In honor of the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, this week we’re telling the stories of some of the United Kingdom’s oldest and oddest traditions. Previously: Why the queen owns all the swans in England, the “pricking ceremony,” the royal appointees who carry special rods
George had a very good assignment, for a raven in the ’70s. Living at the Tower of London, he was fed better than any raven would have been in the wild—a steady diet of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits. He lived alongside a small corps of other ravens, where visitors streamed by each day. The one restriction on his life was movement: With one wing clipped, he was confined to the Tower grounds.
That captivity chafed, though, and George would not abide it. As Boria Sax recounts in his book City of Ravens, George figured out how to climb a fire escape, perch high up on a wall, and glide down safely. Finally, in 1981, he went AWOL. Apprehended at a pub, he was forced to return to duty at the Tower. But still, he could not uphold the standards demanded of his station. Five years after, the Tower announced:
“On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service therefore no longer required.”
His final offense? He had destroyed five TV antennas in just one week.
According to the mythology surrounding the Tower, the ravens live there because, centuries before, Charles II was warned that if ravens ever abandoned the tower, the Crown would fall. There are a few different versions of this story, and historians now believe that they’re all apocryphal. Records of ravens in the Tower go back only to the 19th century; they may have been kept as pets following the Poe-related raven craze.
For many years, though, the ravens have been seen as having a military duty to the Crown. The Yeoman Warders who care for the birds have military backgrounds, and, like George the wayward bird, the ravens are said to be enlisted in the armed services. A 1936 article reported that the Tower kept a “Nominal Roll of the Corps of Tower Ravens.”
This was always a cheeky exercise—one bird’s occupation was listed as “thief.” But it does mean that when birds misbehave they can be dismissed from their posts. In 1995 two ravens, Hugine and Jackie, were dismissed for “conduct unbecoming to Tower Residents,” The Independent reported. They had gotten riled up during mating season and were never able to settle down. Like any soldiers who put their personal life before their duty, they were discharged. It’s a rare occurrence—most of the ravens at the Tower seem happy to fulfill their obligations to the Crown, as long as they’re fed raw rabbit, liver, and blood-soaked crackers.