On a recent trip to the Tower of London I became curious about the huge black birds hopping around the ground or sitting on sign posts. As it turns out, they were actually protecting their country. According to legend, if they ever leave the Tower, the Crown and Britain will surely fall. So it’s really important that these birds hang around.
There are several versions of the tale of the Tower ravens. This is mine…
Our story starts with a Welsh myth that tells of a giant king called Brân whose name means “raven” in Welsh. Brân was a mighty warrior, but alas, he was killed in battle. With his last breath he gave instructions for his head to be buried in London. His men faithfully complied and buried Brân the Raven’s head on the white hill (where the Tower of London now stands). It was positioned to face toward France, where the Raven could watch and protect the shores of Britain from invasion.
As time passed, the idea of a raven protecting the Tower, which had at first referred to the buried warrior’s head, became associated with the birds of the same name.
Now let’s jump ahead to the seventeenth century and the time of Charles II. King Charles was a patron of the arts and sciences. He appointed a royal astronomer who set up his office and telescope in the round turret of the Tower of London. At this time, there were many wild ravens in London and they often flew over and around the Tower (presumably keeping Britain safe).
One night, as John Flamsteed, the royal astronomer, gazed at the sky, he got very excited. He had discovered a new planet! At least he thought he had until he checked the telescope lens only to discover a big blob of raven poo. This must have happened more than once, and one day he was complaining about it to the King. King Charles said, “That’s easy to solve, we’ll just kill the ravens.”
The astronomer was shocked. “Oh no,” he said. “Killing the ravens would bring very bad luck.” Then he told the King about the legend of the ravens protecting Britain from invasion. This bit of information stopped Charles in his tracks. He had seen the English civil war in which his father was beheaded, a great plague, the great fire… He certainly didn’t want invasion added to the list. So, he relented, “The ravens will stay at the Tower and we’ll move the observatory to Greenwich.”
As time passed, the Victorian age dawned and ushered in the Industrial Revolution. London became a big, bustling, polluted city. The ravens, along with other wildlife, started moving out to the suburbs. Then people started to worry. What if the legend were true? If there were no more ravens around the Tower of London would Britain be invaded? Would France somehow know when the last bird had flown away and immediately start planning their invasion?
No one wanted to take any chances, they wanted to make sure there were always ravens at the Tower. The 4thEarl of Dunraven (a family who thought of themselves as descendants of Brân, the raven king) donated some tamed ravens to be kept at the Tower. The new resident ravens had their wings clipped to make sure they stayed and that the monarchy and Britain were safe.
It was decided that six ravens would always be kept at the Tower. One of the Beefeaters was designated as the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster and it was his job to care for the birds (and make sure they didn’t leave). The new ravens with clipped wings stayed put and became part of the tourist attraction.
The big, black birds already had a link with death and gloom, so the Beefeaters just built on that. They told gory stories of the ravens feeding on the eyes and flesh of those who were beheaded there. But when Queen Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded, it’s said that even the ravens stood silent.
All the Yeomen Warders at the Tower of London are retired from the military, and the ravens too are enlisted in the service of the Crown. During the Second World War, some of them performed service as spotters for bombers flying overhead.
The ravens, like the rest of London, suffered through the continuous bombings of World War II, and when it was over, there was only one raven remaining at the Tower of London. But, apparently, that one was just enough to keep the German invasion at bay.
After the war, more ravens were enlisted to bring the ranks back up to seven (the required six and a spare). Throughout the years, some of these winged soldiers have behaved badly and had to be discharged for unsatisfactory conduct. One such bird was dismissed from his post for continually destroying TV antennas. A few others have gone absent without leave. But in general, most raven soldiers at the Tower are happy to carry on in the tradition of Brân the Raven and make sure that Britain is safe from invaders.
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