Rare Beasts, Birds, and the Calaboose


On History

A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.


Royal Menagerie, 1812.

It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.

Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)

For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. 

By most accounts, the tower’s menagerie began roughly in 1204, during the reign of King John. His was not the first of its kind in England—his predecessor, Henry I, had kept lynxes and leopards in Woodstock. In fact, from at least as far back as the eighth century, menageries were all the rage among Europe’s elite, adjoined to stately courts as private sites of spectacle and amusement. There was Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks, whose three menageries brimmed with tokens of diplomatic benevolence: falcons and monkeys, lions and camels, a Numidian bear, and an Asian elephant delivered straight from the caliph of Baghdad. There was Otto I of Germany, with his anthology of ostriches and apes, who gleefully accepted an Easter shipment of two lions in 910. There was the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, whose prized giraffe—sent by an Egyptian sultan, along with a set of Mongol prisoners—wandered daily through his agora. In an aggressive hierarchy of potentates, it was to one’s advantage to collect exotic and rarefied creatures, to arrange them like strange, expensive ornaments. The fact they’d been obtained at all signaled a ruler’s influence in foreign territories; their very aliveness suggested vigilant maintenance by staff and slaves.


Fatal combat at London Tower, 1830.

Fatal combat at London Tower, 1830.

King John would have made a shrewd branding man. While the particulars of crating and transport are foggy, it’s almost certain the tower’s first-ever lion—a real-life embodiment of the Royal Arms of England—arrived on his watch. Like all medieval mascots, the lion was prized for its symbolic value, for qualities abstracted and then co-opted: it was a golden, hairy allegory, an emblem of the monarchy’s might. As William Harvey wrote, without a hint of irony, in an early history of the Tower Menagerie, “When we speak of a lion, we call up to our imaginations the splendid picture of might unmingled with ferocity, of courage undebased by guile, of dignity tempered with grace and ennobled by generosity.”

Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, ca. 1370.

Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, ca. 1370.

Lions were a big hit in the English court, even if no one really knew what to do with them. (In some cases, observers weren’t sure if they were lions at all. Later accounts suggest early lions were actually leopards.) Their treatment was predictably and heart-wrenchingly cruel: In 1240, the keeper William de Botton was given fourteen shillings to buy “chains and other things” that limited in-cage movement. Around the same time the cats were moved to a two-story “Lion Tower” where their movements were restricted to cramped enclosures, upstairs in daylight, downstairs at night. A few centuries later, James I would construct a platform from which he and his pals could watch staged fights between lions and dogs. (Conversely, on the tower website, a copywriter puts a hopeful spin on the care of a Norwegian polar bear: “One of the luckiest animals in the tower … [it was] given a long leash so it could swim in the river Thames and catch fish.” The reality is more sobering: while the ivory beast was allowed to fish for free food—largely a cost-cutting measure—it did so while muzzled and strung along an iron chain.)

The geographic origins of the tower’s first creatures are murky, the paperwork long destroyed. Radiocarbon dating indicates some genesis stories with certainty; we know, for instance, that two of the earliest lions shared the mitochondrial DNA haplotype of the Barbary subspecies, formerly native to North Africa. Historians have attempted to fill the other bits. In early years, most live exports likely came from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, from the Islamic trans-Saharan trade or from spice routes—overland and maritime—that connected ports like Antioch and Alexandria. They might even, as the zoologist Caroline Grigson suggests, have been brought across Europe by Genoese and Venetian merchants, who swapped live beasts for woolen cloth at the great northern fairs of Calais and Flanders and Brabant.

The menagerie in the Tower of London about 1820

More interesting, perhaps, is how they were perceived upon reaching London’s white-walled compound. These were convoluted times in human-animal relations. In medieval and early modern Europe, animals were the subject of superstitions and myths, both sentient and subservient to man. They were afforded a moral compass today’s domesticated pets are not, and even—this is true—put on trial for their crimes in specialist courts and assigned human defense attorneys. A fabled instance occurred in Savigny, France, in 1457. A hearing was scheduled after a sow and six piglets were said to have killed a small child. Eight bystanders testified, eventually admitting that, while they had seen the sow engage in physical assault, the piglets—though nearby—weren’t certain to have been involved. The judge put the sow to death and exonerated the piglets, both on technical grounds, as there were no real witnesses, and because of their relative youngness.

