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Located in central London, snug against the northern bank of the Thames River, the Tower of London is full of intriguing surprises. During its long history, the Tower has served as an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, the location of the Royal Mint, a public record office, the royal palace and prison and home to a number of ravens.
The Tower of London ravens continue to delight visitors. Accustomed to people, the ravens flit about the grounds and seem to enjoy attention. Discover the ravens’ story and why it’s considered important that they remain at the Tower.
The Tower of London
My first surprise, visiting the Tower, is that it isn’t a single tower! The Tower consists of multiple towers. It’s a fortress, a complex. How did I not know this? Our girls’ group spent several hours exploring this fascinating place, rich in history and tales of royalty, executions, murder and intrigue, during the 2017 UK trip.
William the Conqueror built the White Tower that is now in the center of the complex, in 1078. That tower, considered a symbol of oppression against London by the Norman ruler, served as a prison from 1100 until 1952. However, the primary purpose of the complex was as a royal residence early in its history. Learn more about the Tower in this post.
The earliest known reference to the Tower of London ravens dates back to the time of Charles II, who reigned between 1660 and 1685.
The Tower of London Ravens
A group of at least six captive ravens remain in residence at the Tower at all times. The legend goes that their presence protects the Tower and the Crown.
“If the Tower of London Ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
Historically, wild ravens lived throughout Britain, occupying towns within their territories. Very few remain in London today. The Tower ravens exist with official support, receiving appointments by the Crown. The ravens are considered enlisted soldiers of the kingdom and issued attestation cards, just like regular soldiers. Interestingly, they are also subject to dismissal for unsatisfactory conduct.
The Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders cares for the birds. They cannot fly far because the Ravenmaster slightly clips the flight feathers on one wing so that they can only fly short distances.
Their diet consists of fresh meat, boiled eggs in the shell and bird biscuits soaked in blood. Occasionally rabbits with the fur intact are included for roughage.
Each raven is tagged with a colored band on one leg. Currently seven reside at the Tower…the required six plus a spare. Their names are Jubilee, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Erin, Poppy and Merlina. In captivity, the life expectancy is 40 or more years.
Origins of the Ravens
Several legends exists, telling how the ravens came to live at the Tower.
The earliest involves a war against the Irish leader Matholwch. Bran, King of the Britons, ordered his countrymen to cut off his head and bury it beneath the White Hill, upon which the Tower stands. The face pointed toward France to protect Britain against invaders.
The legend originates from Wales. Bran is the Welsh word for raven. Bran’s head beneath the hill and ravens residing in the Tower served as magical symbols of protection.
Another tale attributes the arrival of the ravens to the Great Fire of London in 1666. After the fire, survivors killed ravens in London to prevent scavenging. When Charles II heard that killing ravens was a bad omen and that the kingdom would not outlive the last killed raven, he ordered six birds kept at the Tower.
And another story suggests the ravens came to the Tower because of executions carried out there. Hint…ravens are scavenger birds.
Whatever the reason for their initial introduction to the Tower, the legend eventually became tradition.
During WWII, ravens served as unofficial spotters for enemy bombers. During the Blitz in July of 1944, all but one of the ravens died, from bombings and stress. Winston Churchill ordered more ravens to bring the flock back to the correct size.
One of the ravens surprised Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2003. A bird called Thor greeted each person accompanying Putin with a cheerful “good morning”.
During the global pandemic of bird flu, in 2006, special aviaries constructed indoors protected the ravens from the virus.
The raven named Jubilee arrived as a gift for the Queen, during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
The birds can fall out of favor due to inappropriate behavior. Raven George retired to Wales in 1986 after destroying TV antennas in the complex. A decree issued read:
“On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service no longer required.”
In 1990 Chaplain Hood died in his rooms on Tower grounds. The ravens gathered on the Tower Green, near the chapel, called out and then waited there quietly, as if paying their respects. Ravens reportedly mourn their dead and cluster around a deceased bird in silent respect.
Viewing the Tower of London Ravens
The ravens freely wander within the Tower complex during the day and roost in their aviaries at night. Although they are comfortable with people and appear to show off for visitors and pose for photos, don’t approach one too closely or attempt to feed one or touch it.
The birds are territorial and preside over four different territories within the complex. Ravens may bite if they feel threatened in their territory.
As we walked along the battlements that circle the fortress and link the towers together, two of the ravens flew up to perch on the rail right next to us. People carefully edged nearer, thrilled to see the ravens up close.
The birds squawked and preened and strutted up and down the rail, cocking an eye toward us to see if we continued to watch. We felt honored that the ravens chose that moment to appear and provide a photo opportunity.
Look for the aviaries near the Wakefield Tower. And watch for the ravens on the green outside the White Tower, as that is a favorite territory. Or, as we discovered, they just might put on an impromptu show on the battlements.
Although the Tower of London is currently closed, due to the COVID pandemic, watch this post for a reopening date. In the meantime, enjoy this brief video of the Tower of London ravens!
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