In 1066 England suffered its only foreign invasion when the Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, squashing King Harold II and his troops. Firmly settled on English soil, and the new ruler of the land, the new king, who becomes known as William the Conqueror decides to build an enormous fortress to show his power to any defiant Londoners and to deter other foreign invaders. In 1076 he constructs the Tower of London, or the White Tower, at 90 feet high with 15’ thick solid stone walls strategically positioned on the banks of the Thames. In the 13th century, the Tower is further fortified with double surrounding walls and a moat built over 18 acres.
In the 1930’s a team of archeologists digging in the long dried up moat excavated the startling remains of a leopard, 19 dogs and two of the recently extinct Barbary Lions – the same medieval lions whose sculptures grace London’s Trafalgar Square. Further research revealed that over 60 species, up to 280 exotic animals, resided on the grounds of the Tower for over six hundred years.
The first animals to arrive were the Barbary Lions in 1235. Twenty years later an African Elephant took up residency as a prize from the Crusades. To ward off the London chill, his keepers kept him in a large stable and plied him with a gallon of red wine a day. The tradition of gifting the crown with foreign species continued and the menagerie grew to include tigers, zebras, kangaroos, monkeys, ostriches and even a Norwegian White Bear who was kept muzzled and chained, but often walked to the Thames to fish for his dinner.
For three centuries, visitors to the Tower had to go past the exotic menagerie to tour the castle and grounds. The animals served as a royal status symbol and showed the world the importance of the English monarchy. In the 18th century, the admittance price was three and a half pence, but if you brought a cat or dog to feed to the predators, you were admitted for free.
The confinement of these wild and exotic animals was a constant challenge and several times the large cats would escape and often kill the other animals and occasionally attack a tourist. In 1832 it was decided the animals had to leave. They were sold at auction as fixtures and fittings. Today, detailed wire sculptures of the famous beasts are strategically placed on the grounds so the modern tourist can get a sense of what visiting this unusual zoo must have been like.