Excerpt from:

City of Ravens: How ravens came to the Tower of London, why they stayed, and what they tell us about nature and humankind (notes and bibliography not included)

 

by Boria Sax

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Shakespeare, "Hamlet", Act 1 scene V

I
Introduction: In Search of the Tower Ravens

The ravens at the Tower of London are now so beloved that nobody seems to care much if they steal an occasional sandwich, and they have long been forgiven for allegedly pecking the eyes from the severed head of Lady Jane Grey. According to the guidebooks, Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) ordered that the wings of six ravens be clipped, so they could not fly away, and their successors strut around on the field behind the White Tower to this day.

A flyer entitled “A Guide to the Tower Ravens,” published by the Tower of London in about 1997 and distributed free to tourists, announces:
For many centuries, ravens have guarded the Tower of London and, since they are said to hold the power of the Crown, it is believed that the Crown and the Tower will fall, if ever the ravens should leave. Fortunately, these respected residents, since the reign of King Charles II, have been protected by royal decree.

And why did Charles II protect the ravens? The usual answer, as stated in one popular history of the Tower of London is that Charles II and his royal astronomer Sir John Flamstead were looking through telescopes, when…

Some ravens flew overhead and bespattered the telescopes. “These ravens must go!” he said. “But, Sire, it is very unlucky to kill a raven,” replied Flamstead, “If you do that the Tower will fall and you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!” Charles, being a pragmatist, thought for a moment and said: “The Observatory must go to Greenwich and the ravens can stay in the Tower.”

This anecdote makes the domesticated ravens into a compromise between science and superstition on the threshold of the modern age, perhaps a bit like the constitutional monarchy. The author, a lot more cautious than most others, concludes his account by admitting that he “cannot vouch for its accuracy.”

The anecdote is not just questionable but absurd. For one thing, ravens are diurnal, so they would not have interfered with the astronomer’s observations at night. The story seems to confuse ravens with bats, perhaps because both are popularly associated with witchcraft and Gothic castles. Furthermore, it is hard to see how moving the observatory to Greenwich could have solved the problem, since that city had the same birds as London. Killing all of the ravens in the sky at the time would have been far beyond the power even of a king. And if these birds had been numerous enough to seriously impede astronomical observations, trimming the wings of six birds would hardly have been necessary to ensure their continued presence. The one thing that the anecdote about Charles II does reflect accurately is the difficulty of keeping ravens at the Tower, particularly since the mid-twentieth century. They are no respecters of tradition or ceremony, and at times drop excrement on tools, antiquities, and heads of visitors. 

But the statement that the ravens “hold the power of the Crown” does not seem inappropriate in the twenty-first century. The ravens are now treated almost like royalty. Like the Royals, the ravens live in a palace and are waited on by servants. They are kept at public expense, but in return they must show themselves to the public in settings of great splendor. So long as they abide by certain basic rules, neither Royals nor ravens have to do anything extraordinary. If the power in question is political and diplomatic, the Royals now have hardly more than the ravens. But the word “power” here can also mean the aura of glamour and mystery which at times envelops both ravens and monarchs.

On first querying the Tower authorities as to where I might find a copy of the decree of Charles II, I was referred to the Tower’s official website, which simply repeated the familiar stories. Next, I searched in scholarly biographies of Charles II, but there was no mention of the ravens. The ravens seemed to me no less magnificent than before, but I gradually became skeptical about their ancient residence in the Tower.

It was initially difficult for me to believe that all of the tourist guides, web sites, and even scholarly books could be so blatantly wrong about the origin of the Tower Ravens. In addition, my status as a foreigner, an American, made it particularly awkward to challenge a national myth of the United Kingdom. I feared – as it turned out, mistakenly – that the British might take umbrage at the perceived challenge to one of their institutions. Furthermore, the idea that the ravens were ancient residents of the Tower appealed to my romantic temperament. But my interest in the ravens and their true story overpowered all of my hesitations, and I continued with my research.

I searched for the references to them which might be traced back to the nineteenth century or earlier in old books of history, ornithology, folklore, and, most especially, any early guides to the Tower that I could locate. I have pored over books from the Renaissance, as well as Web pages and databases from the twenty first century; I have examined graphics from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. I have also spent days at the Tower of London, talking with the Warders, who very graciously provided me with what records were at hand. I have been unable to find any references, either literary or visual, to the ravens in the Tower of London that predate the close of the nineteenth century.

