This summer I had the great honor of being able to study abroad at Oxford University. Of course with this sort of trip, you always get the same standard questions from friends and family upon your return to the good ole states:
Did you eat fish and chips? – Well, duh, yes
Did you mean the Queen? – Well, duh, no
Does it really look like Hogwarts? – Yup!
What was your favorite place that you saw? – Okay, okay, this one I can actually answer…
And my answer is always a tie between 2 places – Snowdonia National Park (which has enough unrealistically beautiful sights to match its unrealistically magical name) & the Tower of London.
To me the Tower of London was a highlight of my trip because I think the gory history associated with it is pretty interesting, and it had a lot of other interesting surprises. First off, the Tower of London is not even on a hill nor is it a tower! I also was not expecting to see a 530-carat diamond that day, but as it turns out the Tower is where the Crown Jewels are displayed when the royal family isn’t using them for dress-up. And I also saw a flock of ravens that are officially enlisted in the Royal Army, which is something you don’t see everyday.
The Tower Ravens are probably some of the most spoiled birds on earth – there is an elite Yeoman Warder (the official guards of the Tower of London) whose sole job is to take care of the resident ravens. He is known as the Ravenmaster, and after visiting London I have decided to add this job to my list of potential future careers (sadly, it doesn’t seem very likely). The ravens live off a carefully maintained diet of fresh fruit, cheese, and select raw meat, and have snacks of blood-soaked biscuits. Each lives about 40 years, and is individually named and have enlistment papers from the Royal Army. They are unofficial guards of the Tower of London and in order to maintain the highest quality of ravens in the Tower, they can even be dismissed from the Tower for “conduct unbecoming a Tower resident” – i.e. when they attack tourists or “leave their posts on the Tower”.
Tours of the Tower were led by Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, and our particular guide was full of interesting facts about English history, and lots of jokes about America. He introduced the Ravens as such:
“It is a legend that if there are ever any less than 6 ravens living in the Tower of London, the crown will fall and Britain with it. Now, of course we Brits aren’t so superstitious as to believe that sort of rubbish, so we keep 8 ravens here just to be safe.”
And so there are always at least 6 ravens in the Tower. The origin of the myth is unclear, but there are several hypotheses.
1. The leading idea is that they had always lived on Tower Hill – a hill near the Tower of London’s castle walls and the actual place of most executions attributed to the Tower. Supposedly, the ravens were drawn to the area by the smell of blood from executions of political prisoners. They slowly began to inhabit the Tower during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). Apparently they caused so much trouble for the astronomy telescope there that the resident astronomist asked to have the Ravens removed, but harming a raven is bad luck so the observatory was moved instead.
2. After the London Fire, ravens were rampant in the city as scavengers and people began harming them out of spite. Charles II believed that it was a bad omen to exterminate all the ravens so he had 6 moved to the Tower in order to protect them and to prevent all ravens from being killed in London, and they have stayed ever since.
3. However, it is likely that the myth of the ravens originated much sooner during Victorian times to dramatize the grisly history of the site. The first real depiction of Tower ravens wasn’t until late 1800s, and it is interesting to point out that the era leading up to this time was when Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was published and ravens were becoming trendy pets to have in Western high society.
No matter the origin of the superstition, it is clear that the ravens are now a fully fledged part of the folklore of the Tower of London, having served as unofficial spotters for enemy planes during The Blitz of World War II, raising awareness of wildlife conservation issues, and entertaining the countless tourists who visit the site every day (like myself, who spent a solid 20 minutes trying to coax one of those stately ravens from a nearby tree with a Wheetabix bar, while my friends pretended not to know me from a sufficiently far distance. Needless to say that living off their royal diet of fresh meat and bloody biscuits meant they didn’t really take a liking to my offering, which is essentially horse food marketed for human health nuts).
What’s Coming Soon:
In keeping with the current British theme, this is a fun one for sure.