London, UK - Tower of London Menagerie; Boston, MA - Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens

Polar Bear Medieval Tower of London.jpg


London, UK - Tower of London Menagerie; Boston, MA - Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens

Catalog Entry

The Tower of London was a prison in the 13th century CE, but in the early 1200s it gained some surprising inhabitants. When King John established a royal menagerie at the tower, it housed more than sixty different kinds of animals. Where better to keep such dangerous animals than a prison with imposing walls?  Throughout the years it became a tradition for the kings and queens to keep such exotic pets at the menagerie, as such animals were often given as regal gifts throughout Europe. The tower was home to many kinds of animals, including tigers, lions, leopards, elephants, monkeys, alligators, zebras, kangaroos, and bears, until it closed in 1835 (“Royal Beasts”).

In 1252, the King of Norway gave King Henry III a beautiful white bear (presumably a polar bear). While all the other animals were kept locked, hidden, and out of sight, the polar bear could often be seen, muzzled, shackled, and tethered to the riverbank of the Thames, when it was brought out so it could fish for food and bathe itself (Stuart). Though the bear is long dead, along with all the other inhabitants of the menagerie, in 2010 the Historic Royal Palaces commissioned artist Kendra Haste to create a rendition of some of the more exotic animals. She created thirteen wire sculptures, including a family of lions, an elephant, a group of baboons, and a polar bear. These wire sculptures were displayed near where these animals were originally kept (“The Tower of London Menagerie”). These sculptures help recapture the former glory of the menagerie and depict a time in which royalty did as they pleased, even giving dangerous animals as presents. People who hear of the menagerie today would likely equate it to a modern zoo, but it was far from that, as most of the animals died after only a few years in the tower. 

While the Royal Menagerie may seem distant and long past, a more recent and local historic zoo exists still today in Boston, MA. The Old Franklin Park Zoo used to uphold the nineteenth-century vision of a country park. When Franklin Park Zoo changed hands and updated, some of the older attractions were left out (“Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens”). The most notorious of these forgotten attractions is the bear pens. The pens were an extremely popular attraction, but as park attendance started to decline in the 1930s, the bears became less and less affordable, until in 1954 the attraction was closed (Mitrokostas). Now these stone enclosures have been left to rot in the woods.

While these bear pens are much more modern than the Royal Menagerie, they are still not up to par with current zoo enclosures. The pens are small and cruel, with iron spikes at the top to prevent the bears from escaping. Other than the spikes, they are made entirely of stone so the bears could roam about the open-air cage. Despite the cruelness of the cage, the most beautiful aspect is the large stone carving of bears featuring the Boston skyline behind them. While the beautiful carving remains today, the rest of the pen is overgrown (Mitrokostas). The metal spikes are rusting and the concrete pool is filled with trash (Nash).

Gifts of polar bears and other exotic creatures were more common in the medieval time period. In Anthun and the Bear, Anthun is an Icelander who travels parts of Europe, including Norway and Denmark, during the medieval time period. He travels to give King Svein of Denmark a polar bear. Such gifts were often well-received by kings in medieval Europe, and this was no different. Anthun was greatly rewarded for his gift, receiving many treasures and opportunities. But where does King Svein keep this bear after he receives it?  Likely King Svein had something similar to the Tower of London’s Royal Menagerie as exotic animals were kept as symbols of power (“Royal Beasts”). Kings like Svein would likely have expressed their status with valuable items: like a polar bear.

Historical zoos like the Royal Menagerie and the Old Franklin Park Zoo are prime examples of cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is an expression of lifestyles that communities have developed over time and passed from generation to generation. This includes customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions, and values. The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London and the Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens are both examples of cultural heritage: capturing the ways in which past generations contained wild beasts, specifically bears. The two enclosures are wildly different, and in vastly different parts of the world, but each depict certain aspects of the past in the containment and gifting of wild animals.


Mitrokostas, Sophia. “The Remnants Of This Abandoned Zoo In Massachusetts Are Hauntingly Beautiful.” OnlyInYourState,

“Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens.” Atlas Obscura, 4 Sept. 2015,

“Royal Beasts.” Historic Royal Palaces,

Stuart, Julia. “The Polar Bear Who Lived at the Tower....” Daily Mail, 21 Sept. 2010,

“The Tower of London Menagerie.” Historic Royal Palaces,

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Micalea Goldenberg, Student, Fitchburg State University


Kisha G. Tracy
Leslie Jones (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)


“London, UK - Tower of London Menagerie; Boston, MA - Old Franklin Park Zoo Bear Pens,” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed April 13, 2024,

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