The Day 'Mad' King George's Tiger ran amok in Georgian Windsor
The Georgians were renowned for their obsession with gambling and many fortunes were won and lost over a hand of whist or vingt-et-un. Amongst the upper classes gambling was seen as an accepted vice with the wealthy always looking for opportunities to place a wager on the unusual.
Prince William, youngest son of George II, was an inveterate gambler both at the card table and at the races. More widely known as the Duke of Cumberland, William earned the nickname 'Butcher' Cumberland for the atrocities he carried out against the Scots in suppressing the Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
In one infamous incident in Windsor Great Park, his macabre curiosity and addiction for gambling badly backfired and resulted in a ferocious wild animal being unleashed onto the public .
In June 1764 after a day at Ascot races, the Duke and his aristocratic gaming companions began to speculate on who would win in a fight between a stag and a tiger. As they could come to no agreement, the Duke declared he would put it to the test. At midday on Saturday 30th June, just a few hundred yards from Ascot High Street he had a compound created encircled by 15 foot high fencing in which he placed an elderly stag captured from Windsor Great Park. News of the event quickly spread and a crowd of spectators from the Duke's inner circle gathered in the Park eager to gamble on the gruesome sport. He then had two Indian servants bring in a tiger from the Royal menagerie which he had created at Sandpit Gate. The tiger was blindfolded (a remarkable task to achieve in itself!) and led into the compound where its blindfold was removed.
When the tiger first spotted the stag, it was reported that he crouched down like a domestic cat stalking a mouse. Several minutes went past as the tiger slowly stalked its prey. Then it pounced- but the mighty stag proved more than a match and repulsed two attacks from the tiger before going on the offensive , tossing the big cat high into the air with its antlers. This attack surprised and stunned the tiger and created a state of mutual respect with both animals seemingly reluctant to continue the fight. The stand-off continued for some time whilst the privileged on-lookers cheered for the battle of the beasts to continue, but to no avail. The noble animals eyed each other cautiously but neither seemed willing to launch another attack, much to the chagrin of the Duke and his entourage who by now had begun to get bored and restless.
Sensing his 'spectacle' was descending into farce, the Duke sent the two servants back into into the compound with pointed sticks to provoke the tiger by goading it. They nervously prodded and poked the tiger, whilst the Royal entourage cheered and bayed for blood- but the tiger was having none of it. Then with a single deafening roar the mighty tiger leapt up at the fencing and clambered over the top, springing down amongst the assembled throng. The Duke and his party of fine gentlemen scattered in all directions screaming in terror.
Fortunately for the audience, the tiger was more interested in escape than attack, and bounded off into the nearby woodland, leaving the bewildered Duke and his entourage dusting themselves down and straightening their wigs. The two poor servants were again summoned and instructed to chase and recapture the recapture the tiger. armed with no more than armed with no more than a hood and a length of chain.
Armed with no more than a hood and a length of chain the Indian servants reluctantly followed the big cat into the woods. After nervously searching for several minutes they found that the tiger had come upon a herd of fallow deer feeding in Windsor Great Park and had just pounced and killed one. Incredibly, they took the opportunity, while its mouth was full, to leap on the tiger and blindfold it, but were unable to extricate the deer from its jaws. They had to cut the haunch from the dead deer, which the tiger steadfastly refused to let go of, before securing the animal and leading it back to the menagerie.
By now the Duke had dispersed, no doubt embarrassed by the shambolic events which unfolded and the crowds were departing, shaken by their close encounter with a savage beast. The incident may have been all but forgotten, had it not been for one of the spectators present.
One of the witnesses to the Ascot non-event was believed to be Lord George Pigot, the Governor General of Madras who had recently returned for India. He had apparently brought back with him a tiger and two native keepers as a present for King George III, but George having little interest in such matters, had them installed in his uncle's Royal menagerie at Windsor. It is believed that it was the recent addition of the tiger to his collection which had prompted the peculiar match.
Shortly after this incident, Lord Pigot commissioned the highly esteeemed animal painter George Stubbs to paint the encounter between the two animals as if it had taken place in India. Stubb's masterpiece 'Portrait of a hunting tyger' was unveiled at the Society of Artists in 1765. The image does however feature a cheetah rather than a tiger. During the 18th century, the term 'tyger' was applied to most big cats and so it may well have been a cheetah which was involved in the chaotic affair at Ascot. This might also explain how the servants were able to handle it so closely without fatality.
The extraordinary sporting wager was never repeated but the magnificent work of art which it inspired can still be seen today at the Manchester City Art Gallery.
Although the Royal menagerie at Windsor was added to by Prince Regent, later William IV as one of his many exotic playthings, it finally closed down in 1835.