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Among the ravens

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US $6.00, Pp 256, October 2018, ISBN 978-0374113346

After defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror needed a symbol of his victory that reflected his great military power. He decided to build the Tower of London. The construction of the Tower of London began in 1070. The Tower of London is perhaps the biggest and boldest building in England. The Tower is equally the finest example of statement architecture in the country. In later centuries, a few ravens landed on the Tower and built their nests. Since then, the Tower has been a permanent abode of those ravens and their descendants and a Yeoman Warder has always been there to take care of the ravens. In The Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife tells the story of these ravens who are without a doubt the most cared-for birds in the world. After serving the Queen for decades, Christopher Skaife was given the added responsibility of caring for the ravens. With the added responsibility came the title of the Ravenmaster. According to a legend, the Tower will crumble into dust and bring a kingdom down if the ravens should ever leave,

Christopher Skaife tells us that there are currently seven ravens at the Tower — three of them females. They all have names. The oldest — Munin — entered the Tower service in 1995. They always have a minimum of six ravens — as decreed by Charles II, as the legend goes. Skaife says that the legend about the ravens can be traced back to the days of Charles II. The legend-based story goes that Charles II was once visiting the Tower of London after the restoration of the monarchy to survey a new building. At the time, a young astronomer named John Flamsteed was using a room in the round turret house at the top of the White Tower for his observations of the stars and the moon, but he had found that the nesting ravens rather obstructed his view and interfered with his work. Flamsteed asked Charles II if he might be able to get rid of “those confounded ravens.” Charles II readily agreed until someone pointed out to the king that the birds had always been at the Tower and were an important symbol of the city and the monarchy, and that getting rid of them would, therefore, seem like rather a bad omen.

As the legend goes, both the city and the monarchy had had a bit of a run of bad luck recently. His father Charles I had recently been executed, and there had been a terrible plague in London in 1665, followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Instead of removing the ravens from the Tower, Charles promptly issued a royal decree, commanding that at least six ravens should be kept at the Tower forevermore. Skaife says that the truth is that there was no Royal Decree protecting the ravens issued by Charles II. There was however admittedly a Royal Warrant issued in June 1675, which provided John Flamsteed with the funding to set up a proper observatory in Greenwich. The Royal Observatory was established for the purpose of “rectifying the Tables of the motions of the Heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired Longitude of Places for Perfecting the Art of Navigation.” Flamsteed later became the first Royal Astronomer. In other words, “the confounded ravens” played a small part in the history of astronomy and navigation, simply by being so bloody annoying that Flamsteed had to move out to Greenwich to get away from them.

The Ravenmaster is probably the first authentic account of the life of ravens at the Tower of London. Skaife gives a detailed account of his life with the ravens. He tells us how he feeds the ravens blood-soaked biscuits and keeps them satisfied and also what he does if one of them falls sick or dies. He also gives us the origins of the superstitions surrounding the ravens. He talks about their history, habits and how he keeps them happy in such a way that it becomes more enjoyable than a good, entertaining novel. The Ravenmaster actually fills a hole in the scholarship about not only the history of London and its Tower but also about the British monarchy.

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