Scientists at the Natural History Museum who have been analysing big cat skulls excavated from the Tower of London in the 1930s have today confirmed that there were Barbary Lions from North Africa with magnificent dark manes resident at the Tower of London Royal Menagerie as far back as 1280 AD. This makes them the earliest confirmed lion remains in the British Isles after the extinction of the Pleistocene cave lion at the end of the last Ice Age.
The existence of the Royal Menagerie, established at the Tower in the 13th Century and comprising many fabulous and exotic beasts is well known. However, the London approach to the keeping of zoological collections was nowhere near as enlightened then as it is now. The menagerie was maintained as a symbol of the King's wealth, power and influence and used to entertain courtiers and scare the pants off traitors and enemies. Unfortunately, this meant that the noble North African lions were kept in ignoble conditions, with scarce enough room to wiggle, let along swing their glorious regal manes, their equivalent of the peacock's tail, used to get the lionesses hot. Although, no evidence of lady lions has been unearthed so no wonder they're extinct now.
Rather sadly as well, despite being adopted as heraldic symbols for the King, those heartless medievalists simply dumped the lions' bodies in the Tower moat when they finally keeled over from cold, boredom and umbrage at being cooped up so unceremoniously.
Still, the Menagerie was a fixture at the Tower for hundreds of years until it eventually closed in 1835 when the animals were sent to the zoological gardens at Regent's Park, laying the foundations for the marvellously conservation and animal welfare minded institution we now call London Zoo.
Image courtesy of the National History Museum, copyright NHM.