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Home  > News  > Lions At The Tower Of London

Lions At The Tower Of London

October 25 2005

Most people know that lions are called the kings of the jungle, but did you know that once upon a time they also lived side by side with actual kings in the centre of London?

Scientists have just discovered that two lion skulls found years ago at the Tower of London date from medieval times.

Photo of the front view of a lion's skull.

The lions may have been the first ever to be brought to northern Europe, far away from their homes in Africa.

Photo: Courtesy Liverpool John Moores University.

When the skulls were first found, about seventy years ago, nobody knew how old they were. Science has moved on though, and scientists can now use a method called radiocarbon dating to find out exactly how old things are.

The skulls were tested and scientists found that the first lion lived between the years 1280 and 1385 and the second between 1420 and 1480. Both of these dates are from a period of time we call the 'medieval' era.

It's thousands of years since lions lived in the wild in Britain, so these lions must have come from elsewhere.

Photo: Courtesy Liverpool John Moores University.

Photo of the side view of a lion's skull.

The lions were probably brought to England by foreign leaders as gifts for the monarch (king or queen).

Lions were a popular choice for a present as they were living symbols of the royal arms of England - a bit like modern mascots.

Photo of the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is a big fortress that still stands next to the River Thames.

Kings and queens used to live there but nowadays it's a museum and is used to store the Queen's ceremonial jewellery - the Crown Jewels.

Photo: © Historic Royal Palaces/

These days the closest the Queen or Prince William are likely to come to a lion is on one of the royal flags or perhaps at the zoo, but in olden times real lions were kept by kings and queens at the Tower.

King John ruled England from 1199 to 1216. He started a kind of zoo called a menagerie at the Tower. It was there for hundreds of years, and eventually closed in 1835, when the animals were sent to the zoological gardens at Regent's Park (what we now call London Zoo).

Lions have been the symbol of the royal family for years.

Pictures of lions were put on the royal coat of arms - a special design reserved for the royal family. It's still used today and can be seen on the flags that fly above their palaces.

This is the crest of the Tower of London. How many lions can you spot?

Image: Courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

The coat of arms of the Tower of London.

As well as lions, the menagerie contained other animals like leopards, bears and even an elephant.

Lots of people came to see the animals. Not many people travelled abroad in those days, certainly not to places like Africa, and there were no televisions or cameras.

Photo of a male lion, roaring.

They might have seen a drawing or painting of a lion, but what do you think they thought when they first saw these fierce creatures in real life? Let us know

Photo: © Barbara Schneider

Although these days most zoos give big animals plenty of space to move around, in the Middle Ages the lions had to live in tiny cages. When they died they were just dumped into the Tower's moat, which is the ditch filled with water that surrounded the tower.

There are no plans to open a new menagerie at the Tower of London, although it is still the home of several ravens - large birds like crows. A legend says that if the ravens ever leave then the king or queen will lose power.

You can still visit the Tower of London and see the Lion Tower where they kept the menagerie.

If you'd like to make your own coat of arms, full of symbols which represent YOU, try Design A Coat Of Arms, from the V&A Museum.

Graham Spicer