Royal Armouries


“Wonders of Distant Countries”

The first royal collection of animals was formed by Henry I at his manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The chronicler, William of Malmesbury, recorded that Henry ‘was extremely fond of the wonders of distant countries, begging with delight…from foreign kings, lions, leopards, lynxes, or camels – animals which England does not produce’. There is no evidence, however, that Henry I established a menagerie at the Tower. Payments were being made to keepers of the lions in 1210-12 which indicate that animals were being kept at the Tower by that date. It is possible that these came from Normandy after King John (1199-1216) was forced to hand the duchy back to the king of France.

Engraving showing ‘Marco’ the Lion from the Tower Menagerie. From Dr. Williams’ Tower of London scrapbook. (I.287)

More detailed information about a collection of animals at the Tower emerges during the reign of Henry III (1216-72). In 1235 the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, made him a gift of three leopards. Shortly afterwards a lion also arrived at the Tower. On 23 March 1240 the sheriffs of London were instructed to make provision for the lion and his keeper, William de Botton. In 1243 the sheriffs were directed to find 1 ½ d per day for the keeper and 1 ½ d per day for the maintenance of the lion. This was increased to 2d per day in April 1244. In 1251 Henry III received ‘a white bear’ and its keeper from Norway. This might well have been a polar bear. The sheriffs of London were directed on this occasion to find 14d a day for its upkeep. The following year they were required to provide a muzzle and chain to secure it when it was out of water, and a stout piece of rope to constrain it while it was fishing in the Thames.

In 1255 Henry III received his most exotic animal from Louis IX of France – an African elephant. It was probably shipped across the Channel to Kent where it was brought up to London from Dover. Such was the wonder that it aroused that Matthew Paris travelled from his Abbey of St Albans to see it. He produced an illustration of it in his ‘Chronica Majora’.

To house the elephant a specially-constructed wooden house was erected 12.2m (40ft) long and 6.1m (20ft) wide. The animal died after two years, however, and the building was subsequently used as a prison. In 1258 the Constable of the Tower was ordered to let the Sacrist of Westminster, William Taylard, have the bones, presumably to make sacred vessels or receptacles.

References to lions, leopards, bears and other animals are frequently made in government records. In 1314, for example, the sheriffs of London were ordered to provide a quarter of mutton every day for the king’s lions. Keepers were paid at the rate of 1 pence a day from 1338 which generally remained the rate for the medieval period. It was not always easy for keepers to obtain their wages. In 1408 William Bounde pleaded for the £55 owed to him. If this continued he feared imprisonment by his creditors and that the lions would go unfed.

The “Lion Turret”

During the reign of Edward III (1327-77) the location of the Menagerie becomes evident. In 1335 payment for a lock and key ‘towards the lions and leopards’ suggests a position near the Middle Tower and that the Menagerie had been established near the western entrance. The reference to the ‘Lion Turret’ probably concerns Edward I’s barbican, later called the Lion Tower, built in 1276-77, immediately to the west of the Middle Tower, the known site of the Menagerie by the 16th century.

The Lions Den

By the 15th century the office of keeper of the lions, lionesses and Leopards in the Tower was generally held by royal servants. In 1436 the office was granted to Robert Manfeld, a marshal of the hall within the royal household. In that year all the lions in the Tower also died. In 1446 Manfeld attempted to have the accommodation improved because of its ruinous state. In 1460 the post was awarded to Thomas Rookes. In 1461 it was granted to the king’s esquire, Ralph Hastings. In 1484 it was conferred upon one of Richard III’s closest servants, Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower and Master of the Mint. The office was primarily a sinecure and the actual duties performed by deputies.

