Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Tower of London Menagerie | History Hit

Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Tower of London Menagerie

Wire sculpture of an elephant at the Tower of London
Image Credit: chrisdorney /

Over the course of its more than 900-year existence, the Tower of London has witnessed its fair share of history. The famous building in London has served many purposes as a royal residence, fearsome fortification, gruelling prison and, finally, tourist attraction.

However, lesser-known is the Tower’s history as a place where exotic animals were kept, exhibited and even studied. For more than 600 years, its famed menagerie housed everything from lions and polar bears to ostriches and elephants, and was internationally renowned until it was finally closed in the 19th century.

Excavations of the dried up moat in 1937 renewed interest in the menagerie, since bones from a variety of creatures such as leopards, dogs and lions, including from species that are now extinct were unearthed.

So, what was the Tower of London’s exotic menagerie? How many animals once lived there, and why did it close?

The menagerie was established in around 1200

William the Conqueror’s fourth son Henry I founded Britain’s first zoo at Woodstock Park in Oxford in 1100. Though he was interested in the exotic appeal of animals such as lynxes and leopards, he kept them primarily so they could be released for him to hunt for fun.

100 years later, King John brought the animals to the Tower of London and established a menagerie there near the Western entrance.

The London Tower during the Hundred Years’ War

Image Credit: Author of poems is Charles, Duke of Orléans, illustrated is unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lions were among the first animals there

First payment for lion keepers at the tower dates from 1210. The lions at this time were likely the now extinct Barbary lions. In 1235, Henry III was presented by three ‘leopards’ (more likely lions) by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as an offering to strengthen his bid for diplomatic ties with the British king. The three lions were a homage to the coat of arms established by Richard III.

The arrival of the animals inspired Henry III to start a zoo at the tower, where the privileged few were invited to view the monarch’s glorious and growing collection of animals. It was a status symbol: in the 1270s, Edward I moved the menagerie to the entrance of the tower so that all those leaving and entering (including lots of prisoners) had to walk past the roaring, hungry beasts.

A polar bear was allowed to fish in the Thames

In 1252, King Haakon IV of Norway sent Henry III a polar bear along with a keeper. Knowledge of the exotic beasts was understandably severely limited in Britain, and Henry III was shocked at how expensive the bear’s upkeep was, so delegated the task to the sheriffs of London.

For the first time, ordinary citizens of London could catch a glimpse of the polar bear, since it was decided that it be allowed to fish in the River Thames!

Wire Polar Bear sculpture at the Tower of London

Image Credit: chrisdorney /

An elephant was brought there from the Holy Land

In 1255, an elephant, which had been captured during the Crusades, was brought to the Tower. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Matthew Paris, a famous chronicler, both drew and wrote about the elephant, stating ‘the beast is about ten years old, possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at the top of his head and eats and drinks with a trunk.’

It was such a status symbol that Henry III taxed Londoners in order to build a large elephant house. However, the poor elephant didn’t live long, since keepers didn’t realise that it wasn’t a carnivore, and also gave it a gallon of wine to drink every day. After it died, the bones were used to create reliquaries to house religious relics.

Little progress was made with regards to elephant care: in 1623, the Spanish king sent an elephant to King James I along with the instruction that it only drink wine between September and April.

The public could visit for free… if they brought a dog or cat as lion food

Under Elizabeth I’s rule, the public could visit for free if they brought a cat or dog to feed to the lions. Nonetheless, it continued to be hugely popular, particularly during the 18th century.

Accidents did occur, however: a wife of one of the keepers, Mary Jenkinson, tried to show off by patting one of the lion’s paws. However, it tore her flesh ‘from the bone’, and though surgeons attempted amputation, she died mere hours later.

Years later, the menagerie’s last zookeeper Alfred Copps was nearly killed by a boa constrictor, who wrapped itself around and almost paralysed him. He was freed when two of his assistants broke the snake’s teeth.

Human lives are entangled with those of other animals; we live with cats, we use chickens for their eggs, cows for their milk, and occasionally enjoy a trip to the local farm or zoo. But humans have also enlisted animals to help fight their wars. Tracking the use of horses and dogs in warfare can be a difficult challenge; Jack Pettitt visits the MoD Defence Animal Training Regiment in Melton Mowbray which can offer an insight into this often-unknown topic.
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At one time there were 300 animals there

In 1822, the aforementioned Alfred Copps, a professional zoologist, was appointed as Keeper. By 1828, his knowledge about and care for the animals boosted the numbers at the menagerie to 300 animals from 60 different species, including wolves, big cats, bears, elephants, kangaroos, antelopes, zebras, birds and reptiles. The welfare and life expectancy of the animals born at the Tower was even better, and zoologists flocked to study the animals there.

Wire sculptures of lions at the Tower of London

Image Credit: Natalia Marshall /

It was closed in 1835

In 1828, the London Zoological Society opened a new zoo in Regent’s park – London Zoo – and many of the animals at the menagerie started to be moved there. In the 1830s, a monkey bit a nobleman in the monkey house, leading to renewed concerns about the safety of keeping animals in a non-purpose built and non-spacious environment.

In the meantime, there was an increased public awareness about animal rights, so the menagerie often came into question. After a long decline in visitor attendance, the Duke of Wellington made the decision to close the menagerie in 1835, and most of the animals were moved to other zoos.

Lucy Davidson