Miss Cuddlywumps reports on the presence of Barbary lions at the Tower of London
Wire lion sculptures at the Tower of London,
Where Barbary lions were once kept.
Photo by by Marc Roberts (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr.
The Tower of London is known for many things, among them imprisonment, executions, Beefeaters, and the Crown Jewels. From the early 13th century until 1835, it was also known for its collection of wild and exotic animals kept in the Tower Menagerie. The animals kept there included bears, leopards, camels, an elephant and, as you will have guessed from the title of this post, lions.
The Tower Menagerie was started by King John (reigned 1199–1216), and the lions first arrived fairly early in the menagerie’s over 600-year history. We know this for certain because in the 1930s two lion skulls were discovered during excavations of the Tower’s moat, and one of those skulls was radiocarbon dated to between 1280 and 1385 (the second skull dated to 1420–1480). Both skulls belonged to male lions.
A male Barbary lion.
Photo by Alfred Edward Pease
(29 June 1857–27 April 1939).
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons.
In 2008, DNA studies showed that the large felines were in fact Barbary lions, a North African subspecies whose males sported magnificently dark, long-haired manes that could extend onto their backs and bellies.
Barbary lions have been extinct in the wild since 1942, when the last known one was shot. It is possible that some modern captive lions from zoos and circuses are descendants of Barbary lions kept by the king of Morocco, but whether they are true Barbary lions remains to be seen. In any event, Barbary lions were truly big cats: Males are known to have grown to over nine feet in length, and females to over eight feet.
According to a report by BBC News, these Tower lions were important for a couple of reasons. First, they were a sign of favorable foreign relations, because they were presented to the ruler of England as gifts from other monarchs. Second, they were considered living symbols of the monarchy (take a look at these search results for “Royal Arms of England”; lions, lions, everywhere!).
The Tower Menagerie was officially closed in 1835, and its remaining animals, including lions, were moved to what is now the London Zoo.
Disturbing bonus factoid
In the 18th century, visitors could view the menagerie for the entrance fee of three half-pence, or by providing a cat or dog to be fed to the lions. Clearly, zoos were different back then.