The lion roared.
“What a cute little kitty,” said Rita Simpson.
Thomas Heneage, keeper of the lions and leopards of the Tower of London, was not amused. “That’s a lion, the king of beasts. Ferocious.”
The ferocious king of beasts took this statement as his cue to flop onto one side and take a nap.
Heneage reached for a prod, clearly intending to force the lion to put on a show for them, but Melissa Mailey realized his intention, and stopped him.
“We don’t need to have you disturb him on our account. Even a king must rest from time to time.”
Rita snickered. “If the king of beasts is anything like a house cat, he does more resting than reigning.”
Thomas Wentworth, the constable of the Tower, had given permission for his involuntary guests, the American envoys Rita Simpson and Melissa Mailey, to visit the royal menagerie. Rita, who had gained nursing skills since the Ring of Fire, had been devoting much of her time to caring for Cecily, the daughter of the yeoman warder Michael Dunn. She had barely survived the winter, mostly thanks to Rita’s medical care. Michael Dunn had told his captain that Rita deserved a reward for her labors, and Wentworth agreed. A visit to the Lion Tower was authorized.
In 1634, the “Tower of London” wasn’t simply a tower, as it had been during the reign of William the Conqueror, but rather a full-blown castle. The “Lion Tower” was a barbican, an extended gatehouse, at the southwest corner of the fortress complex, and it stood partway across the moat constructed in the days of the Henry III.
Normally, the Lion’s Tower was open to tourists, provided that they had connections at court, and were willing to pay for admission. That was a few shillings, or, by decree of Henry VI, you could donate your dog, cat, or other domestic animal as the lions’ next meal. (The yeoman warders weren’t the only “beefeaters” at the Tower.)
Of course, Wentworth couldn’t take the chance that on the occasion of Rita and Melissa’s outing, the tourists might include accomplices of the Americans, there to spirit them out of the Tower. If that happened, Wentworth would soon be an involuntary guest himself. Hence, the Lion’s Tower had been closed to the public, and only the two ladies, and not the rest of the American party, had been invited. And to make sure the ladies didn’t get into any mischief, there were four yeoman warders keeping an eye on them.
“Have you seen a lion before?” asked Robert Gill. While Rita and Melissa were at the Lion Tower to see the menagerie, he had been invited by Heneage to see a sight that a Londoner would deem even more remarkable: two up-time women. He was no tourist; Robert Gill was the son of Ralph Gill, who had been the lionkeeper before Heneage. Robert Gill and Thomas Heneage were cousins, Ralph having married Ann Heneage. It was generally expected that Robert would soon be granted the position of keeper for life, in reversion after Thomas Heneage.
“Yes, there are several at the Cleveland zoo,” acknowledged Rita.
Gill looked puzzled. “A zoo?”
“That’s ‘zoo’ as in ‘zoological park,'” Melissa explained, in full “schoolmarm” mode. “From Greek, ‘zoion.’ A place to see wild animals.” Melissa sniffed. “Of course, they don’t really act the same way in the wild as they do in captivity.”
“And of course I’ve seen the National Geographic and Animal Planet movies of the lions of the Serengeti,” Rita continued. “Those show the lions and zebras and wildebeests just as they are in the wild.”
“Which is why we don’t really need zoos anymore,” snapped Melissa.
Rita pouted. “But I like zoos. It’s just not the same, seeing the animals on TV. You can smell them, not just see and hear them. And they react to you.”
There were half dozen lions in the menagerie at this time, and Heneage assured the American visitors that one of them was a century old, and had been a present to Henry VIII. Melissa started to express disbelief but subsided when Rita nudged her.
The visitors and their hosts were standing on the walkway that lined the outer wall of the barbican, looking down at the animals. The enclosed grounds were the exercise yard for the creatures, and these included, not only lions, but also a leopard, a pair of cougars, several camels, a rather mangy hyena, and a few other specimens.
Heneage pointed. “Now, if you look down there you can see the elephant’s house.”
“African or Indian elephant?”
“Err . . . Actually, there is no elephant presently in residence. It’s just as well, they cost a fortune in liquor to maintain.”
“Excuse me? Liquor?”
“Yes, we got an elephant in 1623, as a present from the king of Spain, and the Spanish told us that between September and April, elephants only drink wine. To keep out the cold, y’know.