It would be tedious, and not terribly enlightening, to attempt to list the scores of the books in which I have searched in vain for references to ravens in the Tower of London. Nevertheless, I will mention a few that seem particularly significant. Among those where one might especially expect to find such references are the early histories and guidebooks written about the Tower such as The Tower of London by William Benham, published in 1906; The Tower of London by Ronald Sutherland Gower, published in 1902; Her Majesty’s Tower by William Hepworth Dixon, republished several times over the second half of the nineteenth century; and Authorized Guide to the Tower of London by W. J. Loftie, published in 1888. All of these books describe the appearance, history, and legends of the Tower in great detail, yet none of them even mentions the ravens in passing. Even Harrison Ainsworth’s novel The Tower of London, first published in 1840, which, despite the author’s frequent use of artistic license, takes care to document the appearance and lore of the Tower with great thoroughness, makes no mention of any ravens living within it. There is also none in Birds of Omen in Shetland, with Notes on the Folklore of the Raven and the Owl by Jessie Saxeby and William Clouston, which was privately printed in 1893 but remains arguably the most thorough compendium of raven folklore ever produced. A few scholars before me had noticed this absence of early references to the Tower Ravens and pointed it out in professional publications that attracted little notice and are pretty hard to find.

It is inconceivable that these authors and others at the Tower of London could have failed to notice the ravens if these had been present for centuries. After all, it is not everywhere that one sees huge black birds with trimmed wings bustling about and croaking loudly. If the ravens had been anything like those in the Tower today, they would have been begging for food, stealing baubles, and occasionally pecking visitors. It is only through constant vigilance that the Yeoman Warders, who act as both security officers and tour guides at the Tower, manage to keep the ravens safely in the Tower and more-or-less under control.

The fear of sorcery that pervaded Europe in the Renaissance had by no means entirely receded by the time of Charles II, and protecting the ravens on the word of a soothsayer could easily have aroused suspicions of witchcraft. Had the ravens really represented the “power of the crown” since the reign of Charles II or earlier, one might have expected them to be included, along with the lion and unicorn, in royal crests. They certainly would have attracted a lot of attention from people trying to identify the rightful monarch or predict the fate of the British Empire.
On realizing that the ravens were not ancient residents of the Tower, I initially felt disappointed. I expressed something of that to Jeremy Ashbee, a former Curator of the Tower of London. I quote with permission from his reply:

I was at the Tower for more than seven years and the sensation you describe is very familiar! – “so you mean this wasn’t Anne Boleyn’s cell after all?” Eventually I found that the only way to save my sanity was to invent something called ‘The Legendary Tower of London’, in which Richard III personally smothered his nephews in the Bloody Tower, Henry VI was stabbed while at prayer in the upper chamber of the Wakefield Tower (almost certainly full of documents in the 15th century, more’s the pity), untold thousands were racked in the dungeons under the White Tower and so on. Most of the legends, on close examination, tended to have at least an element of truth behind them (i.e., a genuine event in a fabricated location, a rare event presented as common) and it’s fascinating to find one which appears to be almost completely invented…. But having said that, as with some of the military traditions and ceremonies, there is something so inherently appealing about the idea that the place is too important and too ancient for the modern mind to comprehend it, that I can quite see how a legend of this kind can take hold so pervasively in such a short period of time, particularly if part of it is bound up in the mythology of London in the World War II Blitz.

To have ignored the evidence of their recent origin for so long, the British must have wanted very badly to believe in the Tower Ravens, if not as supernatural beings at least as an ancient legend.  The way the standard narrative, even when it became absurd, has been accepted without question suggests that it really has something like mythic status. After my initial research had established that the ravens were a tradition of Victorian England rather than ancient Britain, I traveled in spring of 2004 from my home in the United States to London, in order to visit the Tower and confirm my the results of my research. I was shown around by Assistant Ravenmaster Tom Trent, who also provided me with access to records in the Tower relating to the ravens. Shortly after returning home, I wrote to several historians about my findings. Among these was Geoffrey Parnell, co-author of an official history of the Tower, who wrote back that he had also investigated the history of the ravens and come to conclusions similar to my own.

