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'Washing the Lions': A Famous April Fools Hoax at the Tower of London

Date: 01 April 2024

Author: Minette Butler

For hundreds of years, being sent to the Tower of London was no laughing matter. But did you know that this ancient fortress is also home to Britain’s earliest recorded April Fool’s prank – the so-called 'Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions'?

Here, Assistant Curator Minette Butler explores how the Tower’s lions became unwitting accomplices to London’s favourite practical joke.

Lions at the Tower

Founded by King John in the early 13th century, the Tower menagerie was home to the many creatures gifted to the monarchy. These royal beasts included everything from tigers, snakes, elephants, baboons and even possibly a polar bear.

Since the reign of Edward I, lions and other royal beasts were kept in the now lost ‘Lion Tower’, once found near the Middle Tower entrance over the moat (sometimes called the Tower Ditch).

Between 1604 and 1606, James I expanded the animals’ enclosures to give visitors a better view of the big cats. This included building an exercise yard, a viewing platform and a ‘greate cistern… for the Lyons to drinke and washe themselfes in’.

A line drawing showing a large lion in a striking pose, with 'The Cape Lion' written underneath

Image: Illustration of one of the Tower lions from a history of the menagerie written by Edward Turner Bennett, Vice-Secretary of the Zoological Society of London shortly before the removal of the animals from the Tower to Regent’s Park in the 19th century. © Historic Royal Palaces

A line drawing showing a large castle Tower leading onto battlements surrounded by a moat

Image: The Lion Tower, now almost destroyed, derived its name from the 1330s when it housed the lions in the King's royal menagerie. © Historic Royal Palaces

Lions became one of the Tower’s most popular attractions. Often named after kings, queens and other historic figures, these impressive animals were heavily associated with British identity and had been incorporated into royal arms since the reign of Richard I. They were also dangerous; in 1686, a woman named Mary Jenkinson died after trying to stroke a lion’s paw.

Nonetheless, lions were kept and even bred at the Tower for over 600 years. For some, the phrase 'going to see the lions' was synonymous with visiting London and seeing the city’s famous sights.

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A ticket reading 'Ticket for the Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions, dated April the 1st, 1856'

A Ticket to 'Washing the Lions', 1856

The long history of lions at the Tower may, at first glance, explain this ticket dated to 1856. It promises entrance to the ‘Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions’, including instructions to find the ‘White Gate’ with a serious seal and signature from the Tower’s ‘Senior Warden’.

Yet a closer look at the date reveals the truth. It was 1 April 1856; the Tower had no ‘White Gate’, nor any lions left to visit. The menagerie has been closed for over 20 years and the unlucky ticket holder was an ‘April Fool’.

Image: © Royal Armouries

The Origins of a Famous 'April Fool'

Historians still debate about the origins of April Fool’s Day – a tradition continued every year on 1 April. English references to playing hoaxes – therefore making someone an ‘April fool’ – begin in the early 17th century, with antiquarian John Aubrey first attributing ‘All Fool’s Day’ to 1 April in 1686.

From the late 17th to mid-19th centuries, sending someone to watch the ‘Washing of the Lions’ was London’s favourite fool’s errand – often given to rural and international visitors on the first day of April.

Transcribed in Notes and Queries (1913), Dawk’s Newletter reported in 1698 that ‘yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed’. Many historians consider this to be the oldest recorded April Fool’s Day hoax.

Time was when amongst the lions of London the lions in the Tower held a distinguished rank… so high indeed was their reputation, the washing of the Lions at the Tower formed one of the standing jokes of the 1st of April.

Berkshire Chronicle, 1825

Tales from the Tower

Stories of unwitting tourists being sent to the Tower appear in journals, newspapers, and memoirs.

Most who asked after the lions came away relatively unscathed. One Scottish visitor remembered joining his friend to ‘see the Lions washed’ only to reach the Tower and find ‘all the rascals laughing at us’.

But not all victims were so lucky. One gossipy account appears in a ‘Home News’ entry from The Lady’s Magazine, dated 1771. After asking what time the lions would be washed, two men were encouraged into a small boat on the nearby river to get a better view of the ceremony.

Once safely aboard, the pair were stripped of their oars and pushed out onto the Thames. Helpless and adrift, they were soon surrounded by other mischievous boats who ‘splashed by them for about a quarter of an hour, to the great diversion of the spectators’.

Painted view of the Tower of London from the south, over the River Thames, showing distant figures on the Tower wharf, and a large British naval frigate with other boats on the river. 'View of The Tower of London from the Thames', c 1690-1710, by an unknown artist

Image: The Tower of London viewed from the River Thames, by an unknown artist. © Historic Royal Palaces

What's So Funny?

Historians still aren’t sure where this ‘washing the lions’ hoax came from, although some speculate that the prank grew from visitors tipping menagerie keepers for tours or to feed the animals.

Lions were some of the first animals kept at the Tower. However, a distinct ‘Ceremony of Washing the Lions’ seems to have been a complete fiction – maybe, as one wry commentator observed in 1873, because ‘the washing of lions is a disagreeable and dangerous process’.

The Joke Endures

The menagerie went into decline from the 1820s, with the animals gradually sold off to various collections including what later became London Zoo. The famous home of the nation’s royal beasts finally closed in 1835.

Yet the joke outlived the lions themselves. In his memoirs, Gustave Louis M Strauss confessed to handing out tickets for the ‘famous grand ceremony of washing the lions’ in around 1848. Organised by the owner and editor of the Chat, a London-based comic magazine, Strauss colourfully recalls how people ‘flocked in their shoals to see the lions washed’ and that ‘the “warders” were almost at their wits’ end’.

A printer of ballads, not many years back, tried to make a little money by a smart bit of April Fooling. Knowing that many country people are still ignorant of the fact that the lions have been long removed from the Tower, he printed penny tickets purporting to admit the holder to the annual ceremony of washing the lions... How many ninnies were taken in by the trick, the record does not say.

Chamber’s Journal, 1877

Sculpture of a lion made from steel armature and painted galvanised wire, installed on the former site of the Lion Tower. Part of the Royal Beasts exhibition.  Showing a front view of the full sculpture.

Sculptor Kendra Haste was commissioned in 2010 by Historic Royal Palaces to create a series of thirteen works celebrating the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. The menagerie was established in the early 13th Century and remained a part of the Tower of London until 1832 when the remaining animals were moved to Regents Park to help establish London Zoo.

Image: Sculpture of a lion, installed on the site of the Lion Tower as part of the Royal Beasts exhibition. © Historic Royal Palaces

In 1860, ‘a vast multitude of people’ received yet more tickets to witness the ‘Ceremony of Washing the White Lions’. According to Chamber’s Book of Days (1863), the prank was remembered as ‘highly successful’ with a host of cabs descending on Tower Hill in search of the still non-existent White Gate.

The Last Laugh

A strange story from one of the lesser-known chapters in the Tower’s history, this April Fool’s hoax is a small window into a bustling city’s sense of humour.

Today, the only lions left at the Tower of London are these sculptures, created by Artist Kendra Haste and placed near the site of the lost Lion Tower. Although the lions may be long gone, visitors can still come face to face with one of our grizzly bears!

Minette Butler
Assistant Curator, Historic Royal Palaces

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