Were you aware that the Tower of London was home to many exotic animals? As early as King John, we hear of a collection of animals at the Tower of London as a form of entertainment for the king.
The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London is originally mentioned during the reign of Henry III. In 1235, King Henry III received a gift of three lions (or leopards-accounts differ) from the Holy Roman Emperor as a sign of good faith for his recent marriage to Henry’s sister, Isabella.
King Henry III, and future kings of England, would receive exotic gifts from royal monarchs as a way to impress their counterparts. In some instances, it was the first time the people of England had seen these animals. The animals kept at the Tower of London showed the wealth and power of the ruling monarch.
The King of Norway gave a polar bear to Henry III in 1252 — sometimes it is listed as a “white bear” because they were unfamiliar with the animal. The polar bear was given more freedom than most of the animals.
“With the animals normally locked away out of public view, one can only imagine the amazement of 13th-century Londoners whenever the muzzled and shackled polar bear would be led from the Tower and tethered to the Thames riverbank, from where it would fish for food and wash itself.” – Daily Mail article by Julia Stuart, dated 21 September 2010
In 1255, Henry III received an African elephant as a gift from the french king, Louis IX. What a massive beast, like nothing they had seen before – tough skin, no fur and it ate and drank out of its trunk. The keepers of the animals at the Tower of London had never worked with any these animals before. As an example, at one point, elephants in the Tower were given only wine to drink from the months of May through October. Why? Who knows! Did they think the elephant drank barrels of wine in the wild?
Lists of some of the animals kept at the Tower of London:
- Grizzly bear
- Bengal lion
- Bearded griffin
Henry VIII was given an elephant together with its keepers, although we don’t know who gave it to him. It might have been one of the few living things to disobey his royal wishes: “There is an elephant given to the king, but none can guide him but they that came with the present.” [Thomas Horton, Vulgaria, 1519, f.192v].
In 1830, just prior to King George IV’s death, it was decided the animals should be moved from the Tower of London to a better location. The animals were housed by the Zoological Society of London at a new zoo located in Regent’s Park. In 1835, the last of the animals were moved to the zoo, after 600 years of them being held at the Tower of London they were now in a proper place.
In conclusion, sending exotic animals to ruling monarchs may have been seen as an impressive gift, at the time — however, in hindsight it may not have been such a great idea. Yes, these were animals that many had never seen, but they also didn’t know how to care for them properly.
Video: Royal Beasts at the Tower of London (YouTube – Kendra Haste)