The Legend of the Ravens
Ravens have long been considered birds of ill omen. William Shakespeare conjures a sense of foreboding with the image of a black bird and in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ we witness the narrator’s lonely descent into madness. So how did this dark symbol of the supernatural become associated with the fate of the Tower of the London?
The origins of the legend of the ravens may lie in the Middle Ages and the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth. His book Historia Regum Britanniae references an ancient British ruler, King Bran Hen of Bryneich – ‘bran’ is the Welsh word for raven. He requested that after his death, his head should be buried on Gwynfryn (the 'White Mount'), the site of the Tower of London, giving rise to the legend that if the ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall.
Some say the continued presence of the ravens at the Tower of London is due to Charles II. Working in the Royal Observatory, housed in the White Tower, the king’s astronomer John Flamsteed complained that the birds were hampering his work. Sympathetic to the frustrations, the king ordered the destruction of the ravens only to change his mind. Fearful that disaster would befall the kingdom, as foretold by the ancient legend, he decreed that at least six ravens should remain at the Tower at all times. Even though the story is most likely a Victorian flight of fancy, the legend is alive and well.
There are seven ravens at the Tower today (the required six plus one spare) and their names are Merlina, Erin, Rocky, Jubilee, Gripp, Harris and Poppy. You’ll find the birds next to the Wakefield Tower – their wings are trimmed but they can still fly and have the freedom of the Tower precincts in the day. Servants of the nation, the ravens are enlisted in the army with the same papers as any other soldier. However, not every bird has followed the job description. In 1986 Raven George was let go for snacking on TV aerials and before that, Raven Grog was last seen outside a pub in the East End.
The birds are cared for by the Ravenmaster, a position once voted Britain’s most unusual job. The current incumbent is Chris Skaife, who has helped his charges lead a pampered existence for the past 7 years. Scavengers in the wild, the birds of the Tower are fed a mix of raw meat and blood-covered bird biscuits. Once a week they enjoy an egg as a treat, and even enjoy the odd rabbit and scraps of fried bread from the Tower kitchens. Follow him on Twitter (@ravenmaster1) and keep up to date with the antics of these fascinating denizens of the Tower.