During the Tudor period visitors to the Tower began to record their impressions of the Menagerie. In February 1544 Pedro de Gante, secretary of the Duke of Najera wrote how he and his master saw ‘four lions, very large and fierce, and two leopards, confined within wooden railings’. In August 1548 Lupold von Wedel was shown ‘the queen’s lions….an eagle and a lynx’. In 1592, when Joseph Rathgeb, secretary of Frederick Duke of Wurtemberg, visited the Tower he wrote ‘In this Tower also, but in separate small houses made of wood, are kept six lions and lionesses…not far from there is also a lean, ugly wolf, which is the only one in England, on this account it is kept by the Queen’. Six years later Paul Hentzner was shown three lionesses, a lion, a tiger, a lynx, a wolf, a porcupine and an eagle. He added ‘All these creatures are kept in a remote place, fitted up for the purpose with wooden lattices at the Queen’s expense’.

Growth of the Menagerie

The Menagerie underwent important changes during the reign of James I. Between 1604 and 1606 the existing two-storeyed wooden dens set against the inside face of the Lion Tower were extensively refurbished. The pulley mechanisms, internal stairs, and individual cage frames were all overhauled. Perhaps the most significant improvement was an exercise yard created in the moat, on the west side of the Lion Tower. The walls of the yard were made with Kentish ragstone and the floor was paved with Purbeck marble. Overhead a great platform was erected for the king to view his lions. One of the uses of this yard was lion baiting. James I had a passion for the sport which were sometimes staged for visiting dignitaries. In 1622 a decision was made to replace the viewing platform with an improved platform complete with handrails and painted ‘lead colour’.

The popularity of the Menagerie did not decline during the Civil War and Commonwealth period (1642-60). In 1647 Sebastian Gawareki, a tutor of the future Polish King Jan Sobieski, was impressed by the sight of ‘a pair of lions, kept separately, very big beasts…two tigers and two lynxes, an old one and a young one, and an Indian cat from Virginia.’ In 1657 Howell stated in his Londinopolis that ‘the Tower was never ‘better furnished with lions than it is now, there being six in all young and old’. In August 1661 the Dutch artist William Schellinks visited the Tower and was shown six lions, a lioness, two leopards and two eagles. He also noted that one of the lions had a dog as a companion, a phenomenon often recorded in later accounts.

In 1670 building work began on a new wall and gatehouse at the entrance to the Tower. This affected the Menagerie because the new wall passed through the exercise yard which revealed offal and other refuse that needed burying again quickly. The following year construction began on a new house for the Keeper, William Gill. This became known as the ‘Lion House’, a two-storeyed brick building. Additional works were subsequently undertaken to improve the facilities in the exercise yard including new cages for eagles, vultures and owls. In 1695 a new cage was apparently made for a hyena (referred to as ‘an ‘jana) and a major refurbishment was undertaken of the lions’ cages.

Viewing the animals, however, was still subject to some risk. In 1686 Mary Jenkinson, a maid who lived with the Keeper, was mauled by the largest lion at the Tower after presumably taking an acquaintance into see the animals. Her arm was amputated in an attempt to save her life but she died shortly afterwards. Despite the occasional fatalities the Tower was now firmly established as the place to see wild and exotic animals, so much so that a number of rare beasts and birds were transferred to the Tower from St James’s Park in 1687. In 1698, when Ned Ward published his London Spy, he described some of the animals in a detailed, yet humorous manner. He was even shown some early examples of taxidermy by the under-keeper and two ‘pretty looking hell-cats’ could easily have ‘killed at a distance with their very looks’. When Strype published his new edition of John Stow’s Survey of London in 1704 he listed a lion and lioness presented to William III, a lion presented to Queen Anne, two others by the King of Barbary (Algeria), and a sixth presented to the Duke of Gloucester. There was also a leopard and a tiger, one from ‘King Charles the Second’s time; but now much in decay’. There were three eagles, two Swedish owls, two mountain cats, and a jackal. Strype also noted that the animals smelt terribly even though their cages and dens were cleaned every day.

The popularity of the Tower Menagerie grew during the Georgian period, a fact reflected in the rising entrance fee, from 3d at the beginning of the century to 9d by the end. In 1717 when John Martin had been appointed keeper he had been paid from visitor fees alone. The daily fee was reinstated when John Ellys was appointed in 1739 but abolished yet again at his death.