Not long after my last visit to the Tower of London, Dr. Parnell made an announcement that was published on the first page of The Guardian, a London newspaper, that the ravens in the Tower only go back to the nineteenth century, mentioning my research in passing. I published articles about the Tower Ravens and the legend that Britain will fall if they leave in History Today and in the International Society for Anthrozoology Newsletter. Our revelations caused a brief stir but not much apparent impact, as web sites and publications about the Tower of London continued to tell the old stories about Charles II domesticating the ravens.

The story of the Tower Ravens may sometimes involve cultural nuances that could be inaccessible to me as a foreigner in Britain. I have yet to see a Western produced by the British that seemed convincing even as satire. In the same way, American productions of the stories of Robin Hood just never seem to ring true. There are subtle kinds of understanding that come with a lifetime of exposure to the patterns of everyday life in a country, for which no scholarship can compensate. On the other hand, an outsider can also bring insight and objectivity to issues that might pass largely unquestioned within another culture.

According to Michael Colls, the English, at least until recently, centered their identity on the traditions of common law. This meant constantly relying on understandings that were never recorded in print, which in turn produced a society that was, by comparison with other democracies, very secretive and highly centralized.  That reticence may no longer pervade English life, but it still pertains to matters relating to the Crown and to related traditions. It would seem, then, that even my initial question ─ “Where is the decree by Charles II on the Tower Ravens written down?” ─ betrayed my status as a foreigner. In England, these things didn’t always need to be written down. The standard history of the Tower Ravens is unbelievable even in England, but it does not require quite as much suspension of disbelief as it might in another land.

In the chapters that follow, I will trace in detail not only the history of the Tower Ravens from their introduction in the late nineteenth century, but also of the hopes, fears, and dreams, which have guided their display up to the present day. The history of the Tower Ravens is a record of changing relationships between humanity, especially in Britain, with the natural world. During the Industrial Revolution, the relationship was adversarial, and so the ravens were often demonized. In the Britain of the late twentieth century, as people assumed a more bucolic perspective, the ravens became national pets. But today, as Britain and the world enter the Post-Industrial Era, the institution of the Tower Ravens may be on the threshold of the greatest transformation of all.



 

 

 

“What is the forest that is seen upon the sea?” asked they. “The yards and masts of ships,” she answered. “Alas,” said they, “what is the mountain that is seen by the side of the ships?” “Bendigeid Bran, my brother,” she replied, “coming to shoal water; there is no ship that can contain him.”

“Branwen, Daughter of Lyr” (trans. Lady Charlotte Guest)

 

II
Bran, and those who Followed Him

Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidea, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.” Their close relatives include American crows, carrion crows, hooded crows, jackdaws, and rooks. They generally thrive best on rocky coastlines and, to this day, that is where they are most commonly found in Britain. Nevertheless, ravens are enormously adaptable, which is why they have the largest range of any avian in the world.

Their complex social structure resembles that of human beings. They live within a nuclear family and raise their young collectively, yet they also assemble in huge gatherings for reasons that are not fully explained. They communicate in part through a large range of vocalizations, and they have long been renowned for their intelligence. Because ravens can seem “almost human,” they elicit strong feelings from people, and have been alternately revered and persecuted throughout human history.

Because of their extraordinary cleverness, people can find ravens irascible and, at times, even diabolic. A recent publication of the National Park Service advises tourists that, “Ravens have learned how to unzip and unsnap packs. Do not allow them access to your food.” But despite their reputation as tricksters, ravens have often been able to thrive in human settlements, and Aristotle considered them birds of the city. Pliny tells of one raven that made its nest in the shop of a cobbler in Rome and became so beloved that a man who killed it was punished with death. The raven was given a splendid funeral attended by a large crowd of mourners.

 

The Raven in Myth

The raven is central in mythologies of people across the Artic Circle, including Native Americans, Siberians, and Scandinavians. A raven deity has similar roles in many of the cosmologies of both the Old World and the New, sometimes as Creator of the world, the bearer of civilization, or the bringer of light to the world. It is entirely possible that all of these myths may be derived from a single prototype, perhaps originating in Siberia.
Ravens are associated with Odin or Woton, the Norse/Germanic god of battles. He had two ravens, Hugine (thought) and Munine (memory) perched on his shoulders, and they flew around the world to bring him news. Ravens were also an attribute of the God Mithras, whose religion, popular primarily among soldiers, was the major rival of Christianity in the latter Roman Empire.       

