Tragic and surprising stories
For a long time, powerful rulers tried to impress each other by exchanging living gifts. The exotic animals kept at the Tower showed the wealth and strength of the king. Animals were sent to London from the furthest corners of the known world.
An unusual royal gift
In 1235, King Henry III received three lions (or leopards) from Emperor Frederick II. The animals matched the three lions on the King’s shield, which still appear on the badges of the English football and cricket teams. The Emperor had just married Henry’s sister Isabella so this gift was a sign of their alliance and friendship.
The 'white bear' who loved to fish
Henry III received ‘a white bear’ from King Haakon of Norway in 1252 (believed to be a polar bear). The bear was one of the luckiest animals at the Tower as it was given a long leash so it could swim in the river Thames and catch fish.
The biggest animal gift
Henry III’s biggest animal gift was a male African elephant (received from King Louis IX of France in 1255). A monk who went to see the animal wrote: ‘the people flocked to see the novel sight…The beast is about ten years old, possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at the top of its head, and eats and drinks with a trunk.’
Life for the animals in the Royal Menagerie was not easy. First they had to survive long journeys by sea and cart to reach the Tower. The Menagerie keepers tried to keep the animals alive but they often did not know how to look after the royal beasts properly. Animals were usually kept in cramped cages and often fed with food that was not part of their natural diet. It is not surprising that many died young.
In the reign of James I, lions, bears and dogs were made to fight each other as entertainment for the King. He had a platform built so he and his court could watch these ‘Royal games’. The crowd wanted to see a bloody battle and were disappointed if the animals did not fight.
Poor Mary Jenkinson
A young woman called Mary Jenkinson got too close to the Tower lions in 1686. She had been stroking a lion’s paw when it suddenly caught her arm ‘with his Claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her Flesh from the Bone’. Surgeons amputated her arm but she died soon after.
The ostrich who ate nails
The crowds who visited the ostrich believed that these birds could digest metal so they threw nails for it to eat. They were partly right though because when a dead ostrich was examined in 1791, they found that it had indeed swallowed a nail.
Visiting the wild animals at the Tower of London was a popular excursion. It was the only way that most people could see exotic creatures that they might have heard about in stories. The animals were displayed to entertain the visitors rather than to teach them anything about the animals’ natural habitats.
The leopard who liked to shred
A leopard at the Tower was well-known as she seized umbrellas, parasols and anything else that she could snatch ‘with the greatest quickness … tearing them into pieces almost before the astonished visitor has become aware of the loss.’
Monkeys at home
In the 1780s, the Tower monkeys lived in a furnished room where visitors would be amused by their antics and humanlike behaviour. However, a guidebook from 1810 tells us that ‘formerly several monkies were kept, but one of them having torn a boy’s leg in a dangerous manner they were removed’.
The beer-drinking zebra
A zebra was ‘particularly fond’ of ale and would run off to the soldiers’ canteen to have a drink. She allowed a boy to ride her round the Menagerie yard and roamed around the rest of the Tower with her keeper.
Discover the stories of the Royal Menagerie at the interactive Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London. Entrance to the Royal Beasts exhibition is included in your Tower of London admission ticket and is free for members.
Ticket prices >
Opening times >
Membership prices >
Find out more about Royal Beasts and discover more about the Royal Menagerie >
Cut out and make the oldest zoo in London
Creative children (and adults) will love this new craft book, published to coincide with the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London. Discover the story of Marco the lion, Edward the baboon and their friends, then create your own zoo with ten easy-to-assemble Royal Beasts, plus one of the Tower’s famous ravens.
Find out more by visiting our online shop >