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Druidic Ravens at the Tower of London? October 10, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing got an email this week from a Canadian history student. ‘Seeing as you seem to have knowledge of historical things quite off the beaten track I thought I’d seek some historic tourism advice. I’m a Canadian history student and over Christmas I’ll be travelling to London. I plan on a doing a couple of the regular sites… but beyond that I don’t want to be to ‘touristy’. I was wondering if you could suggest perhaps a few lesser known places in or around London that might be of particular interest.’

Beachcombing is not a great traveller, but he has a couple of haunts he regularly visits in the south of Britain. And so by way of an answer he thought that he’d write up three of his off-the-beaten-track must-visit lowland British spots starting with the Tower of London.

Yes, yes, there are few more ‘touristy’ magnets in the metropolis than the Tower. But most of the foreign nationals vomited off planes, boats, trains and buses go there for the Union Jack mugs or to be photographed with a Beefeater. Even the past-minded are after the frisson of Elizabethan executions. Beachcombing, on the other hand, couldn’t give a damn about those faux medieval towers and men in ruffs about to lose their noodle. He’s only interested in the ravens and their possible link with an ancient strata of British history.

For those who are not familiar with the ravens at the Tower let Beachcombing elaborate. About half a dozen ravens live at the Tower at any one time – essentially the pets of the authorities, they have clipped wings and their health is monitored by the powers that be.

There are various legends about said birds: one for example claims that they contain the spirits of Henry VIII’s wives and another and more important tale claims that if all the ravens leave the tower England will fall! The horror!

Now, make no mistake, the second legend is nonsense. In the Second World War, German bombs wiped out most of the raven population and the remaining two ravens sensibly flew away, clipped wings or otherwise. But Britain creaked on arthritically, surviving the Blitz, Lend Lease and even Clement Atlee (just).

However, where does the kingdom-falling legend come from? Well, there is a fascinating clue in a twelfth-century Welsh tale: Branwen daughter of Llyr. The story is a confusing almost hallucinogenic one, but for present purposes it should be enough to note that Bran, Branwen’s sister, has returned from an attack on Ireland with a handful of warriors. Branwen himself has been decapitated, but his head continues to interact with his men. Beachcombing should also mention that there is a door that the party-goers have been instructed not to open…

And at the close of the seventh year they went forth to Gwales in Penvro. And there they found a fair and regal spot overlooking the ocean; and a spacious hall was therein. And they went into the hall, and two of its doors were open, but the third door was closed, that which looked towards Cornwall. ‘See, yonder,’ said Manawyddan, ‘is the door that we may not open’. And that night they regaled themselves and were joyful. And of all they had seen of food laid before them, and of all they had heard of, they remembered nothing; neither of that, nor of any sorrow whatsoever. And there they remained fourscore years, unconscious of having ever spent a time more joyous and mirthful. And they were not more weary than when first they came, neither did they, any of them, know the time they had been there. And it was not more irksome to them having [Bran’s head] with them, than if [Bran] had been with them himself. And because of these fourscore years, it was called ‘the Entertaining of the noble Head’. The entertaining of Branwen and Matholwch was in the time that they went to Ireland. One day said Heilyn the son of Gwynn, ‘Evil betide me, if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it.’ So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henvelen. And when they had looked, they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount [the Tower of London], and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment (Guest).

There is an unnerving and exciting parallel here. Bran’s warriors take his head to the Tower of London and bury it there. While Bran’s head remains  no invasion will come to the island, in other words the kingdom will not fall. At this point Beachcombing should add that ‘Bran’ in Welsh means ‘raven’.

What is the explanation for this strange, almost unaccountable link?

Well, three have been offered up in the last years.

The first and most dramatic is that  in ancient London there was a druidic cult site, a cult site that was remembered through the centuries in Welsh legend. Branwen arguably contains glimpses of historical events from as many as fifteen hundred years before.

A second explanation, favoured by the Tower Historian, Geoffrey Parnell is that the Branwen legend actually led, in the late nineteenth century, to ravens being brought to the Tower: someone who knew Branwen daughter of Llyr wanted to make Bran’s legend ‘come true’. And it is certainly striking that there are no written references to ravens at the tower before 1895. (There is a picture that may show a raven at the tower and that dates back to the early 1880s, but Beachcombing has his doubts.)

A third explanation, favoured by independent scholar Boria Sax, is that the ravens were introduced to the Tower at some point in the nineteenth century as ‘props’ to stories about executed nobles and queens. Boria Sax implicitly writes the whole Bran-Raven connection off as a coincidence.

Beachcombing would shake his head over the first explanation, however, much he would like it to be true. He loves the poetry of Geoffrey Parnell’s solution and he certainly has nothing against coincidences, aka Boria Sax. However, he wonders if a fourth explanation is not possible.

The lack of nineteenth-century references is striking. It is surely though credible that the birds had simply escaped notice in the writings concerning early Victorian London and that they may date back to an earlier period altogether.

Is it possible that, in fact, ravens had been kept at the Tower from the Middle Ages? The legend in the quoted passage from Branwen would then be an all too characteristic twelfth-century Welsh attempt to appropriate an important location in Norman London where Welsh visitors had seen ravens, perhaps associated with executions or killings or (thinking of the Normans) amputations. The legend that the ravens at the Tower were connected to the fall of the kingdom would then be of recent origin and come from readings of Branwen in modern times.

Beachcombing, if he had to choose, would go with Geoffrey Parnell’s explanation. But he is haunted by a sentence in Hudson’s Birds of London (1898): ‘For many years past two or three ravens have usually been kept at the Tower of London’. Beachcombing knows his way around Victorian bird books and has read Hudson’s metropolitan opus and trusts that careful and entertaining author. ‘Many years past’ must mean at least a generation (?), could it refer to a custom stretching back into the 1100s?

In any case Canadian History Student, go straight to the Tower, do not pass go and do not get distracted by the men in silly red uniforms. Look, instead, for those glorious flapping birds. Druids, Welsh fantasies, Victorian imposters? Make up your own mind and let Beachcombing know.

More raven talk or other advice for Canadian History Student? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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11 October 2010: Beachcombing wants to pass some Tower advice onto CHS from his readers. Ricardo R. points CHS to this song that brought Beachcombing back to his childhood. Whereas Barry Egerton put Beachcombing and CHS onto this remarkable raven helmet in his collection: click on the seventh picture down. Beachcombing likes the way that the raven is so unthreatening but the context chills the blood!

21 July 2011: Boria Sax kindly writes in to Beach to let him know that he has just finished and will soon be publishing a new book on the Tower and the ravens: ‘The story has so many facets that it is just about impossible to cover all of them in an article, but this is more comprehensive. It tells how the Welsh druidic scholar, bard, and forger Iolo Morganwg convinced the Earls of Dunraven that their castle in Glamorgan was the original seat of Bran, prompting them to send ravens as a sort of spiritual claim to the Tower in 1883. The Yeoman Warders then used the ravens as prompts in Gothic tales that they related to tourists, as the Tower of London was marketed as a house of horrors. But the strangest and most interesting part might be the story of how the legend came about that Britain will fall if the ravens leave, in July 1944 when the ravens were being used as unofficial spotters for enemy bombs and planes.’ Thanks Prof Sax!