In the middle of modern London stands the grand eleventh-century castle built by William the Conqueror called the Tower of London. It’s best known as a secure home for the crown jewels or as an ancient prison for those who incurred the king’s wrath. But treasures and traitors weren’t the only things locked behind those fifteen-foot thick stone walls. For about 600 years the Tower was home to the royal menagerie: Lions, tigers, bears, kangaroos, and many other animals lived there.
Kings and queens have been giving each other exotic animals for ages. After all, what better way to make an impression than to send someone an elephant? These animal gifts began arriving in England in the eleventh century. But unlike the gift of flowers, the animals couldn’t just be admired for a time and then discarded: They had to be housed and fed. The inescapable castle seemed like the perfect place to keep the growing royal menagerie.
The beasts that arrived were strange, foreign, and unlike any animals the British were used to. No one really knew, or bothered to find out, how to take care of them. After enduring a long sea journey, they were confined to cramped cages in the tower and often fed an unsuitable diet.
The African elephant was given a gallon of wine per day. The British keepers knew that Africa was warmer than England and wondered how to help the elephant deal with the colder British climate. They reckoned that since they felt warmer after drinking alcohol, it would probably have the same effect on the big pachyderm. That first elephant lived a short, tipsy life, but no lessons were learned. The elephants who came after him were also given wine.
But the imbibing elephant had it pretty good compared to the ostriches. For some reason, people thought ostriches could digest iron. Perhaps someone saw one pecking at a piece of metal on the ground and assumed… So, instead of tossing out grains or some other tasty snack, the visitors tossed nails into the pen. When one of the ostriches died, his stomach contents were examined and eighty nails were found – all undigested and probably the cause of his death.
Polar Bear in the Thames
Maybe the animal who received the best care was the polar bear. He and his keeper were gifts from the King of Norway in 1252. The big white bear was spared a diet of wine and nails when his keeper convinced the sheriff of London that it would be much cheaper to take him down to the Thames River and let him catch his own dinner. Since the Sheriff was in charge of paying the bills for all the food, he liked the sound of it. So, every day the polar bears keeper would walk him down to the riverbank. The bear would be muzzled and shackled. But when they arrived at the water, the muzzle and chains came off and the keeper attached a large heavy leash (apparently tied to something sturdy) and the bear went fishing for his dinner.
Some of the favorite animals in the Tower were the Lions. Archeological evidence has shown that they were Barbary lions which are now extinct in the wild. They were one of the largest lions and sported an extra thick black mane. The four lion sculptures in Trafalgar square are also Barbary lions.
Food wasn’t the only problem these animals faced. During the reign of James I (1567-1625) some of the animals were pitted against each other in fights to entertain the king and court. James built a special platform where he and his guests could watch the gruesome “entertainment.”
In the sixteenth century, the menagerie was opened to the public. People paid an admission fee to gaze at these amazing animals which helped with the cost of feeding them. But there was a way to get in for free: bring a cat or dog to feed to the lions. It was just another way to lower the food bill.
Most of the animals were in cages or enclosures, but that didn’t keep them from sometimes interacting with the public. There was one leopard who was very adept at grabbing umbrellas, hats, etc. and shredding them to bits before the owner even knew what had happened. Then there was the zebra who liked to drink beer. She would trot over to the soldier’s canteen for someone to give her a pint. In the eighteenth century when one baboon was arriving, he picked up a cannonball and heaved it across the yard, killing one boy. And there were other fatalities when people got too close to the dangerous animals.
In the mid-1830s, after 600 years of animals living in the Tower, the royal menagerie was closed. Most of the animals were given to the Zoological Society of London which had established a zoo at Regent’s Park.
Royal Beasts Exhibition
There is now a permanent exhibition at the Tower of London called Royal Beasts which is included in the price of the Tower admission. Today, you can see animal sculptures scattered around to help you imagine the Tower in its days as a royal menagerie. These sculptures are the work of Kendra Haste, a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists – a charity that uses art to increase appreciation of wildlife. These animals are made of galvanized wire and are completely harmless.
Strange as it may seem, giving animals to royalty hasn’t gone out of style: It’s still practiced in the twenty-first-century. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign she has received numerous animals: among them, Canadian beavers, crocodiles, hippopotami, elephants, bears, stags… Today, most of these animal gifts go directly to the zoo where they are properly cared for.
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