For many centuries the world-famous Tower of London, built in 1078 on the north bank of the Thames, is guarded by a small flock of imperial ravens, regularly enlisted in the United Kingdom Armed Forces.
These winged soldiers receive a privileged treatment: they are cared for by liveried servants, fed with first choice meat purchased in the nearby Smithfield Market, and their health is constantly monitored. However, they too have obligations: they can not leave the Tower. A legend, whose origins are unknown, links the destiny of the British Crown to that of the crows. It seems that “if the ravens of the Tower of London die or will fly away, the Crown will fall and with it the Great Britain”.
Wild ravens lived in the Tower long before this superstition took hold. Tradition want that the crows were attracted to the historic medieval castle by the smell of the corpses executed inside it. It seems that in 1554, when Lady Jane Gray (the queen of the nine days) was beheaded, the crows have literally gouged out the eyes of the unfortunate sovereign with the severed head.
The custom of keeping the birds in captivity to protect the crown presumably dates back to the times of Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685. According to the legend, John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the court astronomer, had complained with the king about the presence of many ravens that interfered with his observations. Charles II then ordered to exterminate them, but Flamsteed himself warned him: without the ravens the Tower would fall, and the monarchy together with it. The king naturally changed his mind, and ordered that at least six ravens were always present in the Tower.
However, there are a few different versions of this story, and historians now believe that they’re all apocryphal. Records of ravens in the Tower go back only to the 19th century; they may have been kept as pets, according to the historian Geoff Parnell.
Whatever the origin of this legend is, it’s still taken very seriously today. Seven crows (six plus a spare) are kept in captivity in the Tower: to avoid them getting too far away, the feathers of a wing are cut off, but on the other hand they live a beautiful life, fed on an appropriate diet based on fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs and meat. The ravens of the Tower are equated with the soldiers, and as soldiers, they have documents that prove their status, and sometimes can be dismissed for bad behavior, as happened to the “raven George”. George had a very good assignment, for a raven, in the ’70s. Living at the Tower of London, he was fed better than any wild raven, a steady diet of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits. He lived with the other ravens, where visitors streamed by each day. The one restriction on his life was movement: with his wing clipped, he was in fact confined to the Tower grounds. George would not abide that captivity, and he figured out how to climb a fire escape, perch high up on a wall, and glide down safely. Apprehended at a pub, he was forced to return to duty at the Tower. But five years after, the Tower announced:
“On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service therefore no longer required.”
His offense? He had destroyed five TV antennas in just one week!
Another curious story dated back to 1995, when other two ravens, Hugine and Jackie, were dismissed for “conduct unbecoming to Tower Residents”. They had gotten riled up during mating season and were never able to settle down. Like any soldiers, never put their personal life before their duty! And they were discharged. However, this is a rare event because most of the ravens at the Tower seem happy to fulfill their obligations to the Crown.
Instead the raven Grog, after 21 years of honorable service for the Crown, decided to go to settle near an East End pub! 😀