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28 October 2014

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You are in: Berkshire > History > Local History > Monkey Island: an odd history

Monkey Island

Monkey Island

Monkey Island: an odd history

Monkey Island, near Bray, can only be reached by bridge, boat or helicopter. Its unique, reclusive location has given it an interesting history, packed with political intrigue.

Three possible reasons for the name Monkey Island

1) In 1120, during the reign of Henry I, there was a small abbey called 'Monks Eyot' ('eyot' being an archaic word for 'island'). Over time, this may have been corrupted to Monkey Island.

Monkey Island bridge

The bridge to Monkey Island

2) The Spencer family used to manage fishing in that stretch of the Thames in the 18th century. Local fishermen would come to the island and pay to fish. Even back then, money was colloquially known as 'monkey', hence 'Monkey Island', because if you were coming to the island, you were going to spend a lot of money.

3) The island saw use during the reign of Elizabeth I as a refuge and private residence. At that time, monkeys were mythical creatures - if you were touched by a monkey, you would turn into one. Possibly, the name evolved to keep visitors away out of fear.

The Monkey Room

Visitors to the hotel now on the island can see 'The Monkey Room', which has paintings of monkeys in various poses. The monkey paintings on the ceiling were the work of French artist Andie de Clermont and were painted before 1738. These were commissioned by Elizabeth I to represent England's fiercely Protestant stand against the Catholic church.

Monkey Island painting

Painting of monkeys riding fish

Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors came to visit Elizabeth on the island to try to heal the rift between the churches. Why did they not come to Windsor or the Tower of London? Agents from those countries had tried to assassinate Elizabeth, so she was not willing to host the ambassadors at her home, and they were not willing to come to the Tower, where Catholics had been hanged.

According to legend, while waiting to meet her, they asked about the monkey paintings. This is what they saw...

1) A statement of 1570 likened the two competing Popes of the time to two fishes in a stream. In one picture, the monkey represents Elizabeth, commanding the two submissive fish.

2) One picture shows an animal eating a snake - the Pope's coat of arms showed a snake symbol, so again this is Elizabeth demonstrating power over them.

Monkey Island painting

Animal eating a snake

3) One picture shows one monkey reclining, smoking a pipe (a symbol of wealth and power). He is being rowed by a smaller female monkey, who is dressed in the Pope's colours.

4) One picture shows the monkeys wielding a particular type of rifle, which was state of the art at the time. This demonstrated military might as well as political.

Monkey Island painting

One monkey being rowed by another

These paintings were commissioned over a period of some years, during which time the representation of monkeys improved as more information became available about their appearance. Thanks to Monkey Island Hotel's Steve Hatton for the information.

last updated: 31/03/2008 at 00:44
created: 02/03/2005

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