The Tower of London has served as a stronghold, royal residence and a notorious prison for prominent figures ranging from Guy Fawkes to Elizabeth I . But few know that for over 600 years it was also home to a curious assortment of residents, including—wait for it—a polar bear.
It first started to house exotic animals in the 1200s, when King John relocated the royal menagerie (created to supply game for Henry I’s hunts) from Oxford. In 1235, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gifted three lions to Henry III as a gesture of friendship, symbolic of the lions on the royal crest. The event inspired King Henry to start a zoo.
Menageries had been popular among European elites since the 8th century, with rare fauna being used as status symbols and gifts in diplomatic relations. “The fact they’d been obtained at all signaled a ruler’s influence in foreign territories; their very aliveness suggested vigilant maintenance by staff and slaves,” explained The Paris Review .
But the prize for the most forlorn resident in the Tower of London has to go to a polar bear who arrived in the 1250s. When King Haakon of Norway presented Henry III with a white bear as a sign of goodwill, it must have been a curious addition to London’s cityscape. Associated with Nordic mythology , it was a grand gesture.
— Old Weird Britain (@oldweirdbritain) June 14, 2018
But keeping a polar bear alive in 13th century London was no easy feat. The conditions at the Tower of London were unsuitable and incredibly cramped—it was a prison after all. The children’s book A Bear Far from Home describes how the polar bear must have experienced the ordeal:
“Did she look back / to search the horizon, / longing for a glimpse of home?”
In a bid to cut costs, the polar bear was muzzled and taken on a long leash to catch fish in the River Thames. These escapades soon caught the attention of London residents, and the polar bear soon won their hearts. That is, until it was upstaged by the arrival of an elephant in 1255, a gift from the King of France.
Satirical cartoon based on the existence of a royal menagerie at the Tower of London. ( Public domain )
The ignorance about these majestic creatures is astonishing. Zookeepers tried to feed the elephant meat, while another elephant, gifted to King James I by the King of Spain, was allowed only wine. James I had a platform built for lion-dog fights, and Elizabeth I opened the menagerie to the public, who paid either in money or brought dogs and cats as lion feed.
After concerns were raised by the newly created Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the 1830s, the entire collection was moved to the Zoological Society of London in Regent’s Park, which evolved into the London Zoo.
Top image: Sculpture by Kendra Haste of the polar bear which once lived in the royal menagerie at the Tower of London. Source: It’s No Game / CC BY 2.0