Wednesday, 12 October 2005

The Tower Menagerie

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong, Sweet little Papa.

Just read:

Daniel Hahn, The Tower Menagerie.

This is a cute history of the royal menagerie that was housed in the Tower of London. The menagerie probably began in 1235, when Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Henry III three lions because he, Frederick was marrying Henry’s sister, Isabella. It’s an interesting comment on the zoological knowledge of the time that these animals were actually called “leopards”.

So, yes, this is a very specialised story, but it’s also an interesting one. Hahn has found a number of references to the menagerie in various histories, and is able to tell all sorts of curious stories around and about the menagerie’s evolution through the centuries. For example, the menagerie seems to have been a real tourist attraction for much of its history, allowing people without access to nature programmes on TV to see real live lions. (The lions of the Tower were apparently the biggest draw, in keeping with their role as royal symbols, but there were other animals kept there as royalty received various gifts from overseas.)

People’s attitudes to the keeping of wild animals evolved over this period, and the more humane environment of the modern zoo was eventually seen as more appropriate. The Tower Menagerie, always cramped in its castle setting, was ultimately merged into the Regents Park zoo in the nineteenth century.

This is an enjoyable read about an obscure, but easily appreciated corner of English history.