The First April Fools’ Gag Was In 1698 And Used Lions

“As we all know, the most effective lies are the ones sprinkled with the most actual truths.” —Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism

In A Nutshell

The oldest recorded April Fools’ Day prank is also one of the longest running. Unsuspecting targets are sent to the Tower of London where they’re told they are going to be privy to one of the Tower’s annual ceremonies: the washing of the lions. The tower was, of course, once home to some lions—among other wild animals—but they’re long gone. Unfortunately, not all of the prank victims are good sports about the joke.

The Whole Bushel

If you’ve ever been massively taken in by an April Fools’ Day prank, don’t feel bad—you’re not alone. People have been falling for the same April Fools’ Day prank in London for centuries.

The prank involves an exciting honor, an invitation to go see an annual event at the Tower of London: the washing of the lions.

It’s not just one that’s sent countless people on something of a wild goose chase across London to try to find someone at the Tower who knew just what the heck they were talking about, but it’s one that’s been played for years and years. Dawks’s News-Letter reported that several people were sent to the Tower to see the annual washing of the lions on April 1, 1698, in what’s thought to be the earliest recorded reference to an April Fools’ Day prank.

Apparently, it was such a hit that people kept doing it, sometimes going to elaborate lengths. In 1848, 1856, and 1861, invitations were designed and handed out to those lucky, lucky people who were deemed worthy enough to view all of the regal tradition of the Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Lions. An 1856 invitation is still at the tower in their archives, complete with a red wax seal and the signature of the so-called senior warden, Herbert de Grassen.

According to memoirs of one of the prank organizers, Gustave Louis Maurice Strauss, their 1848 attempt resulted in so many people showing up to see the lions being washed that the guards at the tower had been on the brink of calling for backup from members of the city’s military garrisons to control the throngs of people, so irate to find that there would be no washing of the lions.

Like all of the best pranks, this one’s rooted in just enough truth to make people believe it. The Tower of London did once house a massive menagerie. Most of the animals were gifts from other rulers; Emperor Frederick II gave King Henry III a trio of lions for the menagerie, and a Norwegian king gave him a polar bear that was allowed to go swimming and fishing in the Thames (on a leash, of course). Elephants came to the Tower of London from the French.

And the animals at the menagerie weren’t just for viewing, like boring old zoos today. In 1686, a woman was mauled to death while petting a lion, and there was once a zebra there that was notorious for mugging people for a drink of their ale. Sadly, the tower room that had been furnished for some monkeys were people could go and visit was dismantled when a boy had his leg torn off.

It was a long tradition that began in the 13th century and only ended in 1832, when the Duke of Wellington finally realized that there was some danger to the public happening there, and ordered the remaining animals moved to the London Zoo.

Of course, that didn’t stop the merry pranksters. They just started sending people to the zoo instead of to the Tower of London.

Show Me The Proof

Historical Royal Palaces: Tower of London—Royal Beasts
The Guardian: Who was invited to the annual washing of the lions at the Tower of London?
Museum of Hoaxes: Washing the Lions

  • UN

    April fool this article is fake..

    • Lisa 39

      My 22yr old txtd me today and said he got a girl pregnant, i got all excited cause i’m going to be a grandma again and txtd back asking what the plan is, he txtd me back and said april fools, asshole lol

      • Atlas

        I’ve been on high-alert all day, watching out for the pranks of my conniving brother. Nothings happened yet, maybe he’s taking off. Last year, he put a cup of ice water on the headboard above my bed, and when I rolled over it spilled on me…….

        • Lisa 39

          O shit, i didn’t even think about my conniving brother i’d better go check my facebook, thanks for the reminder atlas!

