I used to have my own copy of Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie, a book mainly about the king’s lions, which were for hundreds of years housed in ‘The Lion Tower’. Kept in very close confinement, and (apparently) fed on sheep, the lions were much visited as one of the sights of London: Hahn certainly tells the story of how the young John Wesley went and played his flute to them, and departed satisfied that their reaction to his music-making proved that these animals had souls.
But the lions were of course dangerous animals: the very brief news sheet, A True relation of Mary Jenkinson, who was killed by one of the lyons in the Tower on Munday the 8th of February, 1685/6 (1686) came my way:
“Mary Jenkinson, a Norfolk Maid, extracted of Honest Parents, living with the Person who keeps the Lyons in the Tower, about the fourth Instant going into the Den to show them to some Acquaintance of hers, one of the Lyons (being the Greatest there) putting out his Paw, she was so venturous as to stroak him as she used to do, but he suddenly catched her by the middle of the Arm with his Claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the Bone before he could be unloosed notwithstanding that they thrust several lighted Torches at him, but at last they got her away, whereupon Chirugeons were immediately sent for, who after some time thought it necessary for the preservation of her Life, to cut off her Arm, but she Died not many Hours after.”
Leaving minors to look after lions was apparently how things tended to be done back then. In The Great robbery in the west … to which is added, Sad news from Gloucester-shire, being a relation how a lion at Winchcomb devoured its keeper (1678) we have a small traveling animal show’s lax practices leading to death:
“About the beginning of this instant August, there came to the Borough of Winchcomb an Itinerant Family, consisting of a Man and his Wife, a Boy about a dozen years old, a Lion, and an Ape; which two last Creatures they daily exposed to the view of such as had the curiosity to spend their pence. But whilst they remained there, the Boy whose office it was to tend them, going one day to feed them, passed by the Lion, and went and gave the Ape his commons first; which so far affronted the Royal Animal, that in a rage he seized on the Youth with his paws, who schreek’d out in a lamentable manner; but before anyone could come in to his rescue, the Lion got his head into his mouth, and bit and crusht him to death; and also had suckt all the blood out of his body. Not had the Ape, for all their old familiarity, sped much better, if he had not got up by the wall out of his reach. The Coroner having view’d the Lads Corpse, there was an order for the Lion to be kill’d; which was accordingly executed with great solemnity, being shot to death in the presence of many hundreds of people.”
Lions were immensely political animals, very closely associated with the monarch. Grimalkin, or, The Rebel-cat a novel representing the unwearied attempts of the beasts of his faction against sovereignty and succession since the death of the lyons in the tower (1681) is a political allegory about the Duke of Monmouth, in the vein of Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel (published in the same year). It starts with the much noted death, in rapid sequence, of three of the four royal beasts: “You cannot but have heard of the late Havock and Depopulations which Death hath made in the Tower among the Lyons. No less than Three of the Royal Line being Dead at once: and what is observed by some, to the great Grief and Astonishment of all, that the Deceased Lyons (of happy memory) were Protestant Lyons, and their Successor, who onely now survives, a Popish Lyon.”
Lions in the tower were associated with the beliefs of the monarch they had been given to – obviously, for the purposes of the pamphlet, the surviving lion is being arbitrarily associated with James, Duke of York. The Protestant Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s son by Lucy Walter, is represented as “the Perkin-Lion, or Leopard, who is the Natural Son of a Lyon and a Pard” – a pretender lion, product of a misalliance. Topsell’s History of the Four Footed Beasts (1658) is strangely preoccupied with species interbreeding by lionesses, and tells how the male lion can always smell if the lioness has been committing ‘adultery’ with a leopard.
Monmouth, five years after his death by beheading in the Tower, is still remembered in An Address to the Lyon in the tower (1689):
Thine only Friend on Earth (the Hangman) stays
With Halter (ready Nooz’d) to end thy Days;
And give some respite (to thy Guilty Breast)
(From Ghosts) that Haunt Thee since thou wert I’th’West.
There must have been a decision about this time to kill the remaining animal (after the deaths of the other three at the beginning of the same decade).
So political were lions, that Peter Heylyn, in his Observations on the historie of The reign of King Charles published by H.L. Esq., for illustration of the story, and rectifying some mistakes and errors in the course thereof (1656) deplores the propensity of King James I (deplorable for other reasons) in amusing himself by having the Tower lions baited. James’s main preoccupation in life was using one set of animals to kill another (there was even a keeper of the royal cormorants, for heaven’s sake). James of course could not resist tormenting the lions, though the historian thinks that in doing so he gave a bad example to men who would (politically) bait their monarch:
“Our Chroniclers tell us of King James, that at his first coming to the Crown of England, he used to go often to the Tower to see the Lyon (the reputed King of Beasts) baited sometimes by Dogs, and sometimes by Horses; which I could never reade without some regret, the baiting of the King of Beasts seeming to me an ill presage of those many baitings which he (a King of Men) sound afterwards at the hands of his Subjects.”
The reference is to Stowe’s Chronicle, 1605, which in its reduced form The abridgement of the English Chronicle (1618) refers to both arrangements for breeding the animals in the Tower, and baiting them with mastiffs: “about this time the King caused a convenient place to be made on the backe part of the Lyons Denne, for the Lyons to bréed in, which tooke good effect: reade my large Booke, concerning the Tryall and Conclusions with the Lyons, touching their Instinct of Nature, in not fearing the Cocke, nor greedy deuouring the Lambe, as also the vndaunted Courage of the English Masties, against the fiercest Lyon in the Tower.
As late as Daniel Defoe, once himself a rebel with Monmouth, the lions were still seen linked to royalty: “Upon the Queen's first Indisposition, the great and eldest Lion in the Tower, who had been about twenty Years there, commonly call’d King Charles the Second’s Lion, sickned with her, and died the Wednesday Night after Christmas-Day, about Midnight, 48 Hours before her Majesty; which affords us so much the more matter of Curiosity, as that the like happened at the Death of King Charles the Second, when another of those Royal Beasts much in the like manner made the same Exit with that Prince.” The Life of that incomparable princess, Mary, our late sovereign lady, 1695.
Image: a composite of the lion as illustrated in Topsell, and the woodcut in Claude Perrault, Memoirs for a natural history of