Where was England’s first zoo?

Over 900 years ago, the first collection of 'strange' animals was formed in a small, rural town...

Picture of a lion and tiger fighting

Henry I created what was effectively England’s first zoo in 1110, when he had a wall built to enclose his collection of animals at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Among the animals on display were lions, tigers, porcupines and camels. A century later, it was moved to the Tower of London where it remained for 600 years.

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Exotic animals were often given as royal gifts. In 1235, Henry III received three lions, or maybe leopards, from Emperor Frederick II. He was also given a polar bear, which was allowed to swim in the Tower moat, and in 1255 the King of France gave him the first elephant to be seen in Britain since Roman times.

Henry III was given a polar bear, which was allowed to swim in the Tower moat

James VI improved the animals’ accommodation but also had a platform built to watch them being made to fight each other. The Tower menagerie developed into a popular attraction, and those who couldn’t afford the price were let in for free if they brought along a dog or cat to throw to the lions.

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In 1832, after a string of incidents where the animals escaped and attacked each other, visitors and staff, the Duke of Wellington – Constable of the Tower – ordered the animals to be moved to their current home in Regent’s Park.

This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine