Article for ‘London at Work’ project – published by Who’s Jack Magazine here.
Legend has it that if there are not six ravens in the grounds of the Tower of London at all times – the Monarchy will collapse and the Tower will turn to dust.
Chris Skaife, 47, is employed by Historic Royal Palaces to make sure this doesn’t happen. He wakes at the crack of dawn and goes to bed at last light every day of the year to ensure that the eight royal ravens at the Tower – two spare – are fed, nurtured and protected from predators.
He was appointed the role of Ravenmaster following 22 years in full military service, employment as Yeoman Warder – AKA Beefeater – at the Tower, and a successful introduction to the birds.
“When I first arrived, the old Ravenmaster saw something in me that he thought the ravens might like,” Skaife explains, “so he introduced me to them and they liked me. He took me on as one of his assistants and I’ve been looking after the ravens ever since.”
He lives in the workers’ quarters with his family, alongside 140 other Yeoman Warders and their families. “It’s an honour and a privilege to live and work in one of the most historic buildings in the world,” he says, “it’s a fabulous place to live in the heart of London.”
They have their own on-site doctor, and pub, because the Tower of London is locked up at nighttime. This was novelty at first, but Skaife soon stopped telling people the truth about where he lived because, he says, “it gets a bit tiresome explaining where we live, as it’s such an iconic place.”
Some believe that the ravens have only inhabited the Tower since the Victorian period, when Queen Victoria installed the execution site and decided that the ravens added a gothic quality to the tour, which would lure paying visitors.
Others say the legend goes further back, to 1660, when King Charles II was restored to the throne of England. A Royal astronomer had his telescopes up the top of the White Tower and complained about the mess the ravens were making. The King agreed that he could get rid of them, until someone told him that if the ravens left the Tower of London it would collapse into dust and he would disappear. He decided to keep six ravens at the Tower by Royal decree.
Skaife looks after the eight birds: Hugine, Porsha, Rocky, Munin, Jubilee, Gripp, Erin and Merlin, keeping Munin in isolation as she’s lost her partner – ravens partner for life – and if she leaves her cage, other dominant ravens will attack her. She’ll be in isolation until she finds another mate.
Solitary birds; the remaining seven roam freely, finding their own territories around the grounds and guarding them vigorously from the other ravens until breeding season, when they come together and pair off.
Skaife feeds them 500 grams of meat per day – rat, chicken, mice – but this doesn’t stop them from pilfering from tourists. They pinch packets of crisps, open them, sniff them and – if they don’t like the flavour – rinse them off in their water bowls. They then dig little holes and hide their bounty for later. Other ravens will spy on them, wait until they leave – steal their food and then cover over the holes as if the crisps are still there.
They have also been known to pinch an innocent child’s purse and scatter the coins around the tower, which Skaife had to attempt to find and return to the tearful child.
Though Skaife finds the early mornings and late nights tiring, especially as the days begin to get longer coming into spring and summer, he continues to love his job.
“The best thing about being at the Tower of London,” he says, “is being in this iconic uniform and being the ravenmaster. There’s only one in the world.