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Cats in the Tower

The Tower of London is more famous for its ravens with terrible events predicted should they leave. However, our feline friend, the cat also has many interesting connections to the Tower; one that is sometimes curious, sometimes cute, and occasionally morbid.

Cats have almost certainly been at the Tower since its early days as they had an essential role in the Middle Ages keeping rats and other vermin in check. They were also culturally crucial in Medieval stories and myths. Traditionally a cat played a pivotal role in Dick Whittington’s London political career in the 1390s and early 1400s (still celebrated in pantomime today). At the same time, amateur meteorologists used cats’ behaviour to forecast weather.

Trixie

One particularly loyal moggie belonged to Lord Henry Wriotheseley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Wriotheseley and the Earl of Essex had rebelled unsuccessfully against Queen Elizabeth I when they attempted to force her to name James VI of Scotland as her heir. As a result, Elizabeth imprisoned Wriotheseley in the Tower of London and executed the Earl of Essex. Even though it appears that Wriotheseley got off lightly, he did not enjoy his stay. Suffering from “a dangerous disease” that made his legs and lower body swell. According to legend, he had an unexpected guest in the form of his favourite cat Trixie.

“A very remarkable accident befell Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, the friend and companion of the earl of Essex, in his fatal insurrection: After he had been confined there a small time, he was surprised by a visit from his favourite cat, which had found its way to the Tower; and, as tradition says, reached its master by descending the chimney of his apartment.” — Thomas Pennant writes in Some Account of London (1793).

The portrait below shows Wriotheseley with a cat thought to be his faithful Trixie. The painting is a copy of one Wriothesley commissioned and sent as a gift to James I after the death of the Queen. It is full of symbolism to persuade the new King of England that he had always been his loyal supporter and to free him from prison.

Wriotheseley’s beautiful Three Quarters field armour is on display in our War Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

Lord Henry Wriotheseley a long haired thin faced man dressed in Elizabethan noble clothes sits in a room. There are a cat and a book to his elbow, and a single pain of glass is broken in the window.

The painting is full of symbolism; The arm sling shows Wriotheseley’s wounded state, the book bears his family crest, and the broken pane of glass represents the violence that was committed to his companion. Credit: CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

A tale of two kitties

One story you might not expect is of a pair of hidden mummified ‘moggies’ found in the Tower’s walls. These were considered protective and intended to turn away evil and witchcraft.

The smaller of the pair — officially designated xviii.587 — is probably the older and still seems to be spitting defiance, but that’s perhaps because of the drying out process rather than a live burial. Although, some authorities recommended the latter for added protection. Yikes!

It was uncovered during restoration work near the foundations of the White Tower around the 1850s and given to the collection in April 1930. Unfortunately, precise details of its find-spot or any associated material have not survived. Beauchamp Tower displayed the cat after its acquisition.

A mummified cat. It is blackened and withered and appears to have an angry expression on its face.

Possibly 17th century, if not earlier. Unearthed around 1850.

Its companion (xviii.897) seems altogether more laid back, emerging in 1950 during alterations to Tower Green buildings. It is its first public outing since.

A white coated mummified cat lays in a glass display box.

Presented by the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, September 2009. Found during alterations to buildings on Tower Green in 1950.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb ‘mewed’ as meaning to shut away or conceal first used in 1450. It is tempting to see a link associated with this use of mummified cats.

Blitz Kitties

Fortunately, times changed at the Tower and during the Second World War the state paid to retain a live cat on the Tower Armouries staff to defend the White Tower against rodents – a true 20th-century “Mouseketeer”. Working cats like this were common for centuries, and some museums still have their cats to this day.

More Tower cats

The Tower Menagerie also housed several lions since as early as the 1200s. In the 1800s you could visit them for a fee, or donate a live animal to feed to them!

A drawing of two adult lions, a female and male, and three lion cubs. Titled The Lion Cubs.

Titled “The Lion Cubs in the Royal Menagerie, Tower of London”, dated 1st May, 1830.

A long-standing April Fool’s Day tradition was the annual ceremony of “Washing of the Lions” at the Tower of London. There are several records of large crowds gathering to watch this “annual event”. It is the world’s earliest recorded April Fool’s Day prank.

admit the bearer and friends to view the annual ceremony of washing the lions

A spoof ticket for admission to the bearer and friends to view the washing of the lions on Monday, April 1st, 1856. The year has been overwritten to read “1856” and was previously printed as “1855”. April 1st 1855 or 1856 was not on a Monday!

So you can see that the Tower of London has had its fair share of ‘moggies’ over the years; as protectors from vermin and the supernatural, and as honoured guests. It was not just people who defended this ancient bastion, but also our feline friends.

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Fort Nelson will reopen on 2 December.

The White Tower will reopen on 3 December.

The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds museum will remain closed.