Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Tower of London: Lion Superstitions

One of the magnificent lion sculptures at the Tower of London.
Author's own photograph.
In the moat near the entrance to the Tower of London stand three fantastical lion sculptures.
Improbably made out of chicken-mesh, they are breathtakingly life-like and expressive, the sculptor having achieved the impossible by recreating fur from wire! But why sculptures of lions? Well, history of lions in central London is almost as old as the tower itself, and wrapt in superstition.
The approach to the Tower of London.
Author's own photogrpahs.
The Tower's association with wildcats begins in 1235 when Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor was betrothed to the sister of King Henry III of England. To honour his new brother-in-law and in reference to the king's royal standard, Frederick gave Henry a gift of three leopards. (Actually, there is strong historical evidence that they were actually lions, and that 'leopard' was a mistranslation.) This link to lions on the royal flag goes back to Henry's uncle, Richard the Lionheart, who had three lions passant on his crest (as perpetuated by the English football team!)
Entrance to the Tower of London -
near the site of the original Lion Tower (now demolished)
Note the lion in the crest.
"My friend, who had a great deal of talk with their [lions] keeper, asked after the health of the beasts and whether none of them had fallen sick ….at the flight of the Pretender.…For he had learnt in his cradle that the lions in the Tower were the best judges of the title of our British kings, and always sympathised with [the welfare of] our sovereigns."
Addison, 1715

Tradition to name a lion after the reigning monarch; there have been a Henry, Philip, Mary and an Elizabeth. Superstition had it the health of monarch and lion were linked. Indeed, the lioness Elizabeth did pass away just a few days before the aged monarch died - somewhat to relief of those that believed in the myth.

Again, in 1758, when King George II was sick with a painful attack of gout, the politician Lord Chesterfield wrote:
"It was generally thought that HM [His Majesty] would have died and for good reason, for the oldest lion in the Tower - much about the King's age - died a fortnight ago. This extravagancy was believed by the common people."

An exception to this rule was lion named, Edward VI, who outlived his namesake by almost half a century. One possible explanation went that the Edward lion was replaced several times - although why anyone should bother to do this is a mystery! Indeed, the other side of the coin was that rumour reported that if a monarch's lion died unexpectedly, the death was hushed up and the beast hastily replaced by another of the same name.

There were other, more mischievous, superstitions linked to the Tower's lions. For instance in the 17th century it was held that they had the potentially embarrassing talent of being able to identify if a woman was a virgin or not. Not mention is made of how they did this!

Also, it was aid the Tower lions were particularly attuned to the weather around Candlemass (February 2nd) day.

"If Candlemass Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight."

So if February 2nd was a bright sunny day, the lions were said to lounge around in a state of depression at the prospect of an even longer winter.

And finally, the spring of 1698 saw the birth of a new tradition. Rumours spread that on April 1st the keepers bathed the lions in the Tower's moat. Gilt-edged invitations to view the spectacle were issued to a favoured few, and when the visitors arrived on the appointed day - you guessed it - they were told it was an April Fools joke and the keepers had no intention of doing such a dangerous thing. The prank was such a good one that in future years, advertisements for the lion-washing were posted in newspapers - with the result that flocks of gullible tourists arrived at the Tower on April 1st!


  1. Thank you for an interesting post. I see your visit to The Tower inspired you!

  2. It did indeed, Caddy.
    In truth I went to see the exhibition "Beasts in the Tower", but this turned out to be a great disappointment. Very little information and no really interesting stuff. However, I fell in love with the Tower and spent 3 hours walking round the outside of the buildings. I intend to go back very soon, and go inside!
    Grace x

  3. These are absolutely stunning, I don't usually like installations much but I absolutely adore these, they really bring an extra layer of interest to the tower!


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