Tigers in the Tower; ...Elephants Forced to Drink Gallons of Wine, Family Pets Fed to the Lions and Dogs Bred to Tear Bears Apart for the King. Revealed, the Gory Secrets of London's First Zoo

By de Courcy, Anne | Daily Mail (London), March 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Tigers in the Tower; ...Elephants Forced to Drink Gallons of Wine, Family Pets Fed to the Lions and Dogs Bred to Tear Bears Apart for the King. Revealed, the Gory Secrets of London's First Zoo


de Courcy, Anne, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ANNE DE COURCY

SITTING on the muddy bank of the Thames the polar bear, coat gleaming and eyes fixed on the river, suddenly bent over and with a scoop of its mighty paw flicked a glittering salmon on to the bank.

Quickly, the man holding the bear's chain put the wriggling fish into a bucket with several others, then led his muzzled captive back to its cage in the Tower of London. It was a simple way of obtaining food for this latest addition to the Tower Menagerie, London's first zoo.

To anyone coming down the river, London's main highway in the 13th century, this 'pale beare', as it was described by an amazed contemporary, was an extraordinary and exotic sight. Only a small handful of people had seen any wild animals other than foxes, wolves and deer which roamed the English countryside. But inside the Tower's wall there was a creature even more wonderful - a lion!

The polar bear was a present to King Henry III from King Haakon of Norway.

It had probably been captured using the Norse hunters' favourite method - killing a mother bear, spreading her skin on the snow and then catching the cubs when they came to lie on it. Once caged, many of these animals were taken by sea to King Haakon.

Henry III's small collection of animals had begun 17 years earlier with a present of three leopards from Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor who married Henry's sister Isabella and who was arguably the most powerful man in the world.

Frederick was a dedicated animal collector. He had achieved an entente with the empire of Islam and had brought back from Arabia and the East an elephant, camels, lions, panthers, hyenas, leopards, apes and innumerable hawks. All of them were tended by their skilled Moslem keepers, a new book about the menagerie reveals.

So passionate was Frederick about his collection that he took many of the creatures on his 'State Visits', where they duly impressed his hosts. It was a tradition that grand people kept rare and important animals as a status symbol. Probably for this reason, Henry III decided that his leopards should be kept in London rather than on one of his more spacious country estates and they were given makeshift cages in the Tower of London.

The Tower, built by William the Conqueror, was half fortress and half primitive palace, somewhere the King could take refuge if he felt threatened by his nobles or the populace - not unusual in those turbulent times.

HENRY had already begun a huge programme of expanding the Tower. To improve security, he had a moat dug and built a wall round the three land sides and in 1241 the central building was whitewashed (hence the name White Tower).

There was already a royal menagerie but it was in Oxfordshire, well away from London and therefore no use as a royal status symbol. Henry's great-grandfather had kept lions, leopards, camels, lynxes and even a porcupine at his palace of Woodstock (the site of Blenheim Palace).

Henry's own leopards did not last long, as no one knew how to look after them but this did not stop the King acquiring a lion in 1240. Then, in 1252, he decided to have his family menagerie brought down from Woodstock.

Moving these animals the 60 miles down the bumpy, rutted London Road (now the M40) without cranes, winches or tranquillisers must have been horrendously difficult, particularly since lions can weigh up to 40 stone.

Soon after their arrival at the Tower, a young elephant followed, a trophy from the Crusades. It was landed on the Kent coast at Sandwich and, led by its keeper, walked to London. Sadly, it died within two years.

Henry's son Edward I gave more importance to the growing Menagerie by building the barbican, later known as the Lion Tower, and the western gate in the outer wall.

Anyone approaching the Tower at night would have been confronted by the dreadful smell of the beasts, accompanied perhaps by the low, threatening rumble of a lion's roar. …

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