The Tower was once home to a collection of weird and wonderful beasts
Updated 29 May. In line with government guidance, our palaces remain closed. We are working on detailed plans to safely re-open our sites, starting with our outdoor spaces. Thank you for your patience. Read our statement
From the 1200s to 1835, the Tower housed a menagerie of exotic wild animals, never before seen in London, including lions and a polar bear given as royal gifts.
The Tower menagerie began as a result of medieval monarchs exchanging rare and strange animals as gifts.
These lion sculptures, and other animal installations on site commemorate the former inhabitants of the Tower.
In 1235, Henry III (1216-72) was delighted to be presented with three 'leopards' (probably lions but referred to as leopards in the heraldry on the king's shield) by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. These inspired the King to start a zoo at the Tower. Over time the collection of animals grew: the lions were joined by a polar bear in 1252 and an African elephant in 1255.
Henry III’s Plantagenet crest featured three lions; ancestors of those on the England football team strip today!
The King of France sent an elephant to the Tower in 1255, and Londoners flocked ‘to see the novel sight’.
Although the elephant had a brand new 40 foot by 20 foot elephant house and a dedicated keeper, it died after a couple of years.
Many of the other animals did not survive in the cramped conditions, although lions and tigers fared better, with many cubs being born.
In the 1300s, visitors to the Tower would have first crossed a drawbridge to the Lion Tower (demolished in the 1800s) named after the beasts kept there.
By 1622, the collection had been extended to include three eagles, two pumas, a tiger and a jackal, as well as more lions and leopards, which were the main attractions.
James I (1603-25) had the lions’ den refurbished, so that visitors could see more of the lions prowling around their circular yard. He improved the lions’ living quarters, so that visitors could look down and see ‘the great cisterne ... for the Lyons to drink and wash themselfes in’.
In later centuries some animals took their revenge on those who got too close, maiming and even killing zoo keepers, soldiers and visitors.
In 1252, Henry III was given a magnificent white bear, presumably a polar bear, by the King of Norway.
Although it was kept muzzled and chained, the bear was allowed to swim and hunt for fish in the Thames.
A collar and a ‘stout cord’ were attached to the bear to keep it from escaping.
By the beginning of the 19th century the Menagerie was in decline, until it was revitalised by the energetic showman Alfred Cops, Head Keeper.
He acquired over 300 specimens and rekindled the popularity of the Tower as a tourist attraction. However, concerns over animal welfare (the RSPCA was founded in 1824) and the nuisance factor and expense of the animals finally led to its closure.
Today’s London Zoo in Regent Park was founded by the original 150 animals moved from the Tower Menagerie
In 1826 the Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, dispatched 150 of the beasts to a new home in Regent’s Park.
The Menagerie closed for good in 1835, with many remaining animals sold to other zoos or travelling circuses. The Lion Tower was later demolished.
Image: An imagined scene of the animals leaving the Tower in the mid-1800s.
Artist Kendra Haste was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces in 2010 to create 13 galvanised wire sculptures: a family of lions, a polar bear, an elephant and a baboon troupe that commemorate some of the inhabitants of the Menagerie.
These sculptures are today displayed at the Tower near to the places the original animals were kept.