One medieval encyclopedia, The Bestiary, or The Book of Beasts, is testament to the citizenry’s innate desire to understand other creatures, whether real or fictitious. On the subject of mice, a twelfth-century version upheld, “The liver of these creatures gets bigger at full moon.” Elephants are recorded as having a lifespan of three centuries, and little desire to copulate. The panther, the same text explains, decamps post-meal to a private den. “After three days it wakes up again and emits a loud belch, and there comes a very sweet smell from its mouth, like the smell of all-spice.” There are quick, Tweet-like bursts of healthcare advice embedded, too—beaver testicles are praised for medicinal qualities, a lion’s ill health can be remedied by digesting a monkey whole. To lions, there are devoted several pages of wisdom: “A lion turns up its nose at yesterday’s dinner, and will go away hungry from food which has been left over”; “they fear the creaking of wheels, but are frightened by fires even more”; “they prey on men rather than on women.” On copulating weasels, it was written: “Some say they conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth. On the other hand, others declare they conceive by mouth and give birth by ear.”

The elephant at the Tower of London.

The elephant at the Tower of London.

It’s difficult to tell which information was derived from (muddled) empirical research and which was pure fabrication. Editions were duplicated by hand and, upon revision, Christian commentary inserted. Weasel sex and childbirth, for instance, parallels the conception of Christ—albeit clumsily—which some patristic writers insisted was effected through the Virgin’s ear, not her womb. An obedient servant, Mary heard God’s word through this vital organ, let it enter, and that word became flesh.


For centuries, the inner workings of London’s Tower Menagerie were obscured from public view, its imported creatures assuming something of a mythic quality. Collecting and viewing exotic beasts remained an indulgence of the rich. But everything changed in the sixteenth century, during the reign of Elizabeth I. For the first time, the menagerie was opened to the public—for a small fee, of course, either money or a cat or dog that could be fed to the lions. They came in droves, mouths open, dumbfounded or leering or excitable or all three, gazing at elephants and rhinos and tigers and hyenas through the bars. Poets and artists and scientists visited, making sketches and taking notes. Anthropomorphism had faded from favor, and renaissance humanism posited beasts as, well, beasts, existing for the entertainment of man: their bodies pliable, their flesh shackled, catalogued, baited, prodded.

This cavalier approach was not without risk. In 1686, if common mythology is to be believed, a Norfolk maid named Mary Jenkinson took a friend to see the lions; the largest extended its paw, Mary stroked it, and her flesh was ripped from the bone. The tattered arm was amputated, and Mary died shortly after.

Sometime in the nineteenth century, the fun dried up. The menagerie always was until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. In spite of the labors of the last official keeper, Alfred Cops—who transformed what was fast becoming a sad, dwindling collection into a heaving compilation of sixty species, from ocelots to pig-faced baboons—bits of the operation began to break apart, like a soggy biscuit. There were frequent attacks: by cannon-hurling monkeys, by snakes, by a leopard who grew bored of its cage cleaner. Between 1831 and 1832, the royal collection was transferred in its entirety to the care of the Zoological Society of London. Only Cops’s privately purchased captives remained, and he exhibited them at the tower for a couple of years before bowing to the inevitable and packing up shop.

Now not even the original building is left, though perhaps that is a good thing. While some exotic animals were surely beloved, all endured astonishing cruelty; be it the elephant fed a galleon of wine each day instead of water or the ostrich found with nails in its stomach (the flightless fowl was thought to have a predilection for metal). The lesson learned from invisible menageries is that we can always do better—that we already are. But there’s a sentiment, recently uttered by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker that resonates here, too. It was penned in relation to America’s Underground Railroad; it relates to the whole of history. “One of the biases of retrospection,” she writes, “is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy.”

Laura Bannister is the editor in chief of Museum. She writes for numerous other magazines about contemporary art and culture.