The first record of wild animals at the Tower of London was in 1210 during the reign of King John. The monarch would receive the animals as gifts from other powerful rulers at the time, often to impress others or to show the wealth and strength of the ruler. The exotic animals were sent to London from all over the world and kept in the Tower of London as a symbol of power as well as for the curiosity and entertainment of the court.
King Henry III was particularly credited with establishing the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. In 1235 he was given 3 lions as a wedding gift by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, he was also presented with a polar bear from King Haakon of Norway in 1251, the bear was given a particularly long leash to enable him to swim and catch fish in the Thames river. One of the more unusual animals was a large male African Elephant which was presented to King Henry III from King Louis IX of France in 1255, being the first of its kind to reach the shores of Britain, this large and unusual creature was said to cause quite a stir and the people of London flocked to catch a glimpse of the giant grey beast.
The Royal Menagerie remained at the Tower of London for over 600 years and was home to all manner of beasts as well as the polar bear including lions, tigers, bears, kangaroos, camels, lynxes, wolves, zebras, alligators, monkeys and many more creatures from around the world. In the 16th century the menagerie was opened to the public but this was not without its problems.
A lady named Mary Jenkinson had her arm mauled by a lion when she got too close to his cage and she died shortly afterwards. One of the rooms at the tower featured a furnished room where the Tower Monkeys lived, visitors could enter and be amused by their antics, however the monkeys were removed in 1810 after they tore a boys leg off in a “dangerous manner”. There is another report of a baboon who managed to get hold of a cannon ball while being transported to the Tower and threw it at a sailor, killing him. There are other reports of a leopard attacking a cleaner and a boa constrictor throttling an animal keeper.
In 1831 it was decided that the Tower of London was not the most ideal home for the animals and they were moved to London Zoo at Regent’s Park.