You might be forgiven for thinking that London Zoo was the first zoological park to open in the capital but you would be wrong. There has been a zoo or Royal Menagerie kept at The Tower of London since the reign of King John around 1210 when the first lions arrived.
Used to amaze and amuse the general public, the King’s Menagerie was in fact a reluctant feature of The Tower of London. Gifted an assortment of animals from foreign heads of state, the Tower in its heyday held around 280 animals and around 60 species. Everything from elephants to tigers, kangaroos, zebras and ostriches lived here.
Under James I, the bloody sport of baiting became very popular and a platform was built over the dens so the King and his courtiers could watch lions, bears and dogs being forced to fight each other to death.
I have read that the keepers did their best to look after the animals however their ignorance was rife. In 1255 for instance, an African elephant made its home in the castle – a trophy from the Crusades – and its minders fed it a gallon of red wine per day to keep out the cold. Needless to say, the animal lived a very short, drunken life in London. A Norwegian White Bear given to Henry III by King Haakon of Norway in 1252 was the luckiest animal – led out to the Thames to fish for its own dinner on a long, stout leash.
Lions, tigers, leopards, kangaroos, bears and elephants were all kept here – prisoners in the tower – held as curiosities. Often the animals would get free and attack each other – and occasionally the general public too – so in 1832, the whole unruly menagerie was sold off at auction lock, stock and barrel by the Duke of Wellington who was Constable of the Tower at the time. They moved north to – where else – Regents Park to help establish London Zoo!
There are thirteen life-size animal sculptures at the Tower of London to bring the story of the Royal Menagerie vividly to life. They were crafted by sculptor Kendra Haste and are made of galvanised wire.
The Tower of London is operated by Historic Royal Palaces and unlimited entrance is free to members. Adult entrance is priced at GBP22 and for children aged from 5 – 15, GBP11. There are discounted rates if booked online. Follow The Tower of London on Twitter @thetowerlondon and @HRP_palaces. You can also follow Chris Skaife, The Tower of London’s Ravenmaster @ravenmaster1. On Facebook/TowerofLondon.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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