english history · european history · history

The Animals in the Tower: A Brief History of the Royal Menagerie

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a documentary of the Tower of London while watching television and, of course, it immediately peaked my interest. I have always been interested in the Tower’s history because so much has happened there in over 900 years of history. This includes some of the most dramatic events in English history as the Tower was used not only as royal residence, but as a prison and site of execution. Yet, the documentary went over a part of the Tower’s that I was unfamiliar with. One of the experts interviewed discussed how, during excavations of the now dried up moat, bones were found from a variety of exotic creatures. They had found leopards, many dogs, and even multiple lion skulls. These lion skulls were from Barbary Lions, whose species is now extinct! This proves that these lions were kept in the Tower during the medieval era. That just blew my mind and I proceeded to learn more…

The first lions came to the tower in February of 1235, when Henry III’s brother in law (Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire) gave him three lions. This began the royal menagerie where the privileged few could view the monarch’s glorious collection of exotic animals. These were usually the royal favorites and the employees of the Tower. In 1252, the collection expanded when King Haakon IV of Norway sent Henry III a polar bear (and a keeper to go along with it)! Though the menagerie was still restricted, the citizens of London could sometimes get a glimpse of this great beast as the polar bear fished for his own food in the Thames River!

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But, a new fan favorite animal was about to take away the polar bear popularity. In 1255 an elephant (a trophy from the crusades) came to reside in the Tower. I wonder how that journey from the Holy Land all the way back to England went with an elephant in tow, but somehow that poor creature made it. No one had seen anything like an elephant before and it drew many different people to come see, including Matthew Paris, a famous chronicler. Paris would go on to draw the elephant which provides us with the evidence that there truly was one in the Tower. Paris also describes the elephant stating, “the beast is about ten years old, possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at the top of his head and eats and drinks with a trunk.”

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Drawing by 13th c monk Matthew Paris

The keeping of these animals was a lot of work and was expensive as well. The sheriffs of London were not too pleased to increase the budget to accommodate a massive elephant! Yet, Henry III wanted the status that came with a menagerie and taxed the Londoners to create a large elephant house. Unfortunately, medieval animal keepers were quite ignorant of how to care for and feed these poor creatures. During this period, these animals were more for the spectacle and bragging rights than about studying them for science. This unfortunate elephant ended up having a very short life, which was not helped by the fact that the keepers thought that feeding him a galloon of wine everyday (to keep out the chill, of course) would be the most beneficial. The bones from this elephant were later used to create reliquaries to house religious relics.

Edward I moved the menagerie to be at the entrance of the tower in the 1270s so that all those entering or leaving the tower (usually a lot of prisoners!) had to walk past the roaring and hungry beasts. Intimidating, right?

Edward I brought even more animals to those tight cell quarters. This included another lion and a lynx. Edward I also appointed an official Keeper of the animals (one of the first zookeepers ever?) who would go on to live in the Tower. They were not paid great, though they kept the position for life.

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In 1392, Richard II was given a camel and his wife was given a pelican to add to the menagerie. As you can see, most of these animals were gifts from foreign monarchs rather than the English monarchs expanding the zoo themselves. What do you give someone who has everything? Apparently exotic animals, which became status symbols for the English monarchs. They were fiercely proud of their animals. It was a disaster when in 1436 all the lions died, most likely from a possible sickness. The keeper at the time, William Kerby, was immediately fired.

As stated before, due to the ignorance of their keepers, the animals in the Tower were not given the best treatment. It became worse during James I reign as he was an avid fan of animals fighting. Bear-baiting was popular during this era and great crowds would gather to watch a tormented bear fight off his canine attackers. James was one of the biggest royal patrons of the menagerie, but he put the most resources into it for unfortunate reasons. In 1603-1605 James would go on to remodel the Lion Tower to accommodate more fighting. Instead of a bear, he would have the dogs (usually mastiffs) attack the lions and, most likely, get torn up in the process. In this case, the Tower menagerie was not only used for bragging purposes, but also as entertainment.

