Month: November 2014

Seeing the Lions

TOL-iconic-white-tower-1Back in September I was thrilled to discover that my short story, The Lions of London, had made the award long list for The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014. I don’t have much experience writing short stories and considered myself ‘bad’ at them – an opinion I will now have to revise! I’m very eager to share the story with you, but I’m not sure if I can yet. The terms and conditions of the competition said the long list may be published in an anthology, so I’m waiting a while. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about the historical finds that inspired the tale – a feminist, animal-loving dash through the Tower of London!

You may know that the Tower of London was practically London’s first zoo, home to all manner of beasts from the reign of James I. So popular was the Tower Menagerie that it became one of London’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Going sight-seeing in the capital was soon referred to as ‘seeing the Lions of London’ – hence the title of my story. While there were many animals on display, ranging from polar bears to ostriches, the lions remained the most popular – perhaps because of England’s old symbolic associations with the animal. They were appropriated their very own Lion Tower. Up to eleven lions could be kept here, with fresh running water to drink and a diet of nine pounds of beef every day. Young lions were separated from their mothers but allowed free range to play in the Tower grounds – something we can hardly imagine in an age of health and safety!

Menagerie_LionCubs_Lg_2In the later Georgian era, another menagerie opened at the Exeter Exchange, but it does not quite capture the imagination in the same way as animals imprisoned in an ancient fortress. So I decided to do a bit of research and base a story around the Lion Tower in the early 1700s. There were a great deal of diary entries and letters written regarding the Tower Menagerie, but two in particular caught my attention. The first I actually located in Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century. It was a quote from Mrs Percival, who visited in the winter of 1713-1714:

There was only one Lyoness. The Keeper threw a Dog for her to devour she fawn’d on it, and of all the Meat that was brought her would give him part and got him between her Paws, and lick him: For all this tenderness the Dog was very uneasy.

What a wonderful image this conjures – the maternal lion and a wary dog, an unlikely pair of companions! But if you are a dog lover like me, you will also be questioning why the canine was thrown into the pen in the first place. A bit more research showed me this was far from unusual – I was distressed to find live dogs and cats were frequently thrown to the lions! In fact, if you brought one of your own from home, they would wave the entry fee to the Tower!

My second anecdote features a less docile lion. It is the tale of poor Mary Jenkinson, who was a maid to the keeper in 1686, a few decades before the Georgian period began. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to stroke a lion’s paw through the bars of the cage (not recommended!). Unsurprisingly, the lion grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone.’ The only course of medical action in those days was to amputate the limb. Surgeons performed the operation but sadly Mary died shortly after, probably from a combination of shock and blood loss.

Menagerie_BengalLion_Lg_2These two real-life events provided the basis for my story. But to add atmosphere, I wanted to put a few more animals into the mix. I had my lion cage beside squawking birds and chattering monkeys that jumped about when the big cat roared. This, however, was not based on fact. While there were monkeys at the Tower, their real home was more fantastical than I could have imagined. They lived in a furnished drawing-room, much to the amusement of the visitors, and were taught to mimic human actions such as smoking pipes. You might think you’d be safer in the monkey room with these semi-civilized primates, but you’d be wrong. One monkey bit a soldier’s leg, while a baboon developed a penchant for throwing large objects – a hobby that ended in tragedy when he hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a young boy and killed him.

Should you visit the Tower of London in the modern day, you can see their exhibition on the royal beasts that once made the grey stone walls their home, along with wonderful sculptures. I particularly liked the elephant! I would highly recommend the trip to everyone – even without the bigs cats, the Tower truly remains one of the Lions of London.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on Seeing the Lions

An Undignified Death

George II

One thing you can say for the Hanoverian royal family – they certainly knew how to die in interesting ways. George I had a series of strokes in his carriage but insisted on continuing the journey, finally laying down to expire in the same room he had been born in. His grandson Frederick, Prince of Wales, was famously but inaccurately said to have been killed by a cricket ball. And as you have seen from my post and short story, Queen Caroline died in a thoroughly gruesome way with great courage. Some twenty-three years later, her husband George II was to meet his own infamous death.