In Celtic mythology, there is a wide range of raven deities, which may at one time have been a single figure. First of all, there is Lugh, a god of the sun. He is the inventor of the arts and sciences, and was identified by ancient writers with the Greek Hermes, the Roman Mercury, the Egyptian Thoth, and the Norse Odin. Then there is the Irish triple goddess of destiny known as the Babdh or the Morrigan, often appearing in the form of three hags or crows to foretell the fate of a hero in battle. They resemble the Greco-Roman Fates, the Viking Norns, and the three witches in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth.”

By far the most enigmatic of the raven deities in Celtic culture is Bran, the son of Lyr and the brother of the sea-god Manawydan.      The name “Bran” means “crow” in Welsh, “raven” in Cornish, Irish, and Scots Gaelic. A bit like the Greco-Roman Apollo and Dionysius who shared a shrine at Delphi, Lugh, whose name may also come from a Celtic word for “raven,” and Bran sometimes seem to be different aspects of a single figure.

Bran may originally have been a god of mariners. For sailors of the ancient world, navigating without reliable maps or a compass, the presence of birds and the direction of their flight was an important means of orientation. One common way of learning the direction of land was to release a bird and see in what direction it would fly. The favorite bird for this purpose was the raven, which had many advantages. For one thing, ravens are powerful flyers, capable of covering great distances. More importantly, their large, black forms would be clearly visible against the sky. In the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtum, with his wife, survived a great flood that killed the rest of humankind by taking refuge in a boat. He sent out first a dove and then a swallow, both of which returned. Then he sent out a raven, which flew about, called and did not return, so that Utnapishtum knew that the flood waters were receding.

Utnapishtum is the original of the Biblical Noah, who, when the earth was inundated by a flood, also sent out a raven to seek land. When the raven did not return, Noah sent out a dove, which, after returning once to the ark, eventually came back carrying an olive branch (Genesis 8:6-10). There are numerous legends about Noah’s raven. Perhaps it stopped to peck at bodies floating on the waves? Perhaps it mated with the dove in Britain, to produce the magpie, which is both black and white? In the Talmud, Noah and the raven engage in lively arguments about cosmic justice, and the raven even suspects Noah of sending from the ark out of desire for his mate.

According to an Old Norse manuscript, Iceland was discovered in the year 864 by a Viking named Floki Wilgersson. He performed a sacrifice and ceremoniously consecrated three ravens, then set sail with them from Norway. When he released the first raven, it immediately settled on the ship. When he released the second, it flew about for a while and then returned. Finally, he released the third raven, which flew away, thus showing Floki the direction of land.

Since at least the Renaissance, Bran has been conflated with the Greek titan Chronos, who, according to Hesiod, was overthrown and exiled by the god Zeus. There is an old tradition that Chronos, the Roman Saturn, had taken refuge in England after his defeat. Among the most important attributes of Chronos or Saturn, the patron of alchemy, was the raven. Alchemists such as the English Robert Fludd referred to the dark residue in test tubes, as the “ravenshead,” meaning the primal material of creation.

Bran’s full name, “Bendigeidfran Bran” or “Bran the blessed,” may predate the arrival of Christianity in Britain. The Welsh monks who wrote down his tale believed that he was named for bringing the Christian religion to their Island.

 

Branwen, Sister of Bran

The story of “Branwen, Daughter of Lyr” (i.e., of the god Lugh), in the medieval Welsh collection of tales compiled by Lady Charlotte Guest and known as The Mabinogion, first established a connection between ravens and the Tower of London. It tells how the maiden Branwen marries Mallolwch, the King of Ireland, who humiliates her by forcing her to work as a scullery maid. She sends a starling with news of her misuse to her brother Bran, who launches an expedition to Ireland to retrieve her. Mallolwch and his entire army are killed by the invaders, but only Bran and seven of his followers survive the battle. Bran is wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear. He directs his followers to cut off his head and take it back to White Hill in London, to be buried with his face towards France. The severed head, which continues to speak, leads the warriors back to England.

