Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Tower of London: the Menagerie

  This granddaddy of all keeps is instantly recognisable and the history of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London is comparatively well known and much repeated. As it is the first of the castles built by William after the Norman conquest and founded towards the end of 1066 (with the White Tower, which gives the site its name, being constructed in 1078) I could hardly ignore it in a blog largely about castles and Roman remains. I was wary of visiting, fearing the crowds, although I had joined them for the stunning and moving poppy creation in the moat to commemorate WWI - and dead and wounded soldiers of all times.
  However, I went early, as soon as it opened one July morning, and had the place virtually to myself for a while. I was suitably impressed.
The Menagerie
   I did all the enjoyable touristy things, goggling at Henry VIII's armour (just TOO much for first thing of the day!) and wondering why I do not particularly like gold and jewels (that's perhaps the reason I have never married a royal). Then I recalled afterwards that, near where one enters was perhaps the place where a variety of exotic animals was once kept. I thought a few stories about that would be less dog-eared (pun intended.) Nothing now remains of the Lion Tower, constructed by the Leopard Prince, when Edward I, but no CAKE prizes for guessing why it was so called, although we do not know exactly where the animals were housed. A small area here was excavated in 1999 but only domestic animal bones were found, some with (shiver) "gnaw damage". The wild creatures must have been buried elsewhere.

 Two famous animals
   We could guess that one of the earliest inhabitants, a pale or white bear, (probably a polar bear) was kept quite near the river because this gift from King Hakon IV of Norway to King Henry III in 1252 foraged for its own food. The cost of 4 sous a day (i.e. twopence) for feeding the animal for its first year had been felt by the Sheriffs of the City of London to be too great and so the people of the city were told by the king (safely in Windsor) to buy "one muzzle and one iron chain to hold that bear without [outside] the water, one long strong cord, to hold the same bear fishing or washing himself in the Thames." His keeper was also given a thick wrap to wear when he accompanied the fortunate creature to feast on the "far and sweet salmons" later recorded by Holinshed.
    Another later cost was for wine for the elephant which arrived in 1623 for King James as a gift from the Spanish king. Its keepers claimed that, between September and April, the animal would drink nothing but wine, a gallon a day, to protect it from the cold in a foreign land. When it keeled over and died there was speculation that it had not been given enough - but its maintenance would have cost over £275 a year apart from that amount of its regular and abundant tipple.

Stray facts
   During the more than 600 years of its existence, the Tower housed a huge variety of animals in a haphazard and unsystematic fashion, nothing like a modern scientific zoo. The list cannot be complete but there were also: leopards, tigers, panthers, hyenas, wolves, racoons, jackals, a lynx, camels, brown bears (used in baiting), a grizzly called Old Martin, eagles, a porcupine, owls, a rhino and an antelope. The monkey room is of special interest since, for a brief time, visitors were allowed in to wander about despite the damage they suffered from the inhabitants who could pull off their wigs or bite them. It is good to think that, in this case, humans amused animals. Some individual creatures were regarded with great public affection - as they are occasionally today.
   The popularity of the Menagerie as a tourist attraction waxed and waned but there were periods when it was on most people's bucket list: they could either pay the admission cost or offer the family pet. I will spare my sensitive readers the reason for this and prefer the story of the lion which, encountering a spaniel dog in a baiting session, "cherished it, and contracted such a fondness for it, that he would never suffer it to be taken out again, but fed it at his table till he died, which was not till several years after."
  Geoffrey Chaucer - yes, that one - was Clerk of the King's Works for a couple of years and would have had responsibility for the upkeep of buildings connected with the animals.
  The creatures were threatened and terrified by the approach of the Great Fire: Pepys who watched the flames with tears in his eyes had taken the Crewes children to see the lions in 1662: they were so entertained that he described them as being "as pretty and the best behaved that ever I saw of their age." Or did they wonder what would happen to them if they misbehaved?
   For nearly 75 years from 1698 an April Fool hoax was perpetrated: rumours and sometimes posh tickets were issued for the annual ceremony of Washing the Lions. People paid to be taken out in boats for a good view - and to be splashed by the merry oarsmen. That spaghetti harvest has a long tradition.

    The fascinating book from which I have taken most of this information, The Tower Menagerie by Daniel Hahn, documents changing attitudes towards animals over the centuries, from the untutored belief that ostriches could digest iron, to curiosity coupled with an extreme and nauseating cruelty, to a more knowledgeable and enlightened approach. I sometimes think we have swung too far and view them anthropomorphically or value them for their perceived cuteness but that is so much better than the horrors or neglect inflicted on them in earlier eras.

Do visit the Tower when you are in London: go early and afterwards walk along the bank of the Thames to see if you can glimpse the pale ghost of that salmon-eating polar bear idling in the sun or swimming in the water. Do NOT frighten those ravens! You can, of course, get to the capital by bus - I use National Express from Newport and travel in inexpensive luxury, saving my money for CAKE - as always! For opening times click here. To read about another early castle, founded at Chepstow by William FitzOsbern, close ally of the Conqueror, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment