Thursday 29 November 2018

The Legend of the Tower ravens by Chris Skaife

November's guest is very special. Not only is he a History Boy, he is the only guest we've ever had who lives inside one of the oldest historical spots in the UK. Meet Chris Skaife, a modest man with a very unusual job, who has recently become a bit of a media star. You'll find out why below.

Before becoming Yeoman Warder and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, Chistopher Skaife served in the British Army for twenty-four years, during which time he became a Drum Major as part of a specialist machine gun platoon. He has been featured on the BBC, the History Channel, PBS, BuzzFeed, Slate, and other media. He lives at the Tower with his wife, his daughter, and, of course, the ravens. Follow him on Twitter at @ravenmaster1. 

Credit: Historic Royal Palaces
I have what is often described as the oddest job in Britain.

Odd? Maybe.

The best? Definitely.

My name is Chris Skaife and I am the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.

My official title is Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife, of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary – that’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it!

All of us Yeoman Warders are former servicemen and women with at least twenty-two years of unblemished service. We are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. In principle we’re responsible for looking after any prisoners at the Tower and safeguarding the Crown Jewels. In practice, we act as tour guides and as custodians of the rituals of the Tower.

As the Ravenmaster, I have the added responsibility for the safety, security and welfare of the ravens in my care. Without the ravens, so the legend goes, the Tower itself will crumble into dust and great harm will befall the kingdom.

The legend of the ravens at the Tower of London is as strange and perplexing in its way as any of the great legends of the raven from around the world.

What follows is my take on the legend of the ravens at the Tower.

The story goes that Charles II was once visiting the Tower of London after the restoration of the monarchy to survey a new building. At the time, a young astronomer named John Flamsteed was using a room in the round turret house at the top of the White Tower for his observations of the stars and the moon, but he had found that the nesting ravens rather obstructed his view and interfered with his work. Flamsteed asked Charles II if he might be able to get rid of “ those confounded ravens.” Charles, being a decent sort of a king, readily agreed, until someone pointed out that the birds had always been at the Tower and were an important symbol of the city and the monarchy and that getting rid of them would therefore seem like rather a bad omen. Mindful no doubt that both the city and the monarchy had had a bit of a run of bad luck recently, what with his father Charles I having been executed and there having been a terrible plague in London in 1665 and then the Great Fire of London in 1666, Charles promptly issued a royal decree, commanding that instead of banishing the birds, at least six ravens should be kept at the Tower forevermore.

But in all my research over the years, assisted by the incredible resources of the Tower’s library and my archives, in all the years I’ve been looking and searching, and with all the experts I’ve consulted. I have been able to find no mention whatsoever of the legend of the ravens at the Tower before the late nineteenth century.

Let me just say that again, no mention of the legend of the ravens at the Tower until the late nineteenth century.

Nothing, nada, zilch. Not a croak.

Nothing about Charles II and his decree. Nothing about Flamsteed and the confounded ravens. Nothing about the kingdom falling if the ravens should ever leave the Tower. The truth is that there was no Royal Decree protecting the ravens issued by Charles II, though there was admittedly a Royal Warrant issued in June 1675, which provided John Flamsteed, who became the first Royal Astronomer, with the funding to set up a proper observatory in Greenwich.

So it’s possible that the confounded ravens played a small part in the history of astronomy and navigation in this country simply by being so bloody annoying that Flamsteed had to move out to Greenwich to get away from them!

Not only is there no evidence of ravens having played an important part in the history of the Tower before the late nineteenth century, there is barely any mention of the ravens at the Tower in the historical records before then at all.

Take the old Authorised Guide to the Tower of London by W. J. Loftie published in its second edition in 1888. Any mention of the ravens? No, Nothing.

The ever popular and magisterial Her Majesty’s Tower, by William Hepworth Dixon, first published in 1869? Nothing. Even William Benham’s The Tower of London, published in 1906, mentions not the mighty raven.

One of the first official Tower guidebooks to mention the birds is Colonel E. H. Carkeet- James’s His Majesty’s Tower of London, which wasn’t published until 1950, and even then the birds are seen largely as an annoyance.

“They are not popular with the residents of the Tower,” according to the Colonel. “They tear up the grass, flowers create an urge to destroy, they pick out the putty from windows and the lead from the diamond leaded lights in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. Few motor cars are safe from their marauding and they find a strange fascination in ladies’ silk stockings.”

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, from my own research and from the work of various historians and scholars, the first significant depiction of the ravens at the Tower wasn’t until 1883 in an article in the Pictorial World newspaper on July 14, which has a drawing of what certainly looks like a raven by the entrance to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, near the plaque commemorating the executions on Tower Green.

In the same year there was also a children’s book, London Town, by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton, which tells the story, in verse, of a young girl named Prue touring London with her parents.

The book includes a drawing of Prue and her parents at the Tower, observing a little girl outside Beauchamp Tower, looking rather frightened at the sight of two ravens and clinging to a Yeoman Warder. The text accompanying the drawing seems to be the first significant mention of the ravens at the Tower.

Among the sights of London Town
Which little visitors wish to view,
The Tower stands first, and its great renown
Has, you will notice, attracted Prue.

At a well- known spot, to Miss Prue’s surprise,
 some fine old ravens are strutting about.
If upon the picture a glance you cast,
you will know the ravens next time, no doubt.

The red-coated guard who’s watching her
Is called a Beefeater— fancy that!
And Prue discovers, as she draws near,
A child by his side who is round and fat.

“ Father and Mother… pray come here,”
In tones so pleasant, laughs lively Prue:
“ You’ve shown me things that are odd and queer,
A Beefeater’s baby I’ll show you!”

After Prue and her parents, the accounts of the ravens at the Tower start to proliferate… There is raven contagion!

In Birds in London, published in 1898, W. H. Hudson claims,

“For many years past two or three ravens have usually been kept at the Tower of London.” And so the stories begin to grow. You can see the beginnings of the legend of the ravens growing and blossoming before your very eyes in the work of Major-General Sir George Younghusband, of the Guides Cavalry, a formidable soldier who served in the Second Afghan War, the Mahdist War, the Third Burmese War, the Second Boer War, and the First World War, and who was appointed Keeper of the Jewel House at the Tower in 1917.

In his book The Tower from Within, Younghusband provides a comprehensive guide to life at the Tower, its history and traditions as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century.

According to Younghusband:

"Round and about the site of the ancient scaffold, or sitting silent on a bench nearby, may be seen the historic ravens of the Tower. No doubt when forests grew close up to the moat the turrets of the old Tower made an ideal place in which ravens could build their nests, and rear future generations of Tower ravens. But as the city grew around and the forests receded, and with them fields for forage, the ravens would no longer nest or breed in their old haunts. They have therefore since then from time to time had to be replaced by new blood from outside.

The present birds were given to the Tower by Lord Dunraven, and one of them is now of considerable age. It would be of historic interest if those whose ancestors have suffered at the Tower would send from their homes successors to the old ravens, as they die off, and thus maintain a very old tradition in a manner well in keeping."

It seems likely that the “very old tradition” that Younghusband mentions was no more than thirty or forty years old at the time. Nonetheless, a few years later, in 1924, when he published another book about the Tower, A Short History of the Tower of London, he elaborated upon the theme of the Tower’s ancient raven traditions:

"Walking about on the Tower Green, or perhaps perched on the steps of the White Tower, may be seen a few ravens, three or four, sometimes five. These are the Ravens of the Tower and as much part of it as are the Yeomen Warders. What their origin may have been is lost in the mists of antiquity, but possibly when the Tower stood alone— a rock- like edifice amidst the fields and forests which then surrounded it— ravens built their nests in its high turrets. An historian mentions that they were gazing on the scene when Queen Anne Boleyn was executed. Perhaps after the ravens ceased to nest in such unquiet surroundings as the Tower they formed part of the menagerie maintained by Kings of England in the Tower as one of their regal fancies. Whatever their origin may have been, they are now maintained on the strength of the garrison… are duly enlisted— having an attestation card as has a soldier— and daily receive their ration of raw meat and other delicacies issued by the Yeoman Warder in whose charge they are placed. [. . .] A whole chapter could be filled with stories about the Tower Ravens and their adventures and escapades and amusements, and these can be gathered from any of the kindly Yeoman Warders whom the visitor may meet, but here unhappily there is no more space for them."

Personally, I have no doubt that ravens have long been present here. The White Tower was for many centuries one of the tallest buildings in London, and what with Smithfield Market nearby, and the amount of rubbish and decaying flesh that would anyway have been bobbing its way downstream in the River Thames, the Tower would have been an ideal spot for ravens to congregate and nest.

In a letter written by Sir Walter Raleigh to Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cranborne, in the winter of 1604–1605, while he was imprisoned in the Bloody Tower, Raleigh implores his friend to “save this quarter which remaineth from the ravens of this time which feed on all things.” Poor Sir Walter was clearly having a bad day when he wrote the letter, though the good news is that he survived his imprisonment in the Tower and was in fact pardoned by the King in 1617 and granted permission to go off in search of El Dorado — though he was then admittedly beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster in 1618!

Anyway, his plea to Robert Cecil to save his wasted body from the ravens suggests that there were indeed ravens in and around the Tower at the time.

What we know for sure is that the ravens only became a notable and remarkable feature at the Tower sometime in the late 1800s. Perhaps it was simply because the raven population throughout the rest of the country had declined so sharply having been hunted down and killed as vermin that the few remaining birds at the Tower became worthy of comment.

But I think there’s more to it.

Here’s what I think happened. This is the unproven and untested Skaife Theory about the creation of the legend of the ravens at the Tower, derived from many years of research and experience working at the Tower: you could also call it the Yeoman Warder Theory.

The Yeoman Warder Theory is based on an understanding not only of the nature and behaviour of the ravens, but also on the nature and behaviour of human beings. The Yeoman Warder Theory is that it was the Yeoman Warders themselves who had a hand in inventing the legend of the ravens at the Tower and probably for their own profit.

Credit: Mickayla Skaife
Imagine the scene: It’s the 1880s. The Tower has begun opening its gates to ever greater numbers of the general public, to the great unwashed, accepting paying visitors to the most notorious prison and fortress in the land, with its gruesome history of murder, executions, and torture. And here you are among them— washed, unwashed, whatever— waiting in anticipation for the Tower’s ancient wooden gates to open and your Beefeater guide to meet you.

Slowly the gates begin to part, creaking and groaning from almost a thousand years of use. From behind the great gate appears an old man leaning on a twisted wooden cane, wearing a dirty dark blue uniform decorated with scarlet and braid, an odd medal or two pinned to his chest. On his head is a curious hat, set at a jaunty angle. There’s a strong whiff of gin and stale tobacco about him.

“Give me a shilling and you can come in,” he growls. “And I will tell you our dark, dark secrets.”

You hand over your coin, he shoves it in his pocket, and then he turns and hobbles back inside the Tower. “Follow me!” he cries. “And keep up!” So you enter through the gates and follow him as he begins to recount his dreadful tales of the Tower’s history.

As you reach the Traitor’s Gate, he stops and turns. “Do you dare to go farther inside?” You nod, fearful and excited, and he rubs his fingers together. “In which case, I will need another coin or two.”

He scowls. And so it goes— the deeper you penetrate inside the Tower, the deeper his pockets are filled with your hard- earned cash. Until at last, at the scaffold site on Tower Green, the old Yeoman Warder claims actually to have seen the ghost of Anne Boleyn! And to have heard the pitiful whimpers of the two boy princes murdered deep within the Bloody Tower. And to himself have felt the shudders as the murdered Queens of England laid down their heads and the sharp edge of cold metal fell upon their dainty necks!

And there—he points finally, triumphantly are the ravens, reminders of our dark past, souls of the departed, the very souls of those who were executed on the private scaffold site on Tower Green!

“Witness the ravens! Here since the beginning of time! Here since Anne Boleyn herself was executed!”

What a way to enhance the story! Living, breathing representations of the life of the Tower.

And all it would have taken would have been to trim the feathers of a few ravens and feed them the occasional scraps and that’ll be another penny, Madam!

(All images author's own except where otherwise credited.)

Thanks so much for visiting, Chris, and telling us your convincing theory!

Followers – don't forget to visit tomorrow, when you'll get an opportunity to win a copy of Chris's book.


Susan Price said...

I enjoyed this! I love the way, with folklore, you can invent a tale on Monday and by Friday it's ancient legend.

Marcheline said...

Loved this! We just adopted a pionus parrot, so all things bird-related are especially special just now... also, my husband rescued an orphan raven named Vladimir many years ago, and he still tells awesome tales about Vlad.