Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 14: The Bear House

I love to go to the zoo. But not on Sunday. I don’t like to see the people making fun of the animals, when it should be the other way around.” – Ermest Hemingway

Content warnings: imprisonment, cruelty to animals, death.

Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.

Transcript:

This is Fogland Lighthouse. I’m Jack Dean.

It might have taken a moment to process what you were seeing, but there was no way you wouldn’t see it. Sailing up the Thames into thirteenth century london, the monolithic spire of Old St Pauls in the distance, one of the tallest buildings in the world back then, the bustling markets of Southwark to your left, the newly finished stonework of the London Bridge ahead of you, and swimming busily through the river’s currents, a fully grown polar bear.

We don’t know the bear’s name, but then, I suppose, neither did the bear. Other mammals tend not to have the same identity hangups as humans. She was probably equally unaware of the socio-political context that led to her capture and transportation hundreds of miles to the south. How her new owner, King Henry the Third, was becoming increasingly unpopular at home, his military campaigns in France ending in disaster, his barons, emboldened by the new Magna cCrta and tired of his taxes, becoming less and less likely to give him their support. How he therefore looked for it abroad instead. How this led him to wedding off his sister to the Holy Roman Emperor twenty years before, an eccentric man who kept three private zoos and a touring troupe of exotic animals, three of which he gifted to Henry at the wedding. Three lions (or leopards, we don’t know which, the words being used interchangeably at the time), but either of which are close enough to the heraldry of Henry’s house of Plantagenet for the symbolic flattery to be noticed. How Henry wanted these big cats put on display somewhere central where everyone could see them, see the refinement and international reach of their king, and so ordered the Sheriffs of the Tower of London to make some space for them within its walls. How the Sheriffs, having no more knowledge of the dietary and habitation requirements of lions or leopards than those of the dragons often sighted off the coast of England at the time, and perhaps a little put out their formerly honourable posting now involving the mucking out of an animal enclosure, took pretty poor care of these animals, and all of them died by around five years later. How this nonetheless set a precedent, and the Tower Menagerie grew to include lynxes, camels and a fresh batch of lions, with yet more of the compound being turned from a prison for humans into a zoo, which, let’s face it, is a prison for animals. How when King Haakon of Norway found himself on a charm offensive looking for allies to back his conquests, his diplomatic gift of a polar bear was only ever going to go to one place. The bear probably knew none of these things. All she knew was that once there was wide open arctic tundra and boreal forest, then there was a ship, and now there were four walls, and a stone floor. 

Initially the bear’s keepers seemed to be keen to send her the way of the lions, spending just sixpence a day on her upkeep. But Henry, who to his credit learned from at least one of his mistakes, intervened on the bear’s behalf. He ordered the Sheriffs to shell out for a muzzle, a chain, a rope and thick protective clothes for her handler, so that she could be brought out to fish for salmon in the river. It doesn’t fit with our image of mediaeval London, but the Thames at this time was clean and clear enough to be bursting with aquatic life. Plenty of locals would fish in the river, so why couldn’t the bear? It’s hard to say whether Henry truly cared for her wellbeing, or just wanted to keep his greatest public relations asset going at the lowest possible cost. In ways, their fortunes were interlinked. The bear would be upstaged a few years later by the arrival of an elephant at the menagerie, although,being fed exclusively on red meat, it unsurprisingly didn’t live that long. Henry would find himself a prisoner of the tower a few years after that, hiding out from the barons leading a coup against him. The bear house and the kings’ quarters were right next to each other. When I don’t think of her swimming, I think of the two of them there, two animals, regal and noble, captive and afraid, sleeping with heavy breaths through the cloudy night, hoping the next day will bring them freedom.

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