          • Atlas

            Hahaha 🙂

          • Lisa 39

            He didn’t do anything yet but i’ll keep you posted, oooh i just had an evil thought, i should prank him on fb but what to do, any evil ideas atlas? It has to be a fb or txt thing tho because i’m in ohio and he’s in mississippi

          • Atlas
          • Lisa 39

            Well i checked them both out, i think i’ll txt him instead of fb and i’m going to have to go with knocked up which will be super funny, i’ll let you know what happens :p

          • Atlas

            Haha, aww too bad he didn’t fall for it :P, and that sounds like a fine plan!

          • Lisa 39

            He never falls for it, so i called him an a hole to, its all fun anyway, thanks for your help atlas :p

            Off topic, how’s school?

          • Atlas

            Oh it’s going pretty well, thanks for asking! How are you??

          • Lisa 39

            Waiting for spring, tired of being cold and stuck indoors lol other than that i’m ok, thanks for asking, have you decided on a major for college yet?

          • Atlas

            Same here, we got snow and freezing rain on Sunday, this weather is ridiculous! But It got up to 65F today, so I can’t complain. And no I have not yet, I’m narrowing my options down. I’m probably going to do Psychology/Neuroscience but at least I have some more time to decide!

          • Lisa 39

            That’s awesome atlas, you’re a very smart young man, i know you’ll do well, do you watch anime?

          • Atlas

            Awwwww thanks Lisa! I unfortunately do not watch anime, lol I never really got into it.

          • Lisa 39

            You’re welcome, my darn 16 year old son kind of bribed me to watch some, its ok, have you thought about joining club or sports at school

          • Atlas

            This is strange, I literally just got the notification about you replying to this, damn Disqus! To answer your question though, I can’t really play any sport because my eyesight is too bad, and I never really got into clubs lol. I’m usually pretty busy when I get home and I have lots of hobbies I like to do, so I usually don’t have time :P.

          • Lisa 39

            Bummer about the delay, sorry about your vision, well as long as your busy with hobbies and good things you’ll be ok, what kind of hobbies?

          • Atlas

            It’s okay :), and like I said in the other list, I play a lot of guitar, I also love video games, movies, and music, oh and I love fishing and hiking! Reading is also one of my faves, lol like I said, I have a lot of hobbies.

          • Lisa 39

            I remembered the fishing and hiking, mostly from the list about geese lol, and the games, i forgot about the guitar tho, that’s a good hobby to have, i tried it in jr high, didn’t care for it, i think because i had to cut my fingernails down lol

          • Atlas

            Lololol, it can get pretty rough on your hands, when I first started playing I had blisters on my fingers :(!

          • Lisa 39

            Ouch, i played in music class 2 times a week and i didn’t take it to seriously so i never had blisters but ouch for you, my fingertips are having sympathy pains for you now 🙁

          • Atlas

            I originally didn’t take it too seriously either, but then I got into gear and started actually practicing. For me, playing guitar is super relaxing.

          • Lisa 39

            That’s good that you have a relaxing hobby, don’t laugh to hard but i like to cross stitch, i’ve been doing it since i was 15 and i make beautiful things! I stitch them then matt and frame them and hang them up, actually i only have one here at my house, the rest are all hanging on other peoples walls lol i’ll have to take pics and show you 🙂 i know, boring old lady stuff but you’re a sweetie so i know you’ll appreciate the hard work that goes into these!

          • Atlas

            Awwww thanks Lisa :), and my mother does that too, it definantly is hard work, I don’t think I could do it!

          • Lisa 39

            Not a lot of people have the patience for it, i’m working on one now for my grand daughter with her name and birthday, height and weight, i already have the frame for it, its going to be real nice when its done but i haven’t had time to work on it since christmas, as long as its done by her birthday i’ll be happy, its her present!

          • Atlas

            That’s awesome!

      • UN

        I tried fooling my mom regarding a new job…………she told me to shut up!!

        • Lisa 39

          I think i’d like your mom! Hey i called my kid an a hole lol

          • UN

            yeah and i might hangout with your son he’s even my age

          • Lisa 39

            Well there’s a couple more you could hang out with, one’s 24 and the other is 19!