I have already written at great length about the farcical nature of George II. This comedy carried over into all the main events of his life. He fell asleep during the sermon at his own wedding. The news of his accession to the throne in 1727 reached him during another afternoon nap; he doddered out to meet Sir Robert Walpole with his wig askew and unbuttoned breeches. When the minister informed George that he had become king, he yelled that it was ‘one big lie’ and stormed off again. It should come as little surprise that this monarch with a penchant for comedy would top it off by dying on the toilet.

George spent his last hours in the first floor private apartments of Kensington Palace, by far his favourite London residence. He had once boasted that he would never die at Kensington, which, if you ask me, was rather tempting fate! On the morning of 25th October he rose from his small hair mattress bed at the usual hour of six ‘ o clock. Neither the King nor those about him had any apprehension of what was about to happen. His German valet de chambre, Schroder, thought the King had ‘never looked better’ than when he received his cup of chocolate that morning.

After chocolate, George threw up the window and looked out onto the south-east gardens that his bedroom faced. He asked Schroder about the weather and direction of the wind – since he received favourable answers, he announced his intention of walking in the gardens.

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace

At quarter past seven, George retired to ‘a little closet’ to empty his bowels. After a time, Schroder heard what Walpole humorously describes as ‘a noise louder than the royal wind’, followed by a groan and a thud. The poor man was put in a terrible predicament. Dare he enter the royal toilet? It sounded like the King needed help, but he had never presumed on such a step before. At last, Schroder made the agonising decision to enter the room and found George on the floor.

It was clear that the King had tried to call for assistance, for his hand was reached out toward the bell. As he had fallen from the close-stool, he had hit his head on the side of a bureau, leaving a deep cut on his face. Help was summoned; he was dragged to the bed a blooded, but ‘not a drop flowed’.

In the throes of death, George tried to call for Amelia, but his speech was not intelligible. There was also some confusion over which ‘Amelia’ was meant – his mistress, Amalie, or his daughter commonly called Emily? Some accounts say both the mistress and daughter were summoned, while others only mention the daughter. Either way, we can be sure that Emily was there, for the last seconds at least. She did not get the chance to hear her father’s last commands, for as she put her face close to his, she felt his cheek was cold and recoiled – he was already dead.

Close-stool at Hampton Court
Close-stool at Hampton Court

To add to the indignity of George’s death, his burial was delayed. An investigation was required to ascertain the cause if his sudden demise and an autopsy performed. The reports, that I have combined her, do not make for pleasant reading.

Upon opening the body of his late Majesty the right ventricle of the heart was found burst & the pericardium filled with a great quantity of extravasated & coagulated blood, nearly a pint . . .the whole heart was so compressed as to prevent any blood contained in the veins from being forced into the auricles; therefore the ventricles were found absolutely void of blood . . . and in the trunk of the aorta we found a transverse fissure on its inner side, about an inch and a half long, through which some blood had recently passed under its external coat . . .His Majesty had been frequently out of order of late, and his pulse so extremely low that the physicians could scarce perceive any motion in it at all. 

The conclusion was that a ventricle of the poor man’s heart had burst. While it sounds very painful, at least it was mercifully sudden.

George II's heart
George II’s heart

Being a royal corpse, George II’s body was embalmed. This meant that his bowels were removed first for the embalming process and buried separately – another thing that strikes me as undignified, but it was the custom for all princes, and we should not see it as something special to him. It is only unfortunate that, having died in the process of emptying his bowels, such focus should later be put on the organ!

George was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on 11 November, 1760. He was the last monarch to be buried there, according to the Abbey’s website, as subsequent rulers preferred Windsor. And here is the sweetener to George’s tempestuous life and his unrefined death – he was buried like a romantic hero. Not only did he get the full burial rights of a King, but he was laid beside his beloved wife Caroline. In accordance with his will, the sides of the two coffins were removed so that the ashes could mingle. A rather touching end, I feel, to what is so often described as comical death.

Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey
Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey