Could London Be Without Lions For The First Time Since 1210?

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 117 months ago

Last Updated 27 October 2014

Could London Be Without Lions For The First Time Since 1210?

Lucifer, London Zoo's male, was relocated to Paignton earlier this year. Photo: Londonist

The recent news that ZSL London Zoo is building a brand new, 2,500sqm lion enclosure means that the current resident lionesses, Ruby, Heidi and Indi will be relocated to a private home at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, London Zoo's sister site in Bedfordshire, while the work is being undertaken. Lucifer, the male, was permanently moved to Paignton Zoo earlier this year, meaning that London Zoo will be without lions for the first time in living memory for a brief period, until the new exhibit is unveiled in 2016. This got our trivia-obsessed minds going overtime: when was the last time there weren't lions living in Central London?

As the oldest scientific zoo in the world, London Zoo opened its doors in 1826, but the history of lions in London goes back much further than that: to the 13th century at least. Animals moved straight into the newly built zoo from the Tower Menagerie at the Tower of London, which was finally closed in 1832 by the Duke of Wellington. But how far back do London's lions go?

This tile at the Tower of London puts a claim on the earliest lions in London. Image: Londonist

Lions At The Tower

According to the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower, the first record of lions in the Tower was in 1210, when King John ordered payments to be made to the keeper of lions at the tower — although all other sources we've found place this record of payment at closer to 1230-1240. Either way, recent radiocarbon dating of lion skulls excavated from beneath the Tower have placed them between 1280 and 1385.

According to Nigel Jones's book, Tower, The Tower of London's animal collection really began in 1235, when a royal marriage saw King Henry III receive a trio of leopards from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II — the closest his personal zoo had to the three lions on the Royal coat of arms — and the Menagerie grew from here.

In 1240, William de Botton was given 14 shillings to buy "chains and other things for the use of the lion", and in 1288 Edward I brought a lion and a lynx back from Gascony and appointed a "keeper of the king's lions and leopards" with accommodation provided in the Lion Tower. In 1314, Edward II ordered that the lions be supplied with a quarter of a sheep per day. At least they knew what to feed lions, unlike the elephant which was sent to an early grave after being plied with nothing but wine.

So far, so good for our theory. However in 1436, a possible epidemic led to the death of lions at the Tower. It was unknown whether it was due to neglect, malnutrition or disease. The keeper, William Kerb, was blamed and got the sack. His replacement, Robert Man Field, presumably twiddled his thumbs until 1445, when Henry VI's new French wife was sent into her marriage with a lion, and the story of London's lions picked up pace once again. James I, a fan of blood sports, received a new African lion in 1604, and promptly ordered himself two new bull mastiffs which he would use to bait it.

There are other mentions of lions at the Tower in 1578, 1597, 1599 and 1622 (by which time there were reportedly 11 lions at the tower). The Tower pride even get a mention in the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys. He became fond of a lion called Crowly "who has now grown a very great lion and very tame". In 1671, even Christopher Wren took time off from designing St Paul's Cathedral to update the Tower, including a new house for the lion keeper.

For several years, tradition dictated that lion cubs born at the Tower were named after the monarch who was on the throne when they were born. There was a myth that when the lion named after a certain King or Queen became ill or died, the monarch wouldn't be far behind.

Over to you, London Zoo

In 1832, the baton of lion longevity in London was passed, albeit with a nine-year chip in it, to the newly opened London Zoo in Regent's Park, where it is believed that there have been lions from that day to this. In 1889, Dr John Bland-Sutton was called in to examine rickets in more than 20 successive litters of lion cubs at the zoo — so while records are hard to come by as to how many lions exactly were at the zoo at any one time, it's clear that they had been busy.

We're a little overwhelmed by the fact that, with the exception of one nine-year gap, there have probably been lions living in central London for over 800 years. It's even possible that lions were housed in private collections in London before they arrived at the tower in the 13th century, but we've found no proof of this.

London Zoo expects to be without lions until Land of the Lions opens in Spring 2016, so if you want to see them for the last time before they go, get down to Regent's Park sharpish. In the meantime, until the new exhibit is complete, lion-loving Londoners can visit ZSL's African lion pride at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo or find alternatives at Chessington Zoo (yes, it's within the M25, but technically it's Surrey), or Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire.

Got any other London-y lion facts for us? Let us know in the comments below.