At the Tower, the Ravens Evermore
By Elissa Leibowitz
Technically, the ravens have no shot at bringing down Britain--their wings are clipped. But legend reigns at the ancient fortress. And David Cope doesn't mess with that.
"I'm a modern man; I'm not superstitious," Cope said. "But I don't take any chances."
Cope, 64, is a yeoman warder, one of 37 so-called Beefeaters who watch over the royal tower, guard the Crown Jewels and conduct entertaining tours of the grounds. But Cope has special duties, too. He's the ravenmaster--the man who cares for the tower's seven resident black birds.
Every morning, the native Londoner awakens Hardey, Cedric, Gwylum, Munim II, Hughine II, Odin and Thor, releases them from their cages, feeds and monitors them, tends to their wounds and puts them to bed at night.
"It's just like any job, really," said Cope, a grandfatherly man with a neatly groomed white beard and Tudor uniform who has helped care for the birds for 18 years. "You get into your set routines."
The Tower of London, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1078 to replace an old fort, has been used as a royal residence, a jail, an execution site and a museum. It became the site of several famous executions, including those of King Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, and Guy Fawkes, who wanted to destroy Parliament. Today, the main White Tower and surrounding buildings are among London's most popular tourist sites.
Until the mid-17th century, an unlimited number of ravens lived on the grounds. When King Charles II visited the tower to check on the preparations for his coronation, he heard complaints from the "astronomical observator" that the ravens were interfering with his work. The king wouldn't have that, so he ordered that all ravens be vanquished. Advised that, for the sake of the kingdom, this was a bad idea, Charles amended his request, permitting six ravens to stay.
Today, six ravens (and two reserves, though there is only one right now) are kept at the tower.
Cope became a Beefeater--a nickname allegedly given because the yeoman warders at one time were paid in beef--in 1982 after 22 years in the Royal Marines. He saw an advertisement seeking retired military personnel to apply for the posts, so he asked his wife what she thought.
"I went home and said to her, 'How would you like to live in a castle?' " he said.
David and Mo Cope don't technically live in a castle but, like all other yeoman warders and their wives, live in an apartment on the property. All yeoman warders must be married men and must have served in the military, reaching the rank of warrant officer. They also must retire at 65, which means Cope's tenure as ravenmaster will end when his birthday arrives in April.
After Cope became a yeoman warder, the opportunity arose to become assistant to the ravenmaster. He had been interested in the birds since he was a boy, so he took it. He served as assistant for eight years before becoming ravenmaster in 1990.
"A woman once asked me if I have always been interested in birds, and I said, 'Yes, madam, but only the feathered kind since 1982,' " Cope joked.
Cope's role as ravenmaster is in addition to his duties as a yeoman warder; caring for the birds, he said, is done on his own time.
Each morning at 6 o'clock, he feeds the birds. Lamb meat, rabbits (including the fur), sheep hearts, pig livers and blood-soaked biscuits are on the menu.
Ravens are territorial, so they spend their days perched at specific spots on the tower grounds, and they fight for their turf when another bird invades. Cope keeps an eye on them throughout the day and tends to their post-fight wounds, which are numerous during mating season.
He's been pecked a time or two but insists that "it has always been my fault. And it's not really a bite. More like a warning, a strike with the beak."
Over the years, Cope has come to understand the place these intelligent birds hold in history. The Bible describes Noah, who "sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro" in search of land and food. And the one-eyed Norse god Odin kept watch on the nine worlds with his two ravens, Hughinn and Muninn, keeping him abreast of the latest gossip.
Cope said ravens have the ability to count to seven. The raven Thor can even talk. He mocks Cope's accent, fooling Cope's colleagues by uttering a few phrases like "Mornin?" "Come on, then," and "Where's mine?"
Among this unkindness (as a group of ravens is called), there is always one bird that tries to dominate the others. Although Cope said the birds consider him "the boss raven," there is always one raven that challenges him for the job, especially at night when it's time to go to bed. He'll stand on the grassy hill with his head down and his wings half-spread and stare Cope down.
So, Cope outsmarts him. He strikes the same pose as his feathered friend and his shadow looms large over the raven. The raven understands, and slinks off to bed.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company