The followers of Bran stop at Harlech Castle in Wales, where they spend seven years listening to the magic birds of the goddess Rhiannon. They then journey to the Island of Gwales, where they spend an additional eighty years feasting and drinking in the Otherworld. Finally, one of them opens a forbidden door, breaking the spell and reminding the men of their mission. The survivors journey to London and finally bury the head of Bran, and Britain remains safe from invasions until the head is finally taken away.

The precise location of White Hill (or “White Mount”), where the head of Bran was buried, is not specified in the story. Lady Charlotte Guest, however, writes in the notes to her original translation, that the allusion “…is most probably intended to the Tower of London, in which the Welsh, who always regarded the capital as a city of their own foundation, appear to have felt a peculiar interest.” The opinion of Lady Guest was conjecture, but, probably for want of a more plausible alternative, it has become popularly accepted as a fact.

The story of Bran and his sister was written down in the thirteenth century or earlier, at a time when Welsh princes could still sometimes challenge the kings of England. The Welsh Triads tell us that the head was dug up by King Arthur, who wished to take the defense of the kingdom on himself. In this way, it was possible to explain the successful invasions by the Saxons and, most especially, the Normans.

 

The Fisher King

Bran continues to play a part in Arthurian legends as the Fisher King, the guardian of the Holy Grail. He has been wounded with a lance and, in the later romances, presides over a blighted kingdom, as he waits for a knight, Sir Galahad or Sir Percival, who can redeem him both the him and his land.

At times the Grail is a platter of plenty, which supplies an endless amount of food and drink. In other stories, the Grail is the cup used by Christ at the last supper with his disciples or the vessel that caught the blood of Christ on the cross when his side was pierced with a lance. In still other romances, it is envisioned as a stone, perhaps the Philosophers Stone of alchemical lore. The wide range of variants suggests that form of the Grail did not seem terribly important to people of the Middle Ages, and perhaps it should not be for us. It is probably futile to look for a single prototype, since the Grail is mostly a product of the medieval imagination.

Regardless of the form, the Grail is a talisman with mysterious powers such as healing or providing food. At times, the castle where it is kept is called “Castle Corbenic” or simply “Corbin,” which means “Castle of the Crow.” The castle may be, in various versions of the legend, located on a desolate coast, on an island, or in the middle of a dense forest. It is not found by seeking, but, if a knight sets off in search of the castle, destiny may lead him to it.

The structural parallels between the Castle of the Grail in legend and the Tower of London today are remarkable. If we compare the two edifices, the Grail corresponds to the Crown Jewels. The Knights of the Grail correspond to the Yeoman Warders, with their medieval uniforms. Furthermore, the obsession at the Tower of London with torture, execution, and imprisonment at the Tower of London suggests that it, like Fisher King’s Castle of the Grail seems to be under a sort of a curse. In both, there are sins of the rulers that must be expiated for the kingdom to achieve full prosperity. Finally, and most importantly, the ravens are the spirit of Bran. Today, Bran seems to be commemorated in the heraldic patch worn by the Ravenmaster and his assistants at the Tower of London, showing the head of a raven, presumably Bran, rising above a crown, the six visible points of which may represent the ravens at the Tower.

 

The Beheaded King

For others in the religious wars of the seventeenth century, martyrdom may have been a fate, but for King Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) it was virtually a vocation. His reign was a series of political blunders, which alienated one supporter after another. The king had claimed to rule by divine right, and, accordingly, dissolved Parliament. He then provoked a civil war by imposing a new prayer book on the Scots. He called on a reconvened Parliament to levy taxes to support his army and tried to arrest some members when they would not cooperate. After defeating the King, the new Puritan government of Britain decided to put him on trial like a common criminal. Charles I seemed transfigured at his tribunal, and, all of a sudden, even the stammer with which he had spoken disappeared. His moody stubbornness and arbitrary behavior appeared as high principle, his coldness as mystical serenity.

Charles I appealed to British law and tradition, arguing that if even a king could be killed no subject could ever be safe. With great eloquence and presence of mind, he repeatedly routed trained barristers in debate. When he was finally led out to execution on January 30, 1649, he again challenged the court in a final speech, then bent down on the executioners block with such calm that even his adversaries were awed. A great groan went through the assembled audience, and, as the body was taken away, many held out handkerchiefs in hope of taking away a bit of the king’s precious blood.

