The Royal Menagerie

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately (to the detriment of my audiobook listening…).  My mom recommended the Rex Factor podcast, and it’s great.  The gist of it is, the hosts go through all the Kings and Queens of England and rate them in different categories and determine if the monarch has the Rex Factor.  Presumably (because I’m not that far yet) they’ll pit those who do have the Rex Factor against each other and try and figure out who the best English monarch was.  I think they’re doing Scotland now that they have finished England, which should be cool too.  All this to say: I heard about today’s topic in a couple episodes of Rex Factor and decided to look into it further.

Throughout history, monarchs have been exchanging crazy gifts as a way of showing how powerful they are and to forge alliances.  This included food stuffs, gems, princesses (because really, you’re giving away your daughter to another country in order to forge an alliance, and what shows power more than that?), as well as all sorts of wild and exotic animals.  A lot of these animals were not even natural to the country that was gifting them, and so it showed that monarch’s wealth in that he could pay for this crazy animal to come from India or Africa or wherever and just give it away.  Some animals signified the strength of the monarch giving it away as well.

England was given a lot of gifts of exotic animals over the years; as well as being symbols of wealth and power for those gifting them, they were symbols of power for the English monarch as well, often being purely “for the entertainment and curiosity of the court” (1).  Some monarchs wanted to show off so much, they acquired exotic animals on their own.  WoodstockWilliam the Conqueror was the first king to keep animals.  His home, Woodstock, was stocked with a number of exotic animals, though what kinds they were isn’t known.  William’s son, Henry I, enclosed Woodstock’s grounds and expanded the collection of animals to ultimately include “lions, leopards, lynxes, camels, owls and a porcupine” (2).  These two were really just the king keeping these animals because he wanted to, the gifted animals would begin later.

The first records of what became known as The Tower Menagerie or The Royal Menagerie began in 1204 with King John.  John kept his animals at the Tower of London, a practice that would continue for over six-hundred years.  We know John received three boat loads of animals from Normandy, but we don’t know what they were.  We do know he had lions and bears, though.  The only way we know he really had anything is because of bookkeeping records referencing them.

John’s son, Henry III, is usually credited with the creation of the Menagerie, because we know so much more about the amounts and kinds of animals he had.  Henry III came to power in 1216; the first known gifts of animals were in 1235.  Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Henry III three lions or leopards as a wedding gift upon Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Provence.  Frederick II had married Henry III’s sister, Isabella, and “this gift was a sign of their alliance and friendship” (3).  Frederick gave Henry three lions (or leopards) because there were three lions on Henry’s shield; this emblem is still used on English football and cricket patches.

In 1251 Henry III was given a “white bear” from King Haakon IV of Norway, generally believed to be a polar bear, though that term was not in use then.  The bear was kept muzzled and chained when it was on land, but was put on a large rope and was allowed to fish in the Thames.  The sheriffs had “to pay fourpence a day towards the upkeep” of the bear (4).

The sheriffs’ having to pay to keep the king’s animals is a recurring theme.  Just three years later they had to pay to build an elephant house at the Tower for the arrival of at least one, male, African Elephant from King Louis IX of France.  The elephant obviously needed a lot more space than the lions did, and so a forty foot long, wooden elephant house was built with the money from the sheriffs.  The elephant house eventually was converted into prison cells.

In 1264, the animals were moved to the west end of the Tower of London.  This new area had “rows of cages with arched entrances, enclosed behind grilles.  They were set in two storeys, and it appears that the animals used the upper cages during the day and were moved to the lower storey at night” (5).  Most popularly and in the long-term, the lions were kept here.  Originally just the Bulwark, this part of the Tower of London became known as Lion Tower under the reign of Edward I at the beginning of the fourteenth century.  Edward I created the position, Master of the King’s Bears and Apes, later called Keeper of the Lions and Leopards.

We’ll skip ahead a few hundred years to the reign of Elizabeth I.  At some point during his reign, Henri IV of France had been sent an Indian elephant.  He found the elephant too expensive to feed, though, so he sent it on to Elizabeth I.  Elizabeth I is also the first monarch to open the menagerie to the public; previously it had only been for the enjoyment of the court.  At the time she opened it to the public, the menagerie included “lionesses, a lion, a tiger, a lynx, a wolf, a porcupine and an eagle” (6).  Under the reign of James I, public shows included lions, bears, and dogs fighting as entertainment (7).

While James I was king, the British Empire was expanding, and he received gifts accordingly.  He received “a flying squirrel from Virginia, a tiger, a lioness, five camels and an elephant” (8); the camels and elephant were a gift from the King of Spain in 1623.  James was so invested in his lions in particular that he created a special nippled bottle so orphaned cubs could be fed.  James I’s elephant was housed at St. James rather than at the Tower of London and “was given wine daily from April to September, as it was believed it couldn’t drink water at that time of year” (9).  James I expanded the menagerie; because it was now open to the public, James had viewing platforms installed.

