The Tower of London has been many things in its thousand-year history. Built immediately after the Norman conquest, its first incarnation was as a symbol of power, a proto-Death Star from which William the Conqueror could exert control over his new capital.
William’s successors were increasingly reluctant to live in central London, never more than a drawbridge away from the fickle mob. As the monarchy left for greener (and more isolated) pastures, the Tower was turned to darker purposes; it served as an armory, a prison, an execution ground, and surprisingly, a zoo.
As early as 1251 there were royal receipts for the upkeep of a “white bear”, probably a polar bear given as a gift by the king of Norway. The bear was kept on a long leash and allowed to fish for its meals in the Thames.
King Haakon’s bear wasn’t the only exotic Tower-dweller. Bears, elephants, leopards, apes, and even zebras and ostriches were kept inside the forbidding walls. Exotic animals apparently did not come with instructions, and the warders were left guessing as to how to feed and care for them. The animals in the menagerie were viewed as little more than novelties and sources of entertainment and it’s no surprise that most didn’t live full lives.
Eventually the Royal Menagerie opened to the public as a tourist attraction; admission cost three half-pence or a cat or dog to be fed to the lions. It remained open until 1835, when the last animals were sent to the new London Zoo in Regents Park.
In 2010, the Historic Royal Palaces trust commissioned artist Kendra Haste to commemorate the generations of animals who lived and died at the Tower. Her installation, called “Royal Beasts”, comprises a dozen or so chicken-wire sculptures of the Tower of London’s animal residents. The sculptures will be on display until 2021 and if you’re ever in London, I recommend you have a look.
The only animals left at the Tower of London are the famous ravens. Let me be clear, these are not crows. They’re massive, almost falcon-like in size, and extremely docile. I joined a long line of tourists filing past a pair of ravens, perched silently on the railing and barely seeming to notice us.
There’s a superstition that England will endure as long as there are ravens at the Tower of London. The birds have their own private cages in a quiet corner of the Tower and a keeper who feeds them mice daily. Fortunately for England, they show no signs of leaving any time soon.