Immediately, reports of miracles connected with the deposed king began to spread. He was even reported to, like Jesus, have been able to heal people with his touch. Oliver Cromwell, who assumed the title of Lord Protector a few years after the execution, governed in growing isolation and uncertainty. In 1660, two years after the death of Cromwell, the British Parliament invited Charles II, son of Charles I, to return from exile in France and assume the Crown.

Like Bran in the Mabinogion, Charles I had engaged in devastating wars. Also like Bran, Charles I seemed to have been inviting martyrdom by decapitation. And like Bran, Charles I continued to inspire followers long after his death. Both Bran and Charles I were handicapped; Bran had been wounded in the foot before decapitation; Charles I had been a weak, sickly young man, and he stuttered as an adult. The Restoration, when Charles II assumed the throne, was a rebirth of the monarchy and, in the eyes of many, of Britain as well.

Regicide or parricide, often followed by a rejuvenated monarchy, would soon become an obsession in the political and intellectual life of Europe during the modern era. For political revolutionaries, regicide seemed to herald a new, ecstatic phase of human history. For conservatives, by contrast, it was almost the ultimate crime.The cultural anthropological folklorist James George Frazer believed that ritualistic murder of a king to prevent him from becoming old and feeble was the foundation of virtually all mythology.

 

Frederick Barbarossa

Yet another figure that resembles Bran, at least in legend, is the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The Grimm brothers once recorded a legend about him that sounds very much like the story told of Ravens in the Tower of London. A shepherd once entered a cavern in Mount Kyffhäuser. Frederick Barbarosa was seated asleep at a large table, which was encircled by his beard. The Emperor rose and asked the shepherd, “Are the ravens still flying around the mountain?” Told that they were, the Emperor went back to sleep for another hundred years.

When the end of time approaches and the ravens no longer fly, Barbarossa will ride out with his warriors; a dead tree will blossom, and a better age shall begin. The legend seems to make ravens into the soul of the Emperor, which shall return to him when the time of his resurrection is at hand, in much the same way as the ravens came to represent the soul of Bran. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the German government erected an enormous monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, then known as “Wilhelm the Great,” by a ruined castle on the top of Mount Kyffhäuser at the place where Barbarossa was to appear, using the legend to glorify the German crown. 

The monument associated a legendary king of the remote past with ravens and with a contemporary monarchy, in much the same way as the British would do at the Tower of London. Bran is not the central figure in any story, yet his presence is felt constantly through much of Celtic myth and the Arthurian legends. A sort of Deus Abscondus, he seems to be perpetually lurking in the background, as other gods and heroes take a central role. He helps others to achieve their destiny, whether it leads to triumph or tragedy. Together with such figures as Saturn, King Arthur, Charles I, Frederick Babarossa, and even Christ, Bran represents an archetype: the ruler who once presided over a blessed age and returns in times of peril.

 

 

 

 

Psychoanalysis has taught that the dead - a dead parent, for example - can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is the question of ghosts.

Jacques Derrida, New York Times Magazine, Jan. 23, 1994

 

 

III

The Earls of Dunraven


Various locations have been suggested for the original castle that housed the Grail, including Dinas Bran, or “fortress of Bran," whose ruins may still be found in Wales. The most influential claim, however, was that made for Dunraven Castle by the romantic Celtic scholar Iolo Morganwg, whose real name was Edward Williams, and taken up by his patrons in the house of Dunraven.

In 1822, when Valentine Quinn (1752-1824) ascended to the rank of Earl, he chose the name “Dunraven,” not after his own property but that of his daughter-in-law, Countess Caroline, the sole heiress to a large estate in Wales where ravens are still plentiful. He then had two ravens added to the family crest as supports. Thomas Wyndham, the second Earl of Dunraven and husband to Countess Caroline, developed a close relationship with Morganwg, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Morganwg was a prolific forger of supposedly archaic poems, chronicles, and stories in ancient Welsh, which were central to the revival of Welsh nationalism, and continue to influence popular images of Druids even today.

