For many centuries, the Tower of London has been guarded by ravens. They are never allowed to leave the grounds of the Tower. According to legend: if the ravens leave, the Crown and the Tower will fall. But things are changing…
Ravens have been in the Tower since it was built by William the Conqueror who created the first fortifications after the conquest of London in 1066. They are the "kings" and the guardians of the Tower.
Throughout its history, the Tower has served many purposes, and in the Middle Ages it also became a prison and a place of execution for politically related crimes.
According to folklore, the ravens were first attracted by the smell of the corpses of the many enemies of the Crown executed there.
It is believed to be King Charles II (on the throne from 1625 to 1649) who issued orders to protect the Ravens.
The story goes that official court astronomer John Flamstead complained about the ravens that lived in the Tower. Their habits constantly interfered with his work. Charles II ordered that the birds be removed from the Tower grounds. But before they could be caught or killed, Charles was told by a witch or an unnamed advisor that there was an old legend saying: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
Legend or not, the King took this story very seriously. He changed his mind and decreed that the ravens should stay and that the Tower would always be the home to six ravens.
John Flamstead had to move elsewhere. The astronomer packed up his observatory and transported it to Greenwich. The Ravens' presence in the tower led to the creation of Greenwich observatory!
6 Ravens at the Tower + 1
Seven ravens are kept at the Tower of London at all times – six of whom make up the number of ravens that is said to need to remain in order to protect the crown, and 1 of whom acts as a back up… just in case!
All of the ravens are born in captivity, not taken from the wild. One of the Tower's Yeomen Warders ("Beefeaters") is the Ravenmaster, responsible for the birds' welfare.
To prevent them from flying away, the Ravenmaster cuts their lifting feathers. This procedure does not hurt the birds in any way. It unbalances their flight and ensures they stay safe and do not stray far from the Tower.
Apart from their clipped wings, these winged creatures receive the most royal treatment.
Just Like Members of the Royal Family
The birds have a blessed existence. They live in a royal palace, are waited on by servants, viewed by the public, just like members of the royal family.
They are fed fresh fruit, cheese, boiled egg and fresh meat, as well as vitamins and other supplements.
The Ravenmaster gives the birds 170g of raw meat a day, plus bird biscuits soaked in blood. He fills their water bowls, and generally keeps an eye on them as he performs his other tasks as one of the Tower's 35 Yeoman Warders. It can be a long day. The ravens are out in the grounds from dawn until dusk, when they are locked up to protect them from roaming foxes or cats.
While most of the birds show good behaviour, sometimes a raven might behave inappropriately or show "conduct unbecoming Tower residents”, and be removed from service, as happened with Raven George who attacked and destroyed TV aerials at the Tower, and so lost his appointment to the Crown.
Today, Could the Legend Come True?
Chris Skaife, the late Ravenmaster has a new policy which allows the birds more freedom. He has been trialling a new method of clipping the ravens' wings.
He clips around a third less than his predecessors did from the ravens' wings, leaving some of the birds' secondary flight feathers as well as primary flight feathers.
The move leaves the birds freer, they can fly properly and reach the roof of the Tower. Before they were able only to hop or glide for short distances.
This method is meant to keep the birds happier and healthier while allowing them to escape from the urban foxes which killed two of them in 2013.
Furthermore, this method of clipping allows one of the birds to regularly fly away and leave the Tower! It is named Merlina. It goes as far as the nearby dock next to the river Thames.
But Merlina is special, the raven is "bonded" to the Ravenmaster — meaning she always returns to him.
It is believed to be the first time a raven has been allowed to leave since the birds were first kept to guard the Tower. It has never tried to fly away. Chris Skaife spent two years doing tests, and he optimized his capacity to get the bird back. The future of the Kingdom depends on it…
Despite their clipped wings, some birds have managed to fly away in the past.
A raven named Grog, managed to escape the Tower and took up residence in a local pub after 21 years of service to the Crown!
This is a great complement to
Thumbs up! 6e Unit 3 "On Her Majesty's Service",
all about the people behind the scenes in Britain's royal palaces like the Tower of London.