Founded by King John in the early 1200s, the Royal Menagerie became home to more than 60 species of animal. This began a long tradition of kings and queens keeping exotic animals as symbols of power and for the entertainment and curiosity of the court.
Animals were also exchanged throughout Europe as regal gifts, but sadly, they were often mistreated.
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.
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.
Edward I (1239-1307) created a permanent new home for the Menagerie at the western entrance to the Tower, in what became known as the Lion Tower. The terrifying sounds and smells of the animals must have both impressed and intimidated visitors.
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.