“Unfortunately, it was just too cold here in London. The poor thing died. Perhaps we should have given it something stronger?”
Rita and Melissa exchanged looks, but contained themselves.
“The constable tells me that you visited the Tower in your twentieth century, Lady Mailey,” said Heneage. “Has the menagerie grown in size? Does it have any new animals?”
“I’m sorry,” said Melissa. “All of the royal animals were given to the new zoo in Regent’s Park after the death of King George IV, by order of the Duke of Wellington. The Lion’s Tower is now the visitors’ entrance, and there’s a gift shop nearby.”
There was an awkward silence, and Melissa finally filled it with a placatory remark.
“But before then, it was a very popular attraction. Perhaps too much so. I think Wellington was anxious to get the tourists out of the Tower, so it would be more effective from a military standpoint.”
“Somethin’ to be said for that,” one of the warders whispered to his companions.
“I must compliment you on your knowledge of the history of the Tower, Lady Mailey,” said Gill.
“Miss Mailey knows a lot about the history of everything,” Rita proclaimed. The Englishmen laughed.
“I don’t know about that,” said Melissa, “but I certainly was interested in the Tower. Did you know that when Christopher Wren rebuilt parts of the Tower, his workmen found the bones of Prince Edward and Prince Richard?”
Heneage’s eyebrows shot up. “The princes in the Tower! I pray you, tell me where!”
Melissa thought for a moment. “If I recall correctly, their bones were in a wooden chest that was found when the workmen disassembled the stairs leading from the royal lodgings to the chapel of the White Tower.”
Heneage lowered his voice. “I would be most, most appreciative, Lady Mailey, if you would not mention this to anyone else before I have the opportunity to send a missive about this discovery to the king. I am sure that he would want the bones of his royal kinsmen to be properly buried, and that he would be, ahem, grateful to the courtier who brought the matter to his attention.”
“Not a problem.”
“And of course I would be most interested in whatever else you can tell me about the future—I suppose I should say the former future—of the royal menagerie.
“Well, there are some interesting tidbits . . . “
Andrew Short slammed the door shut.
His wife, Elizabeth, frowned. “Please, Andrew, you’ll wake George.” That was their three-year-old. “And he only just settled.”
“Sorry. It’s that damned Spaniard.”
“That wh—” He swallowed the word. “Gentleman.”
Alvarez was the second-in-command of one of the three companies of mercenaries that the earl of Cork had lodged in the Tower after the queen was killed and the king crippled in a carriage accident. Wentworth had been accused of treason and imprisoned. The new constable, Sir Francis Windebank, had brought in the outsiders; plainly, he thought that the yeoman warders might liberate their former superior.
Many of the warders, and their families, had been forced out of their longstanding quarters and forced into huts in the outer ward, to make room for the mercenaries. This would have caused discontent even if the mercenaries, and their leaders, had been apologetic about the disruption.
And Lieutenant Alvarez was extremely critical about England in general and the yeoman warders in particular. As Andrew put it to the chief warder, Stephen Hamilton, he was “the boil on the Devil’s ass.”
Not that complaining about him had done any good.
“I wish, I wish we could just throw that damn Alvarez to the lions. Although they’d probably refuse to eat him, fetid mass of maggots that he is.
“Even the hyena would decline his carcass. Even—”
Andrew suddenly smiled.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like that smile, Andrew. What are you thinking of?”
“Have you spoken much to Lady Mailey?”
The abrupt change of subject took Elizabeth off guard. “Of course, I have, since I made sure that our households stringently obeyed the sanitation regulations the Americans recommended to us. Why?”
“Well, she is a veritable fount of knowledge about the history of the Tower of London. And the keeper of the lions passed on some fascinating information. There is a custom from, um, 1698, I think it was, that I think it’s high time that we put into practice. I can hardly wait for the ‘morrow, so I can make the arrangements.”
Lieutenant Alvarez looked at the invitation with satisfaction. Clearly, his communications with Juan de Necolaldes, the Spanish charge d’affaires to the court of Charles I, had finally borne fruit. It was ridiculous that a man of his family was not invited to participate in the doings of the court.
The invitation had been slipped under the door of his quarters (formerly those of the Hardwicks’, who now had but a single room). Written in a fine hand, it began, “Please admit the Bearer to view the Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Lions.”
He appeared at the Water Gate on the appointed day, at the time specified by the invitation.
