We’ve all heard the story that “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” (Jeffrey Vallance in the Fortean Times, November 2007). But what of the day to day life of the birds, and where did this mythology come from?
The impressively-titled Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster holds an extremely responsible position, as his wards are the ravens which prevent the tower and the monarchy from falling. (Not really – some were killed off and others scarpered during the Second World War, and both are still going strong.)
His job begins very early in the morning when he goes shopping at Smithfield Meat Market to buy enough for six ravens plus two spares. After greeting them, he lets them out, cleans their cages, feeds them and generally looks after their welfare. Part of the Tower ravens’ daily regime is to eat formula biscuits soaked in blood. They’re given a hard boiled egg each week to keep their bones strong, and once a month they get cod liver oil to keep their black plumage shiny.
The current birds are Marley, Erin, Merlin, Baldrick, Munin, Thor, Hugine and Gwyllum – Thor can actually speak – he said hello to President Putin during his visit to the Tower in 2003.
Although they have one of their wings clipped to prevent them from escaping, this doesn’t always stop them doing so. Grog was last seen outside an East End pub called the Rose and Punchbowl in 1981, and Munin was recaptured at Greenwich Park after a short sojourn there.
Could the ravens contain the spirits of Henry VIII’s wives? OR could the legend have some connection with the head of the warrior Bran (meaning raven) being buried at the White Mount (now the tower) to prevent invasion? (More detail on this fascinating theory on Druidic ravens at the Tower of London?)
It seems that the mythology attached to the ravens is a more recent invention than one would have thought. Historian Geoff Parnell has searched through 1000 years of records, and the earliest reference he found was 1895, in a piece in the RSPCA journal, The Animal World.
Dr Parnell suspects the first ravens may have been pets kept by Yeomen or other staff: there was a craze for pet ravens after Edgar Allen Poe’s poem in the 1850s. See this Guardian article for more details.
More info about the ravens is available in this Tower of London leaflet