Life with the lions: the Tower of London menagerie

For over 600 years, a collection of wild beasts was housed at the Tower of London. As a new exhibition opens about this unusual menagerie, Rob Attar meets some of its colourful inhabitants

In 1830 a keeper at the Tower of London menagerie accidentally removed the barrier between a lion and two tigers. The animals were eventually prised apart, by which point the lion had been fatally wounded. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The polar bear that fished in the Thames

To the people of London in 1252, a giant white bear must have been an unusual sight. The animal was a gift from the king of Norway to Henry III, and as such he was placed in the Tower of London menagerie that had been established to contain royal beasts by Henry’s predecessor, King John.

The bear was not always to be found in the menagerie, however. He had arrived in London with instructions that he be allowed to swim in the Thames while attached to a long cord. At this time the river was well stocked with fish and the likely intention was that the Arctic visitor could sustain himself with the bounty in the waters.

In the medieval period and beyond, the feeding of animals at the menagerie was something of a haphazard process. Without modern zoological knowledge, there was no guarantee that the inhabitants would receive the required nutrients and myths abounded about what they could and couldn’t eat. There was, for example, a popular misconception that ostriches could digest iron nails. In the 1750s one unfortunate bird died after consuming a nail (most likely thrown by a visitor) “that stopt its passage”.

The lion that killed the queen

Although a wide range of animals made their home at the Tower, it was always the lions that the menagerie was best known for. Representing one of England’s national symbols, the lions were, in the words of exhibition curator Dr Sally Dixon-Smith “a kind of living heraldry”.

They were closely connected with royalty as well, to the extent that lions were often named after the reigning king or queen of the period. A legend even arose that when the namesake beast expired then the days of the monarch were numbered. So when Elizabeth I the lion died in 1603, its keepers would not have been unduly surprised that the Virgin Queen herself passed away shortly afterwards.

Another legend was that the animals would become agitated if a woman came close by who wasn’t a virgin. This surfaced in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker where a servant, Win Jenkins, was disconcerted to see one of the Tower’s animals “roaring and bouncing” when her mistress walked up to it. Convinced that “my lady is as good a firchin, as the child unborn”, Jenkins determined that “the lion oft to be set in the stocks for bearing false witness”.

The badly behaved leopards

The menagerie was a popular visitor attraction ever since John II of France slipped a keeper three gold coins to see the lions while detained in the Tower in 1360. People came in their droves to see the beasts but, unlike visitors to modern zoos, they did so at no little risk.

Leopards seemed to be among the most frequent miscreants. Diarist Ned Ward recalled in 1699 how a leopard “loves not to be looked at” and would be liable to “piss on you”, if you came too close, with urine that “stinks worse than a polecat’s”. An 1829 book on the menagerie complained that one female leopard had “always evinced a particular predilection for the destruction of umbrellas, parasols, muffs, hats, and such other articles of dress as may happen to come within her reach”.

Some incidents were of a much graver nature. In 1830 a man called Joseph Croney had been hired to remove unwanted bones from the menagerie. One Saturday he was at work when a leopard escaped from its den and flung itself upon him.

The Times reported: “The poor fellow shrieked out in the most excruciating pain, and expected nothing but instant destruction.” Fortunately a couple of keepers heard Croney’s cries and came to his assistance, beating the leopard over its head until it relinquished its victim. Croney was taken to a surgeon and it was reported that despite being in “excessive agony”, he was “considered to be doing well”.

The tigers that fought a lion

While the tower’s inhabitants could be a danger to keepers and the public, they also posed a risk to each other. During the reign of James VI and I, this was actively encouraged, with regular displays of lions being baited by dogs, bears, bulls and other ferocious beasts. The king even had a viewing platform installed to watch these blood sports.

Yet there were also occasions when animals accidentally came into contact with different species. Here too the consequences were predictably violent. In 1828 a secretary bird was left without a head after coming too close to a hyena, but the most shocking incident occurred a couple of years later when a keeper accidentally removed the barrier between a lion and two tigers.

Tigers, who had a long history at the Tower, were often given decidedly unthreatening names such as Will, Dick and Phillis. However when it came to a fight, even the king of beasts stood little chance. A contemporary wrote that “the various agitation, the roaring, howling, and shrieking, the signs of fierceness and horror of the other inmates of the Tower… surpassed all description”. The animals were eventually prised apart, by which point the lion had been fatally wounded.

The grizzly bear that outlived the menagerie

One of the most celebrated inhabitants of the early 19th-century menagerie was Martin, a grizzly bear presented to George III by the Hudson Bay Company in 1811. He arrived at a time when the menagerie was undergoing a period of decline but its fortunes were soon reinvigorated by an energetic new keeper, Alfred Cops, who was appointed in 1822.

Under Cops’s auspices, the collection of animals was greatly increased so that by 1828 it included three kangaroos, an African porcupine and over 100 rattlesnakes, among other creatures. The grizzly was still there, now going by the name of Old Martin. An observer related: “His size is far superior to that of any other bear that has ever been seen in this quarter of the globe; and his ferocity, in spite of the length of time during which he has been a prisoner, and of all the attempts that have been made to conciliate him, still continues undiminished.”

Yet the menagerie’s heyday would be short-lived. The Duke of Wellington had been made constable of the Tower in 1826 and he feared that the wild animals were impeding the fortress’s military functions. Furthermore, the Iron Duke was an inaugural member of the London Zoological Society, which had very different views about the way animals should be studied and displayed. William IV had little interest in the menagerie and was happy to allow Wellington to dismantle the centuries-old institution.

So it was that the royal beasts were transferred to the new London Zoo in 1831 and 1832, leaving a few of Cops’s own animals at the Tower until they too were removed three years later. Old Martin outlasted both the Tower menagerie and William IV, finally dying in London Zoo in 1838.

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Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine.