One dead carp. The king was displeased. For months he had waited in tender anticipation. But all that made it to Madrid was one deceased fish and three dozen live, but small, pike – out of more than 200 fish originally dispatched to him.
Philip II wasn’t asking for much. It was 1565 and the Spanish king who would later launch the Spanish Armada had other preoccupations – he merely dreamt of having his garden ponds stocked full of charming fish to dote on. He wanted fish like those in the water gardens he had seen on his travels in Central Europe. That’s why he had recruited two “fish maestros” to help. Both from the Netherlands, they had signed up as the king’s trusted emissaries. They knew all about fish. And swans, too.
In the harsh winter of 1564-5, the king had sent them on a mission. They were to go, separately, to France in order to collect carp and pike, then transport them to Madrid.
But things did not go well. After arriving in the French city of Bayonne, one was caught apparently sketching an entrance to the city’s port. He was promptly accused of being a spy, imprisoned and earmarked for the death penalty. The king’s frantically written letters may have saved his life. He was back in Madrid by March. As far as we know, without any fish.
The other fixer fared better. But even he was waylaid by snowstorms and had to temporarily leave 28 pike and eight carp in a monastery pond in the Spanish city of Burgos. He travelled on, purchasing more fish on the king’s orders, and eventually arrived triumphantly back in Madrid in February 1565. With one dead carp. And 39 small pike.
Philip II wasn’t the first gardener who sought species from afar for his own private Eden. And he was certainly not the last. One might argue that the history of gardening is really a history of transferring one plant or animal, or a whole aesthetic, from one place to another. This rearranging of nature has moulded our own ideas about what gardens “should” look like. But some gardeners have caused havoc by introducing invasive species that go on to spread like wildfire and wreck native ecosystems.
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Carp and pike are currently considered invasive in Spain and have been blamed for causing significant damage to ecosystems in the country. But is Philip II ultimately responsible for this? And can scientists use these historic introductions to help anticipate the environmental impacts of other newly introduced species around the world today?
“It is amazing the amount of time and effort, and interest, that the king put into these things,” says Miguel Clavero of La Estación Biológica de Doñana, a scientific institute in Spain. In a paper published in 2022, he detailed the escapades of Philip II’s fish maestros and described how, through them, the monarch eventually succeeded in bringing many dozens of fish and crayfish to his gardens from abroad. These included the voracious northern pike, Esox Lucius, which is originally from North America and Eurasia, the common carp Cyprinus carpio, which is native to much of Europe, as well as the tench Tinca tinca, which is found throughout Eurasia, and the Italian crayfish Austropotamobius italicus, whose origins are currently hotly disputed.