Superstition was connected to many of the animals in the Tower. The lions were often named after the reigning monarch and if that lion died it was believed that its namesake would soon follow. Today, there is still animal superstition. Though there is no longer a zoo on location, there are still six ravens kept. It is believed that if any of these ravens become lost or fly away then the monarchy (and Britain along with it) will fall.

By 1622 the menagerie included eleven lions, two leopards, three eagles, two pumas, a tiger and a jackal. And, luckily for these creatures, the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, ended put an end to animal fighting.

With a lack of knowledge about the animals there was bound to be accidents as well. In 1686 Mary Jenkinson, mistress of the current keeper (William Gill), wanted to show off in front of her friends at the lion’s den. She proceeded to pet one of the caged lion’s paws. It is described that the lion immediately caught the poor girls arm by the mouth and tore her arm. The doctors on hand had to perform an amputation, but she sadly died in the end.

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During the late 1600s and early 1700s, the menagerie was quickly turning in to a hot tourist spot for the public. Not only were there animals to see, but amazing “curiosities”. This included a “real” unicorn horn and unicorn fur. The menagerie became a great way for the crown to make money. In 1741 there was even an illustrated children’s guide to the zoo, which showed what creatures they would see along with their names. By this time, the menagerie was starting to resemble a zoo that we would be familiar with today. Indeed, zoos did become more popular and others began to pop up in different parts of the country.

By the 18th century, scientists and other intellectuals became interested in the knowledge that the Tower zoo held. They would study the dead animals through dissection and learn more about the biology of living beings. One famous scientist, John Hunter, would help to eliminate the ignorance that once surrounded caring for these animals. He disproved (and I know it will sound ridiculous now) the rumor that ostriches were able to eat and digest iron (sadly, two birds had already died from being feed this).

In 1822 Alfred Cops, an actual professional zoologist, was appointed at the Keeper. He boosted the number of animals in the Tower zoo and provided the best care that these animals had ever had. Due to his scientific approach, he made better living conditions, improved their diets, and created more space for the animals. By 1828, the menagerie had about 300 animals from 60 different species (including wolves, bears, elephants, kangaroos, antelopes, zebra, a variety of birds and reptiles, and, of course the big cats). Even better was that many of these animals were born at the Tower, which shows their improved living conditions were making a difference.

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Despite the success of Cops, the government was looking to shut down the zoo at the Tower (despite having existed for 600 years at that point). Accidents had happened which contributed to the decision. The animals had attacked other animals when their cages overlapped, and, in one instance, the timber wolves escaped their captivity. The wolves were pursuing a dog who ran into one of the employee’s apartments to escape. The wolves broke into the apartment and almost attacked an employee’s wife and her small children (they were able to escape in the end). In 1828, London Zoological Society opened a new zoo in Regent’s park and many of the animals at the Tower were moved there over time.

A monkey biting one of the guardsmen at the Tower was the last straw for the government, so August 28, 1835 was the last time the public was admitted to the Tower menagerie. The animals were transferred to other zoos and poor Alfred Cops still retained his position as Keeper at the Tower (as stated before, it was a position for life!), but lost all the gains he had made with the Tower menagerie.

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This is a very brief history of the Tower menagerie which lasted six centuries and set precedent for other zoos that followed. Today, you can still see where these animals were housed, but only the ravens remain. I highly recommended that documentary for anyone who wants to learn more about the Tower’s history!

Poll Question: Would anyone be interested in a series where I post about famous prisoners of the Tower of London?

There are so many interesting cases and historical figures you may not expect who were imprisoned here. The Tower of London is a historical site that I have marked as must see on my bucket list!


Sources: Secrets of the Tower Documentary – I watched on PBS

Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones

3 thoughts on “The Animals in the Tower: A Brief History of the Royal Menagerie

  1. The Tower’s history is fascinating. Did you know that there was a small menagerie at Kew Palace, too?
    And I would love to see more of the Tower’s history – I’m writing a third post on Hampton Court Palace at the moment. 🙂


  2. Information on other prisoners held in the tower would be very interesting!
    This article on the menagerie was an eye opener.


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