The Royal Menagerie: life with the lions

The Royal Menagerie: life with the lions

The menagerie at the Tower of London

The animals of the Tower of London.

History of the Royal Managerie

The Royal Managerie was founded in the early 1200s during the reign of King John (1199-1216). For over 600 years, animals were kept here as symbols of power and for the entertainment and curiosity of the court. Everything from elephants to tigers, kangaroos and ostriches lived in what was known as the Royal Menagerie.

In later years, after the reign of James I, the variety of animals at the Tower increased and the Menagerie became a popular attraction.  Here, before zoos and television, visitors could see strange and rare beasts that they would never have seen before. 

  • 1100-1135 - Henry I gathered the first notable English collection of rare and exotic animals at Woodstock, Oxfordshire
  • 1199-1216 - By the reign of King John, royal beasts seem to have arrived at the Tower
  • 1235 - Three lions (or leopards) were given to Henry III as a wedding gift by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II
  • 14th century - In the reign of Edward I, the Menagerie had established itself at the Western entrance, thereafter known as the Lion Tower.
  • 17th century - King James I expanded the Menagerie and installed new viewing platforms
  • 1831-1832 - The royal animals began to be transferred to the Zoological Society of London at Regent's Park
  • 1835 - The remaining display of the Royal Menagerie was finally closed

Zoo Keeper: Alfred Cops

Gazelles MenagerieCops was appointed Keeper of the Tower Menagerie in 1822 but the job was not without its dangers, as he discovered in 1826 while feeding a large snake.  



The Times reported:

‘the snake darted at the bird, missed it, but seized the keeper by the thumb, and was coiled around his arm and neck in a moment.  Mr Cops, who was alone, did not lose his presence of mind, and immediately attempted to relieve himself from the powerful constrictor, by pulling at its head; but it had so knotted itself upon its own head, Mr Cops could not reach it, and had thrown himself upon the floor, in order to grapple with a better chance of success, when two other keepers coming in… broke the teeth of the serpent, and with some difficulty relieved Mr Cops’. 

Cops finally closed the exhibition in 1835 although he continued living at the Tower in the Lion House until his death on 21 March 1853.

Royal animals

Lions MenagerieKing Henry III’s animals

Payments made to the Constable of the Tower John Fitzhugh in connection with wages for the keepers of the lions in 1210-1212 suggest that King John kept exotic animals at the Tower. However it is his son, Henry III (1216–1272) who is traditionally credited with establishing the Tower Menagerie. 

The ‘white bear’ from Norway, presented to Henry in 1251, was muzzled and chained on land but was secured by a stout cord when fishing in the Thames.

The animal we know most about arrived in 1255. The African elephant presented by Louis IX of France caused a major stir!

Fatal combat at the Tower - December 1830

The menagerie at the Tower of LondonAn under-keeper accidentally raised a door in the Menagerie allowing a lion and Bengal tiger and tigress to meet. The ensuing fight lasted half an hour unsettling all the other animals.

The combatants were only separated by applying heated rods to the mouths and nostrils of the tigers who were winning. Unfortunately the lion succumbed to its wounds, dying a few days later.

 *Images © courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Armouries

This exhibition is supported by:

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