The Ravens, Prisoners the White Tower - the Myths and the History
The White Tower is the principal building in The Tower of London complex. William the Conqueror started building it 12 years after the Battle of Hastings and it was completed about ten years later by his sons, Rufus (who came to an untimely end in the New Forest) and Henry who later became king. It was built to protect London from Viking raids from the Thames and as a stronghold for William’s army.
Over the centuries more fortifications were built and the castle area of The Tower of London now comprises 21 towers of which the White Tower, the original ‘Keep’ is the most important.
The White Tower has contained many ‘tenants’
• In 1674 two bodies, thought to be Edward V and his brother Richard were found under a staircase. Had workmen discovered the so called ‘Princes in the Tower’ Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York? No-one knows for certain.
• There was a secret dungeon in the basement of the White Tower, known as the ‘Little Ease’and reserved for ‘special guests’, one of whom was Guy Fawkes. Just 4 square feet, he would have found little ease there with no room to sit, stand or lie.
• Jews awaiting execution
• Royal residents.
The White Tower is still host to 7 prisoners. Their wings are clipped so they cannot fly away, although a few are rumoured to have escaped over the years. Visitors may wonder what 7 black ravens are doing in the White Tower. Like other inmates they have not come by choice. Ravens are no longer a common sight in towns and certainly not in the City of London. Years of persecution by man have driven them to the mountains and the moors of the north and they are rarely seen in the south of England. In common with some of the earlier captives it is a combination of superstition and myth that has led to their presence in the White Tower.
There are many myths surrounding ravens, connecting them with Odin and other ancient pagan gods, but the one that concerns the Tower ravens arises from a Celtic myth concerning a king Bran Hen in the fifth century. ‘Bran’ is the Welsh word for ‘raven’ and this unfortunate king lost his head in a battle. He had made a request that if he was killed his head should be buried on Gwynfryn, now known in English as the White Mount, which is the location of the WhiteTower. He believed it would act as a talisman against invasion. This myth was recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in a book he wrote in 1136 called Historia Regum Britanniae.
Whether or not the myth has any truth in it the belief arose that if there were no ravens in the Tower of London the White Tower would collapse and England would suffer a terrible disaster.
In the 17th century the Royal Observatory was located in the White Tower and the astronomer, John Flamsteed, is said to have complained about the ravens interfering in his work. The King, Charles II, was sympathetic to his complaints but his decision to have them destroyed was met with opposition and the King was appraised of the superstition that had led to their presence. He decided that six birds should be protected in the Tower for the safety of the nation. In effect there are seven ravens enjoying the hospitality of the English tax payer, just in case one goes missing, which happens occasionally in spite of their wings being clipped.
Ravens are not particularly attractive birds, they do not sing and they have long been regarded as harbingers of bad news, even death. As carrion eaters they seek out carcases of dead animals and were commonly associated with battle fields and scaffolds. They would eat man or beast, but to the British at least the story of King Raven has re-invented them and made them guardians of the country, so long as they reside in the Tower.
Ravens are highly intelligent but vicious birds which need careful handling. One of the Beefeaters at the Tower is appointed the Ravenmaster and he feeds and looks after the birds, taking the fledglings into his home and hand rearing them for six weeks. Warnings are in place advising visitors not to approach or feed the ravens. They are well catered for and the word from the Ravenmaster is that ‘they eat 170g of raw meat a day plus bird biscuits soaked in blood.’ Perhaps these modern prisoners are quite content to stay where they are.