Jumping forward a bit again, in 1672 Christopher Wren supervised the building of a new Lion House at the Tower.  People were still flocking in to see the animals and new structures were needed.

Along with all the new visitors, misfortune streamed in.  In 1686, Mary Jenkinson was petting a lion’s paw “when it suddenly caught her arm ‘with his Claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her Flesh from the Bone’” (10).  Mary’s arm was amputated, but she still died.

In addition to animals harming humans, humans harmed the animals, whether through intent or negligence.  Many of the animals had to travel great distances to get to England and then to the Menagerie.  People on the ships and in England didn’t know how to take care of these exotic animals and so many died on the voyages over.  Once in England, those that survived would still suffer due to their keepers just not knowing how to handle them.  Many animals were kept in cages that were much too small and were fed food that wasn’t part of their diet.  In addition to the elephant drinking wine mentioned above, some ostriches also suffered because of what people thought their diet was.  In the late eighteenth century, two ostriches were sent from the Dey of Tunis.  It was commonly believed at the time, for whatever reason…, that ostriches could digest iron.  In 1791, one of the ostriches died after having eaten over eighty nails that were fed to it (11).

These animals were on display to entertain, not to educate, and everyone suffered for it.  Leopards were made or allowed to play with umbrellas; zebras were allowed to roam and one went into a soldier’s canteen and proceeded to drink what was available; while still on the ship it travelled over on, a baboon threw a nine-pound cannon ball at a young sailor boy on the ship and killed him; a wolf escaped; a monkey bit a soldier’s leg; monkeys 1799in the 1780s monkeys were living in a completely furnished room, as if they were people.  Much like Mary Jenkinson above though, according to the 1810 guidebook, one monkey tore part of a boy’s leg off and so the monkeys were removed (12).

In the early eighteenth century it cost three half pence to get in, or you could bring a cat or dog to be fed to the lions.  At this time the menagerie had slipped in the number of animals it had; there were really only lions, tigers, hyenas, and bears.  tower menagerie about 1820When George IV became king in 1820 (though he had been Prince Regent since 1811), he began rebuilding the menagerie.  With the help of his Keeper, Alfred Cops, George IV built the menagerie up from four animals (a lion, a panther, a tiger, and “a grizzly bear called Martin” (13)) in 1821, up to over sixty species and over two-hundred-eighty individual animals in 1828.  New additions to the menagerie included “a zebra, an alligator, a bearded griffin, a pig-faced baboon, an ocelot, kangaroos and a Bornean bear” (14).

Alfred Cops was a good Keeper.  He seemed to really care about the animals and knew a bit better how to care for them.  He even brought some of his own animals to the Tower when he moved in (Keepers of the Royal Menagerie lived up in Lion Tower).  Despite all this, there were still accidents with the animals.  Cops himself had a boa close around his neck once while trying to feed it.  In early-mid 1830 a leopard attacked the person who had come in to clean its exercise yard.  In December 1830 a door was accidentally raised “allowing a lion and a Bengal tiger and tigress to meet” (15).  The animals fought for half an hour and were “only separated by applying heated rods to the mouths and nostrils of the tigers who were winning” (16); the lion still died a few days later.

It was becoming apparent that the Tower was no longer suitable (if it really ever was) for the keeping of animals and for crowds to come through to see them.  When William IV became king, he really didn’t care about the menagerie, and so the animals were moved in 1831.  The Zoological Society of London at Regent’s Park received thirty-two animals beginning in 1831, and Dublin Zoo and another zoo received others.  By 1835 the last of the animals were transferred to Regent’s Park “after one of the lions was accused of biting a soldier” (17).  Only Alfred Cops and his personal animals remained.  When Cops died in 1853, Lion Tower was torn down.

Wire LionsDespite this, the monarchy continued to receive animals from other countries and still does today.  Queen Elizabeth II has received jaguars and sloths from Brazil and was sent an elephant from Cameroon as a wedding anniversary present (18).  In 2011, an art installation by Kendra Haste was on display at the Tower of London.  The wire lions, near where Lion Tower stood, were a big hit; the display also included an elephant, polar bear, and baboons.

1, 15, 16 – Tower of London – The Royal Menagerie: life with the lions

2, 5 – Menagerie

3, 7, 10, 11, 12 – Tower of London – Tragic and Surprising Stories

4, 17 – Tower of London – Menagerie

6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 18 – Julia Stuart, “The polar bear who lived at the Tower… along with a grumpy lion and a baboon who threw cannon balls: Britain’s first (and most bizarre) zoo”, The Daily Mail, September 21, 2010.


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