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The Denizens of London's Royal Menagerie

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Many visit the Tower of London each year to see where the royals once lived… and died. But few realize that the castle was also the home to many exotic creatures as well.

Famed as the last step before execution for many a captive, the Tower of London on the River Thames was once home to more than just human prisoners. From the 13th to the 19th century, the Tower housed a collection of animals that were the gifts of foreign rulers.

Commonly called the Royal Menagerie, particularly popular were the lions, dating to the menagerie’s earliest days. Lions resonated not just as the "king of beasts"—an obvious tribute to the majesty of the recipient—but also figured on the royal coat of arms since the 12th century. So European or Asian royals and aristocrats who wanted to find themselves on the good side of a British royal could not do better than to deliver a pair of big cats or other animal oddity to amaze the impressionable blue bloods of England.

The dates of origin of this beastly collection differ. Some sources claim the Menagerie began in 1204 during the reign of King John (of Magna Carta fame) to house the remnants of Henry I's animals from the palace of Woodstock, a zoo that dated back to 1125. Generally, however, the starting date of the Menagerie is considered to be 1235, when Henry Ill received a wedding present of three leopards (some believe they were mis-recorded and were actually lions), from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Il.

The King of Norway further enlarged the collection by bestowing upon Henry a large white bear, probably a polar bear, and Louis of France added an elephant, the first in England since Roman times. (The polar bear was permitted to swim in the Thames, attached to an extremely long leash.)

Although there are no contemporary documents pinpointing its location within the Tower grounds, scholars believe that in 1264, as the Menagerie grew, the beasts were moved to the Bulwark, which was near the western entrance. Edward I built a semi-circular tower to house the animals in 1277, the structure which would eventually be called the Lion Tower. (Today the Lion tower lays in ruins but is identified as the site of the Menagerie via a number of stone-cast animals.)

Cramped Conditions

Even in life, conditions for the animals were hardly ideal, particularly for animals such as the polar bear. Even allowing for an occasional plunge in the Thames, English high summer must have been horribly unpleasant for this Arctic native.

Climate was not the only hazard faced by the Menagerie inmates. While modern zoos and safari parks make allowances for the nomadic and wide-ranging nature of many animals, the Tower was scarcely equipped for this sort of lifestyle, and little allowance was made for the instinctive needs of the creatures.

The lions, for example, appear to have been kept in small cages that provided hardly enough space for a lion to turn around, much less take any exercise. An understanding of their tenants’ eating requirements was also not high on the list of priorities. Whether through ignorance or carelessness, the animals often received inappropriate nourishment. For instance, an elephant bestowed upon James I by the King of Spain in 1623 was given nothing to drink but wine. One can only imagine the impact on the pachydermal digestive system, not to mention its temperament.

A 13th-century drawing of an elephant with keeper Henry de Flors.

And for some reason, the keepers believed ostriches to be excessively partial to iron. Records show that an ostrich living in the Tower expired after having been fed more than 80 iron nails.

Public Days

Though the Menagerie was mostly used for the entertainment of royals, the general populace was occasionally allowed to view the animals during the reign of Elizabeth I. By the end of the 18th century, the Menagerie was regularly open to the public, and it was even advertised that, in lieu of an admission fee, one could feed one's pet dog or cat to the lions for the entertainment of the crowds.

(The Menagerie saw many acts of cruelty towards its animals as well as its human inhabitants. James I was fond of holding bear baitings there, where handlers would set dogs, bulls, or bears against the lions for the entertainment of the king's guests. Fortunately, the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824 finally put a stop to such treatment.)

Once the populace was allowed access to the collection, Public Days at the Menagerie brought many to stare at the unusual Tower residents. Besides the common citizens of London who flocked to the display, the notorious and the notable came as well.

The poet William Blake, who visited the Menagerie in 1804, was inspired by the sight to pen his immortal "Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright." John Wesley, the great Methodist theologian, experimented with the animals to discover if they had souls. He measured their reactions to the playing of flutes, conjecturing that the music was of such beauty that no creature possessing a soul could fail to be moved by it.

The giant Gog extricating the dwarf Xit from a bear in the Lions Tower at the Tower of London, watched by Queen Mary I.

The last director of the Menagerie at the Tower, Alfred Cops, assumed his duties in 1822 but discovered that the Menagerie had been neglected and was in dreadful condition. To create interest in the collection and to better its fortunes, Cops had the Menagerie restocked and published a scientific catalog, complete with illustrations of the animals. There was a brief resurgence of interest in the Menagerie, as the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s brought with it a new concern for the welfare of animals as well as humans, and the passage in 1822 of the first laws against mistreatment of cattle and horses caused people to rethink the situation for the animals in the Tower.

In 1834, partly out of concern for their living conditions, the bulk of the collection was moved to Regents Park to become the foundation of the current London Zoo. The last animals departed the Tower in 1835 and Lion Tower was demolished, leaving only the Lion's Gate to show where the Menagerie had once been housed.


This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine.


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