Ravens at the Tower of London
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.'"
~ Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, 1845
Knock, Knock! "Who's there?" Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem of grief and lost love, "The Raven," published today in 1845, paints the raven as a sinister prophet, providing no consolation to the poem's narrator. Because of its black plumage, croaking call and diet of carrion, the raven has a long folkloric association with loss and ill omen. However, as a talking bird, the raven also represents prophecy and insight, connecting the material world with the world of spirits. According to legend, the Kingdom of England will fall if the ravens of the Tower of London are removed. It was said that Charles II ordered their removal following complaints from John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer. However, when told of the legend, Charles, after the English Civil War, was not prepared to take the chance and had the observatory moved to Greenwich. ✍️
The Raven's Dance
Ravens are one of the most intelligent of birds and figure prominently in the folklore of many cultures.
Some famous ravens are residents at the Tower of London. Their presence is traditionally believed to protect The Crown and the Tower; a superstition holds that "if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it." The earliest known reference to captive ravens at the Tower is an illustration from 1883.
Historically, wild ravens were common throughout Britain, even in towns, the Tower being within their natural range. When they were exterminated from much of their traditional range, including London, they could only exist at the Tower in captivity and with official support. The Tower ravens are tended to by an official Ravenmaster. Local legend puts the origin of the captive raven population at the time of King Charles II (reigned 1660–85).
The earliest legend that connects the Tower with a raven is the Welsh tale of the War against the Irish leader Matholwch who had mistreated the princess Branwen. Branwen's brother Brân the Blessed (King of the Britons) ordered his followers to cut off his head and bury it beneath The White Hill (upon which the Tower now stands) facing out towards France as a talisman to protect Britain from foreign invasion!
Brân is the modern Welsh word for raven and the magical and protective qualities of ravens are attested throughout Celtic mythology. The knowledge that Brân's head was buried beneath the White Hill would have served as protective reassurance in the Celtic tradition, just as modern ideas about the presence of ravens does.
For more about the Tower of London's special ravens, click the 1883 illustration. And to see the dance performed by the Tay Dancers scroll below!