Raven mad.


I don’t think most people realise how much of the history that’s related to us is actually just story-telling. Case in point – attractions like the Tower of London. There couldn’t be MORE real history associated with that place, and yet so much of what the public are told has little or no basis in fact. I recently came across this interview with a Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) who is an assistant to the Ravenmaster.

The story he relates is essentially that covered by the Fortean Times, with some differences. He claims that there had historically always been ‘hundreds of ravens’ (an over-estimation I fear!) at the tower, that resident astrologers complained to King Charles II that they were a pest, and that he intended to have them removed. The King is then reminded of the supposedly pre-existing ‘legend’ that if the ravens ever leave, the White Tower at the heart of the fortress will ‘crumble to dust’. He therefore is said to have decreed that six ravens must always be kept and cared for by a designated Warder.

The interview isn’t even consistent with the Tower’s own telling, which interestingly is more equivocal about the whole story. A minor point, but the story also refers to royal astronomer(s), not astrologers. In any case, several curators and historians at or associated with the Tower, notably Geoffrey Parnell, have thoroughly debunked this entire story, as the FT article says. There’s no written reference to ravens being kept at the Tower earlier than 1895 (an article by an Edith Hawthorne in the RSPCA’s ‘The Animal World’ journal), though the next earliest source claims that this has been the case ‘for many years past’.  Author Boria Sax may have found a slightly earlier reference (see this article) taking things back to 1883. The ‘many years’ claim is conjectural, and probably represents early propagation of a made-up story (see below). I personally wonder whether rooks and jackdaws, still wild in the area mid-century, might have been encouraged to lend a gothic atmosphere to a site of execution, as Sax hypothesises for the ravens themselves later on. This, or even just the inevitable presence of corvids even without encouragement, might have been enough to give that author the impression of greater antiquity for raven-keeping.

As to the legend itself, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it doesn’t seem to exist until the Second World War. Sax argues that it’s an ‘invented tradition’ created to act as a sort of focus for morale and patriotic fervour. The whole ‘Charles II’ thing is BS. In addition, whereas the Warder mentions ravens killed during WW2 in his version of the story, Parnell’s research showed years ago that their numbers weren’t reduced to four – they were reduced to none. That’s right – at one point the ravens had left the Tower, and yet disaster befell neither it nor the kingdom/monarchy (delete as required depending which version you’re reading). No surprise there.

Interestingly, it turns out that the clip is lifted from an oral history project run by Huddersfield University. Oral history is not necessarily about what’s accurate or not, it’s about recording people’s memories and perceptions (witness the ghost stories included on that page), and if it is to be used as an historical source to make a factual point, this must be borne in mind. In fairness to the Guardian, they are presenting the clip as an unmediated educational source – not endorsing its veracity. They also reported doubts about the raven legend back in 2004. Nonetheless, most people aren’t aware of this, and simply posting clips online in this way implies, to me, that they are historical fact. This, along with persistent claims made by Tower staff, will no doubt help the raven myths survive even the entire book devoted in large part to debunking them (see here for excerpts). It’s out in September and I look forward to it with interest.