He was also a political radical, who had inveighed against the aristocracy and idealized the Druids as social rebels, but his relation with the House of Dunraven shows a side to Morganwg that has not been previously noted by scholars. His writings to, and about, the House of Dunraven, preserved in the National Library of Wales, are those of a rather sycophantic courtier. It is not known how much the Earls of Dunraven actually supported Morganwg financially, but a few statements such as his reference to their “unbounded generosity and hospitality” suggest that the assistance was considerable. Morganwg probably saw himself at the time as a medieval bard, called to serve and entertain his Lord.
In a draft of an elegy to Thomas Wyndham, written in 1814 and preserved in the National Archives of Wales, Morganwg calls Dunraven Castle “the residence of princes and the place where the Christian religion and its inseparably attendant civilization first obtained an entrance into the Islands of Britain….”  In 1818 Morganwg wrote to Countess Caroline, stating that the primary residence of Bran was the foundation of Dunraven Castle in Glamorgan.

 

The First Ravens in the Tower

In The Tower from Within, first published in 1918 and one of the first books ever to discuss the history of the Tower Ravens, author George Younghusband tells that the current ravens were provided by “Lord Dunraven.”  This would have been Thomas Quinn (1841-1926), the Fourth Earl, who had been a newspaperman in the Franco-Prussian war, a champion yachtsman, and an adventurer in America. In his youth the Earl of Dunraven had experimented with spiritualism and attended many séances together with his father. Though too politically astute to speak often of ghosts, he always remained convinced of their reality, and would publish a book about them shortly before his death.

Younghusband gives one further intriguing hint as to the origin of the Tower Ravens: “It would be of historic interest if those whose ancestors have suffered at the Tower would send from their home successors to the old ravens, as they die off, and thus maintain a very old tradition in a manner well in keeping.” Why, specifically, people whose ancestors had suffered at the Tower? What might this tradition commemorate? Younghusband does not answer these questions explicitly, but apparently thought of the ravens as a memorial to those who had been martyred, perhaps even as the spirits of the dead.

The idea that the departed enter animals, especially birds, near their place of burial or death is very common in folklore. Frank McCourt, for example, tells us that at the funeral, in Ireland, of one of his brothers, he wanted to throw stones at the noisy jackdaws in the graveyard. His father told him not to, saying that the birds might be the souls of people in their tombs.

But if Younghusband was implying that a relative of the Dunraven household had been martyred in the Tower of London, he was probably misinformed. Many early members of the House of Quinn, which would eventually become the House of Dunraven in the eighteenth century, may have been Jacobite sympathizers, but they had been also politically astute and had avoided prosecution. The Earls of Dunraven believed, as already mentioned, that Bran had been an actual person, the original king of Siluria. By having their own Castle Dunraven built on the alleged site of his major fortress, the Earls were claiming Bran as at least a spiritual forebear. Perhaps the Dunraven family even thought of the ravens as the spirit of Bran the Blessed.

 

A Local Saying

On a trip to Adare, Ireland, today the seat of the earls of Dunraven, in 2004, a lady named Lucy Erridge, who runs a lovely shop in a thatched cottage near the center of town, told me of a local saying about the supports that is very much like the prophecy that Britain will fall if the ravens leave the Tower. It goes, “When the house of Dunraven falls, there will be no male heir, and the ravens fly out the window.” This may refer not, or not only, to the ravens on the family coat of arms but to two wooden ravens that were carved in the early nineteenth century on the banister at the foot of the stairway in Adare Manor, which seem to be gazing out of the window. The home, formerly the seat of the House of Dunraven, is now a hotel called the Dunraven Arms, but visitors still see the ravens as they start to ascend the staircase. Ms. Erridge could not remember when or where she had first heard the saying, except that it was long ago.

The resemblance of the saying about the ravens and the House of Dunraven to the legend of the ravens at the Tower of London is very striking, and perhaps it may be due to a direct connection between the two. More likely, however, it is due to convergence, as a single motif, birds that are grounded yet on the verge of flight, generated similar stories.

There is a similar convergence in the opposing national myths, which became conflated in the lore of the Tower Ravens. For the house of Dunraven, the ravens represented a spiritual claim to the Tower for the Celtic, especially the Welsh, people. For the English, the ravens represented the colorful savagery of their ancestors, which, however, testified to the exalted state of civilization they had since achieved. The national sagas of the Welsh and English gradually blended in tall tales told to tourists by Yeoman Warders, to eventually create a national myth. The romanticized past of Wales, predicated on survival, was fused with that of England, predicated on progress and conquest, to create a legend of Britain.

 

 

 

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