Exotic Animals in the Tower of London

Guest article by Cassidy Cash

The Tower of London was first established by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a show of power, an act of defense, and a gateway into the city of London. 

Close to 200 years later in the year 1200, the Tower of London became the place to store exotic animals. Why exotic animals? Well, it seems that gifts of exotic beasts from far away places is the way reigning heads of state compliment one another. A collection of animals to form a menagerie was also a status symbol. 

Backyard of the royal menagerie of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, 1643-1715.| Coloured copperplate print (Detail)| Artist: D’Aveline (French artist, late 17th and early 18th century) | Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Versailles_M2.JPG

During the Middle Ages, several sovereigns across Europe maintained menageries at their royal courts. An early example was that of Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century. His three menageries, at Aachen, Nijmegen, and Ingelheim, located in present-day Netherlands and Germany, housed the first elephants seen in Europe since the Roman Empire, along with monkeys, lions, bears, camels, falcons, and many exotic birds. Charlemagne received exotic animals for his collection as gifts from rulers of Africa and Asia. In 797, the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented Charlemagne with an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas. The pachyderm arrived at the Emperor’s residence in Aachen on July 1, 802. He died in June 810.

Throughout the centuries, dignitaries from all over the globe presented the monarchs of England with a gift of an exotic animal that came with the problem of where to keep it; since of course getting rid of it or sending it back would have been insulting. The Tower of London was chosen as a nice keeping spot for these rare and strange animals, quickly earning the title of menagerie for the variety of animals housed there.

The original location of the Tower of London Menagerie was in the White Tower. | Photograph taken by Padraig. Public Domain

In 1235, Henry III decided to officially turn the gathering of animals into a profitable venture, creating the first zoo at the Tower of London. Henry’s royal friends gave him three leopards, a polar bear, and an African Elephant which joined the zoo in 1255.

The elephant seems to have been a particularly favorite resident as he was granted his own pen and even a dedicated keeper, but unfortunately the London weather was too inhospitable to the nature of African elephants and the animal died within a few years of arrival. 

Elephant of Louis IX of France, a present to Henry III of England. Illustration from the Chronica Maiora II, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. | Public Domain

One famous chronicler named Matthew Paris, drew a picture of the elephant and his record provides the only surviving evidence today to confirm there really was an elephant at the Tower of London. His account states, “the beast is about ten years old, possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at the top of his head and eats and drinks with a trunk.”

By the mid 13th century, the Tower of London was a tourist destination for anyone wishing to see exotic animals. Edward I is credited with naming the Lion Tower, which greeted visitors on their approach to the Tower of London. Remember that the Tower of London was, foundationally, a prison, so Edward’s decision to relocate the zoo to the front of the Tower of London appears to be designed to intimidate inmates who had the unfortunate state of being incarcerated there.

The humans that resided in the tower were either held as prisoners or lived there as keepers of the Royal Animals. The animals were often gifts from Royalty and considered a form of entertainment, art, and prized possessions, particularly the lions. According to Thomas, James I was so fond of the lions, that he designed a bottle with a nipple to feed orphan lion cubs. The feeding bottle was not even introduced for human children until the 19th century.

Visiting this zoo was not a risk-free environment. Instead, patrons often found themselves at dangerous proximity to the animals themselves, including some stories of visitors having been urinated on by the animals. In the 17th century, there is a story of one woman who tried to impress her friends by petting one of the lions. The creature tore off her arm on approach and she later died from her injuries. 

In her book “Perceiving Animals,” Erica Fudge notes that in England, animals were often put on trial for crimes they allegedly committed. “They were dressed in human clothes, put in human prisons, and assigned a lawyer. In early modern English law there were three categories of animal, wild animals, domestic animals, and recreational animals, and different categories of ownership for animals, absolute and qualified as possessions. Only domestic animals could be absolutely owned. Wild animals may qualify to be possessed however it must be made tame and maintained as tame. ” Tower animals did occasionally mame visitors and were not tried for their crimes, so there was obviously a great deal of gray area when responding to animal-inflicted injuries. The fact that the lions and other strange animals were not executed for their crimes against people (where more common animals like dogs, cats, or pigs would have been) shows you the status these animals held in society, particularly in the opinion of the monarch. 

All of the Tower of London animals were exotic and wholly unknown to the keepers assigned to care for them. Each one was essentially dumped at the Tower with no instructions on how to feed or care for them. The situation was a disastrous one for the animals who were often kept in cages that were entirely too small, as well as being fed the wrong food. 

Some animals could not cope with the change in environment, like the big monkey from Sumatra seen by Cesar de Saussure in 1725. He recorded in his diary that the monkey ‘seemed to suffer from the cold’ and died about six weeks after his visit. 

According to an article by the Londonist, one of the most bizarre stories of botched animal care comes from 1623, “when the Spanish King sent an elephant to King James I, instructing that it should only drink wine between September and April.” It seems odd immediately to think he would have assigned wine to the elephant’s diet at all, much less to relegate certain months of the year to drinking alcohol, but the direction starts to make more sense (if you can call it that), when you realize that the standard care for elephants in London included giving them a gallon of wine a day to drink. The theory was that wine would help the elephant stave off the cold.

Other instances of poor animal husbandry abounded in the annals of the Tower of London Menagerie, but that is to be expected since the entire establishment was there not for the animals, but for the spectators. Under Elizabeth I visitors were allowed to bring with them an animal to feed to the residents of the Tower of London zoo, and if they brought a dog or a cat to feed to the animals, that visitor was allowed admission for free. 

Cane Corso fighting a lion, mid-17th century. Artist unknown, Private collection of Headphonos, Public Domain

Under James I of England, the lions in the zoo were used for sport, often set to fight against other animal residents as a spectator sport. James I even installed a viewing platform for this purpose overlooking a kind of arena where lions would be baited by dogs, or sets of ferocious animals would be put upon one another to fight to the death with spectators taking and giving bets on the winner. 

The mid-17th century saw animal fighting and gambling on animal-baiting games abolished under Oliver Cromwell. The zoo would continue well into the 18th century when it enjoyed the height of its popularity. By the 19th century the rise of animal rights organizations and a better understanding of how to care for animals meant closing the Tower of London. Several of the remaining residents were relocated to Regent’s park in the 1850s where they helped establish the London Zoo.

Cassidy Cash is an award winning filmmaker, artist, and Shakespeare historian. Cassidy hosts the podcast, That Shakespeare Life, that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare. Her show has ranked in the Top 100 History Podcasts on Apple Podcasts. Her work has been featured on major history platforms including History Magazine, HistoryHit, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Learn more and connect with Cassidy at www.cassidycash.com 






1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I have a copy of The Tower Menagerie made directly for George IV in 1829 which backs up all you say but further, these animals were gifts from rulers across Europe then and kept at Woodstock until 1229 when a gift of three leopards from Emperor Frederick III moved Henry III to shift the lot to the tower, with a bursary of 6D a day for food.

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