in India a seat traditionally used by hunters. The public house called the Elephant and Castle was converted about 1760 from a smithy that had had the same name and sign. This had connections with the Cutlers’ Company, a London craft guild founded in the 13th century which represented workers who made knives, scissors, surgical instruments and the like. The guild used the same emblem. The link here is the Indian elephant ivory used for knife handles, in which the Cutlers’ Company dealt.

The real story here is actually rather more interesting than the one usually told, but a lot more British people have heard of an infanta from history lessons than know about the medieval emblem of a trade guild.

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Page created 19 Aug 2000