|The Raven's Tree|
For an example of ravens forcibly expelled from a castle tower, bringing forth a dismal curse, just look at the ill-fated Hapsburg dynasty. The Hapsburgs were rulers of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), and they had in their possession the miraculous Holy Lance. Long ago, the castle tower of their ancestral Schlöss Hapsburg had many ravens flying about and merrily making nests everywhere, until one day the Hapsburgs cruelly exterminated every last one of them.
This was the origin of the Hapsburg Curse. From then on, the Hapsburgs were haunted by supernatural ravens called Turnfalken, whose every appearance presaged doom to members of the imperial family. Numerous times in history the foreboding Turnfalken have been seen in Vienna soaring above the Schönbrunn and Hofburg palaces. It has been claimed that in Paris the ravens were seen hovering and screeching over Marie Antoinette as she was guillotined, in Mexico when Emperor Maximilian was shot by the firing squad, at Mayerling when Prince Rudolf and his lover Countess Maria Vetsera consummated their suicide pact (although some say they were murdered), and at Sarajevo when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated – triggering World War I and the crumbling Hapsburg empire’s final demise.
Possibly related to the London Tower legend are other raven folktales, superstitions, and legends. According to Cornish folklore, the spirit of King Arthur is said to dwell in ravens, and for this reason it is considered unlucky and even sacrilegious to kill one. An age-old superstition states if all the ravens in a wood suddenly forsake it, surely disaster will follow. Another Tower raven legend chronicled in the Mabinogion states that upon the death of the giant king Bran the Blessed (bran means raven in Welsh), his head was cut off and buried at the “White Hill” in London, (usually identified as Tower Hill) “with the face turned towards France”. This burial is known in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Happy Concealments of The Island of the Mighty. As long as Bran’s head stays buried there, Britain will be safe from invasion. It is as if these older legends, folktales, and superstitions fused to form the current Tower of London raven legend.
It is claimed that the ravens have been at the Tower of London since the 13th century, and for the last 400 years they have been protected by royal decree. However, Geoff Parnell, the official Tower of London historian, recently scoured records dating back a millennium and found no reference to the ravens before an 1895 article in an RSPCA journal, The Animal World. One Edith Hawthorn referred to the Tower’s pet cat being tormented by the ravens, Jenny and a nameless mate. A menagerie was kept at the Tower by generations of monarchs for at least 600 years until it became the foundation of London Zoo. There were hawks, lions, leopards, monkeys and even a polar bear – but no mention of ravens. Besides, the Duke of Wellington, who dismantled the menagerie in 1835, wanted to get dangerous animals out of the way of his garrison and would hardly have tolerated six sharp-beaked ravens hanging around. Dr Parnell’s research suggests that some ravens may have been a punning gift to the Tower by the third Earl of Dunraven (1812-71), an archæologist and antiquarian fascinated by Celtic raven myths, who added ravens to his family coat of arms.
Ravens are now a protected species in Britain. The Tower birds are cared for by one of the Yeoman Warders (known as Beefeaters) with the regal title of Ravenmaster. The current Ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, a former Sergeant Major, has been at the Tower for 20 years, first serving as Deputy Ravenmaster before becoming full-time Ravenmaster six years ago. Coyle’s arms are full of nasty scars, evidence of the ravens’ powerful bills and razor-sharp talons – he stoically calls them “love taps.” The birds are fed kitchen scraps, an occasional rabbit, and the odd roadkill that the Ravenmaster happens to pick up. The ravens Odin and Thor, brothers, used to mimic the Ravenmaster’s voice, including the vocalisations, “Come on then!” and “Good morning.” Sadly, however, these two birds passed away in 2003.
It has been observed (not infrequently) that when a member of the flock perishes, the birds will hold what could be called a “raven funeral” – a 24-hour event marked by raucous outcries. The Ravenmaster buries the dead bird in the Raven Cemetery located in the drained moat close to the Watergate and the St Thomas Tower. (St Thomas is the patron saint of clergy.) There is a special Raven Memorial Headstone that lists all ravens buried there from 1956 onwards. (Incidentally, in England, tombstones are sometimes referred to as “ravenstones”.) The St Thomas Tower is also known as Traitors’ Gate because it was through this Tower that condemned prisoners accused of treason arrived from Westminster. The Tower is named in honour of Sir Thomas Becket, whose apparition has been seen striking the walls of the building with a crucifix, loudly proclaiming it was not made for the common good but “for the injury and prejudice of the Londoners, my brethren”.