You may have noticed the above quotation comes to you without attribution. That’s for good reason. Nobody seems to know who muttered it or even if it was ever uttered at all. The Tower ravens of London are arguably the most famous birds in history. They’re also the most difficult to explain because of the thin separation between fact and fiction, or mythology and historical truth. Indeed, to the erstwhile myth-checker, the chore would have been onerous were it not so entertaining trying to figure out which was which. To make it easier for those who follow in this quest, here is a hot tip—don’t believe anything you read about the tower ravens that happened before 1883, the first time any connection was made in print between domestic ravens and the venerable castle.
The following is an excerpt from the castle’s official website:
“Founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7 and enlarged and modified by successive sovereigns, today the Tower of London is one of the world’s most famous and spectacular fortresses. During its 900-year history, it has been a royal palace and fortress, prison and place of execution, mint, arsenal, menagerie and jewel house.”
All that is true. What’s not true is that the ravens were initially tasked with being the guardians of the Crown jewels contained within. That’s just a small groaner though, compared to this whopper. Some fanciful writers of the age attributed the lede quote to King Arthur himself, on the mistaken premise that the ravens have been protecting the Crown since the very dawn of the British monarchy. It’s a nice thought and perhaps a sellable storyline, except for one big problem. King Arthur never existed. He was no more real than the Wizard of Oz. Oh, there WAS a fierce Welsh warrior named Arthur Pendragon, who may or may not have slayed 920 enemies in the Battle of Wherever with his trusty sword (not named Excalibur), but the only story written about it does not contain the word “Rex” (which means “King.” In other words, there may or may not have been an Arthur from ancient Wales but he was NOT known as a king. Consider the following folklore before ordering your reserved seat at the Round Table which was added to the fable of Camelot hundreds of years later. (as were Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, and Lancelot, his protégé.)
“It should be noted from whence the legend of the ravens in the tower came. There is a tale in the Mabinogion, whereby the Welsh giant Bran Fendigeid—or Bran the Blessed—raised an army to battle the Irish, whose king had married Bran’s sister Branwen, but had grown to cruelly abuse her. The battle was successful, but Bran fell, whereupon he had his men cut off his head. This they carried for some number of years and it talked to them the whole time, but eventually they buried it under the White Hill in London, facing south so that Bran could look out over the channel and guard against invaders.
“It is said that King Arthur dug the head up, believing that he should be the defender of the island, and it is further said that the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, as well as the Danes, invaded and overran much of the country as a result.
Bran, incidentally, is Welsh for raven.”
-Andrew Gruffudde, website commenter.
It was only natural for ravens to be attracted to the tower over the centuries, since it was also a prison with a torture dungeon and a crowded execution site. Both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour lost their heads in the green courtyard, not to mention thousands of traitors who had their skulls spiked on nearby London Bridge until they rotted away and fell into the Thames. Ravens, after all, are scavengers. The infamous Tower of London was an endless source of sustenance until the Victorian age kicked in near the end of the 19th century, when the Arthurian myth gained steam, if not credence. There was no mention of domesticated ravens with their wings clipped, but there were definitely a lot of wild ravens perched on the walls waiting for the next meal. It was the very embodiment of macabre and appeared to have a royal blessing as the ravens were protected by royal decree.
So much for 900 years of romantic tower mythology, but the hard cold truth is much more recent and factual. Many 20th century observers have stated the raven tale about protecting the monarchy and empire became publicly prominent during the Nazi Blitz bombings of the Second World War, in which the tower, closed to visitors for the duration, was hit by 15 bombs, three rockets and numerous incendiaries. Twenty-three people and two ravens were killed during these attacks. “It was during this time the legend actually began that Britain would fall if the ravens departed the tower,” according to one prominent Victorian historian.
It was also rumoured that the ravens were early detectors of planes, bombs and rockets. When Winston Churchill heard they were down to their last raven at the tower, he acted quickly by recruiting six more, inducting them into the home defense forces and making them members of the military, subject to military rules and discipline. (One, named Grog, was cashiered for spending too much time at a nearby pub.) The “British Bulldog” wasn’t taking any chances about the warning being fact or myth. Once the public was aware of them, the safety of the tower ravens was a matter of national security. It has remained so ever since.
These ravens didn’t defeat the dreaded Nazis, but they played an important role in perking up the morale of the men and women who did. Today, they are thriving as one of the most popular tourist draws in London.
The role of ravenmaster is taken on by one of the Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, who staff and guard the tower.
They are all ex-soldiers and must have served 22 years, have reached the position of Warrant Officer and have a good conduct medal.
Mr. Skaiffe served for 24 years as a machine-gunner and an expert instructor in wilderness survival and POW resistance.
The names of the current tower ravens are Jubilee, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Erin, Poppy and Merlina. They are identified by different coloured bands, called socks, on their legs or talons.
The ravens are fed twice a day by the Ravenmaster. They dine on a special diet of mice, chicks, rats and assorted raw meats. As a special treat, they are given dog biscuits soaked in blood.Ravens are natural scavengers, feeding predominantly on carrion. They are kept in luxury at her Majesty’s Royal Palace, where Skaiffe has begun a royal family, of sorts, of future tower ravens (they mate for life and procreate normally). There are currently 17 offspring on the “farm team.” The active duty roster is six birds, with one spare standing by. The London Tower is a “must visit” for tourists. Skaiffe has written a UK bestseller titled “Ravenmaster, My Life With the Tower Ravens” which I reviewed.