Cartoons and caricatures

During the 18th century information about the Menagerie began to appear in print. In 1741 the first published guide to the Tower produced by Thomas Boreman and intended for children provided numerous illustrations of the different animals. As regular editions of Tower guidebooks began to be produced from mid century onwards details about the animals and exotica were routinely included.

By the 1780s the Menagerie had become accepted within the popular imagination and appeared in cartoons and caricatures. The ‘Monkey Room’, for example, appeared in a comic depiction by the artist, Thomas Rowlandson. Similarly, a cartoon of Sir Frances Burdett, MP, imprisoned in the Tower of London in early 1810 as the ‘Took Took’ bird appeared around the same time in contemporary publications.

A cartoon depicting Sir Frances Burdett MP (who was imprisoned in the Tower of London in early 1810) as the ‘Took Took’ bird. The cartoon reads: “Now Ladies and Gentlemen, let me call your particular attention to this extraordinary bird, it has been fluttering and croaking about Middlesex and Westminster to the great annoyance of his Majesty’s Loyal Subjects, he is supposed to be of the wild Goose kind by most learned men, and was taken after a great deal of trouble and escorted here under a very strong Guard.”

Decline of the Menagerie

Although refurbishment works were carried out towards the end of the century the Menagerie had, by this stage, begun to decline in popularity. The number of animals steadily declined. By 1821 it numbered a mere four lions, a panther, a leopard, a tiger and a grizzly bear. The latter had actually been a gift to George III by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Commonly known as ‘Old Martin’ he was subsequently transferred to the Zoological Society of London and died in Regent’s Park zoo in 1838.

The appointment of Alfred Copps in 1822 promised a revival of the Menagerie’s fortunes. By 1828 the collection reputedly numbered more than sixty different species, and over two hundred and eighty animals. The keeper now actively acquired animals in his own right rather than relying on royal and diplomatic gifts. The much improved collection drew praise from various critics including the zoologist Edward Turner Bennett who provided a detailed list of the animals in his 1829 account. However, in 1830 George IV died (1820-30). His demise spelt the end of this attraction. Within weeks a decision to dispose of the royal beasts had been taken. They were to be presented to the Zoological Society of London. Animal attacks had always been a hazard of working in or visiting the Menagerie and a crop of notable incidents only confirmed in official minds that the correct decision had been made. Copps sold some of his own animals in 1831 but continued to display the remainder at the Tower. In 1835 however, Ensign Seymour, was bitten by a monkey and news of the incident reached the ears of King William IV (1830-37). After discussions with the Constable, the Duke of Wellington, it was reported that he wanted the display closed down. Copps finally gave in and agreed in August to close the exhibition. On 28 October The Times announced the exhibition no longer existed. Much to the Tower authorities’ annoyance Copps exercised his life tenure of the keeper’s official residence and continued to live at the Tower until his death in 1853. There then followed an unseemly haste to eject his daughter and her husband from the house. With the demolition of the house in September 1853, the old Menagerie buildings having been demolished in 1852, the 600 year old tradition of a Menagerie at the Tower finally came to an end. The new Tower Armouries ticket office was subsequently built on the site of the empty animal cages.

Dr. Malcolm Mercer

Curator of Tower History

Select Bibliography

T Boreman, Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741)

A Borg, ‘The Royal Menagerie’, in The Tower of London: its Buildings and Institutions, ed., J Charlton (London, HMSO, 1978), pp. 100-103

D Hahn, The Tower Menagerie (London, 2003)

G Parnell, The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London (Royal Armouries, 1999)

Did you know?

What a great bore.

Two of the largest bore guns ever built could fire a 1 tonne cast iron ball, 3 ft in diameter, containing 215 Kg of gunpowder, to a range of 2.4 km (1.5 miles). One is on display at Fort Nelson, the other is on loan at the Royal Artillery Museum in London