In A Nutshell
No trip to London is complete without stopping by the Tower of London to see, among other things, the iconic ravens. It’s long been said that should the ravens ever leave the Tower, the monarchy would fall, but now it’s been found that that saying hasn’t been around as long as people have thought. It’s likely a Victorian-era invention, started to keep pet ravens from being kicked out of the Tower.
The Whole Bushel
Along with Parliament, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben (more specifically, the Elizabeth Tower), the Tower of London and its contingent of ravens has long been one of the timeless symbols of London and the royal history.
According to legend, the official court astronomer of King Charles II, John Flamstead, complained about the pesky ravens that lived in the Tower of London and their habits that constantly interfered with his work from the White Tower. Charles II, who reigned from 1625 to 1649, ordered that the birds be removed from the tower grounds. Before they could be caught or killed, Charles was told by an unnamed prophet that there was an old legend that if ever the ravens left the Tower, the monarchy would crumble and England would fall. He changed his mind, of course (it didn’t help him much, as he was ultimately beheaded at the end of England’s Civil War), and instead decreed that the Tower would always be the home to six ravens.
Even today, the Yeoman Warders at the Tower take the ravens very seriously as a part of their job. They have a full-time keeper called the Raven Master who oversees their care, feeding, wing clipping, and general safety. (He can also fire ravens: George was been removed from his post due to bad behavior. Some have taken off on their own, like a raven named Grog who moved from the Tower to a pub in the East End.)
So entrenched in London’s history are the ravens that it’s never been absolutely certain when the ravens that so pestered John Flamstead showed up to the Tower Green; in fact, research has suggested that the ravens weren’t there at all during the rule of King Charles II.
Tower of London historians have been looking into the legend of the ravens, trying to find actual records of their presence in the Tower. Contrary to their centuries-old mythology, the earliest actual records that have been found talking about the ravens was from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and surprisingly, they agreed with Charles’s astronomer. The article, written in 1895, was about a particularly nasty raven named Jenny, who was known for chasing the Tower’s cats and driving off other birds until she was the only one left.
The replacement ravens were thought to be a gift from the Earl of Dunraven (for obvious reasons).
By the early 20th century, there were plenty of records of the ominous air that the presence of the ravens gave to the Tower Green, long known as their favorite place to be and the site of many, many beheadings. Ravens, incredibly intelligent creatures, were often kept as pets in the late 19th century, after being made popular by Edgar Allan Poe. Now, it’s thought that the tradition of having ravens at the tower started with these pets, and the legend was added afterward.
Another telling bit of evidence comes from the extensive records kept during the years that the Tower also served as the royal menagerie. There were 600 years of records of all of the animals that came through the Tower as gifts from one royal family to the English monarchy, but there was no reference of these supposedly legendary ravens.
Show Me The Proof
Historical Royal Palaces: Tower of London: The Ravens
The Guardian: Tower’s raven mythology may be a Victorian flight of fantasy
Fortean Times: The Ravenmaster Speaks
Historic UK: Tower Ravens