He looked around. No lions. He spoke to a nearby waterman. “Hey, you. Is this where the lions are washed?”
“Washed? Oh, yes, in the moat. You’ll see soon enough, good sir. Just be patient.”
Alvarez gave a curt nod. After a while, he started pacing. “Stupid Englishmen,” he muttered. “Can’t stay on schedule. No wonder, since they can’t see the sun half the time.”
The waterman approached him. “You know, sir, you should have a boat. The view will be much better that way.”
Alvarez thought about this. “That makes sense. How much will a boat ride cost me?”
They dickered briefly, and made a deal.
“You must leave your weapons on shore, sir. No pistol, no sword.”
“But what if the lions attack me?”
“They are fed before the washing, good sir, so they aren’t hungry. And the keepers know how to handle them. But you must leave your safety in the keepers’ hands, and God’s; these are the king’s lions, sir; ’tis certain death for any who dares to harm them save the keepers or by the king’s direct order. Why one of them is named Charles, after the king, and ’tis said that if the lion dies, the king will, too.”
Alvarez was quick to appreciate that accidentally killing the Lion Charles would not be a career-enhancing move. “All right, then, but they better still be here when I return!”
“Have no fear. Now hop in while I hold the boat for you.”
Alvarez jumped into the boat, which rocked wildly for a moment, then settled.
The waterman gave the boat a hard shove, and it glided into the moat.
“Wait a moment, aren’t you coming in with me?”
The waterman shook his head, smiling.
Several other boats came by, and their occupants started splashing Alvarez with great vigor and much laughter.
Sputtering, he tried to find the oars, but couldn’t. The boat spun slowly about.
The waterman who had provided the boat reached under a tarpaulin and pulled out the missing oars. “Looking for these, oh noble Spaniard?” he yelled.
Alvarez screamed, “When I get my pistol and sword back, you’ll be sorry!”
The waterman laid down the oars. “You want your pistol and sword, now? Not a problem. Here you go!”
Two splashes followed.
“Oops,” said the waterman. He had artfully tossed the weapons into the moat, out of Alvarez’ reach. They disappeared immediately into the murky waters.
“Don’t worry, you’ll find them. All you need to do is drink the moat dry.” The waterman laid the oars on his shoulder, and strode off, whistling:
But God almighty be blessed evermore;
Who doth encourage Englishmen, to beat them from our shore.
The words were from a ballad by Thomas Delony, and the “them” were the Spanish of the Armada.
Andrew Short and Stephen Hamilton, standing on the parapet of the Tower, studied the Spaniard’s plight for a few minutes.
Hamilton looked at Short. “You made provision for the waterman? He can hardly ply his trade here again.”
“He’s no waterman, he’s an actor with one of the traveling companies. And they’re on their way north tomorrow.”
“Ah. Then I may enjoy the Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Gullible Spaniard with a clean conscience.”
“Indeed you may.”
Hamilton smiled. “Well, to quote Lady Mailey—”
They finished the quotation in unison. “There’s no Fool like an April Fool!”
For description of the royal menagerie, I relied heavily on Hahn, The Tower Menagerie (2004). I don’t know its “inventory” in 1634, but Hahn said that there were eleven lions in 1613 and six in the 1650s. The butterfly effect of the RoF would account for any discrepancy between the numbers given in the story and the historical ones.
The first reference to the “washing the lions” prank is from April 2, 1698. It was a happy accident that Melissa Mailey had heard of it, and described it to the yeoman warders just when they were in need of a morale boost.
There is a fair amount of mystery surrounding the origin of the April Fools’ holiday. The Museum of Hoaxes asserts that the earliest clear reference to pranks on April 1 was by a Flemish poet in 1539. It is clear that by 1686, when John Aubrey wrote about it, that it was practiced in England. What isn’t clear is exactly when it reached England. Certainly, once it was practiced in Paris, it wouldn’t have been long before it became known to the British aristocracy. And according to Muirithe, Words We Use (2007), at the end of the sixteenth century, the English ecclesiastical lawyer Henry Swinburne (1551-1624) defined an “idiot” as “a clown, an April fool.” I assume this was in his A briefe treatise of Testaments and last Wills (1590).
In view of the uncertainty, the story is deliberately vague as to whether Melissa Mailey’s contribution was April Fools Day itself, or merely the “washing the lions” prank.