There are some weird gigs associated with the British royal household. There’s a keeper of the queen’s stamps. Who knew? There’s a piper to the sovereign and a grand carver and a royal clock winder.
And then there’s the ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife, charged with caring for the seven corvids that reside at the Tower of London, the 11th-century walled fortress that today is one of Britain’s most popular tourist sites.
Every tour, every article, every book mentioning the Tower ravens includes the legend about how King Charles II issued a royal decree to protect the ravens evermore, after being warned that if the birds ever flew the palatial coop, “the Tower itself will crumble to dust and a great harm will befall the kingdom.”
Great story, total codswallop, says Skaife, who has pored through the archives and found zip. The first mention of ravens at the Tower appears not in the 1600s, when Charles reigned through the years of plague and fire, but during the Victorian age, when gothic revival was all the rage and Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet.
Still, Skaife is obsessive in his care of the birds, who are now celebrities, regardless of the misty myths. He has found himself dangling from a weather vane atop a high turret trying to recover a wayward raven. He treats them to dog biscuits soaked in blood. They offer him the occasional rat’s tail in return.
I met up with the ravenmaster on a drizzly Saturday morning. He was wearing his everyday uniform: a flat-brimmed hat and dark blue tunic with a scarlet insignia honoring the queen. He is a big, brawny fellow, a former machine-gunner, who after 24 years of service in the British army became a Yeoman Warder, one of 37 elite guards, who may carry swords but today serve as keepers of tradition — and tour guides.
“Well, well,” he said, pointing upward. “There’s Merlina, right on cue.”
On the roof of the half-timbered Queen’s House within the Tower complex, a big black raven sat, eyeballing damp visitors as they trundled across the bridge over the waterless moat.
The ravenmaster has spent the past 11 years around these birds, living at the Tower with his family — a life he details in a newly published autobiography He is sweet on all his ravens, but especially Merlina. (First named Merlin; ravens are notorious for how difficult it is to determine their sex.)
She can be a bit standoffish, Skaife said, admiringly. “Likes to do her own thing.”
He explained that the ravens residing at the Tower these days come from bird breeders.
They are wild but “humanized.”
They are free but not free.
At night, Skaife coaxes them into airy enclosures (safe from their nemeses, foxes, which ate two ravens in 2013).
In the morning, he releases them from their dormitories, in order, from the least to the most dominant. They take up their territories and waddle-hop the premises with a movement Dickens compared to “a very particular gentleman with exceedingly tight boots on, trying to walk fast over loose pebbles” — one of many nice bits Skaife has scattered across the pages of his book.
Up close, the ravens look like enormous crows dipped in oil. They’re positively iridescent, with tool-like claws and beaks “like a Swiss army knife,” Skaife said. When they do a mouse, a few surgical snips, a hard tug, and fur is peeled away as a glove from a hand.
What do they do all day? They perch on benches. They play with the magpies. They rummage the trash bins.
Skaife said the ravens, like most Brits, have a weakness for potato chips, which they scavenge and then wash in puddles if the flavoring — say, cheddar and onion — is not to their liking.
“They’ll grab a sandwich,” Skaife said. “From a child.”
One raven, Poppy, will allow herself to be petted by Skaife. But he warns the public to stand back. These are not docile pets — and the ravenmaster bears the scars of nasty bites.
The ravens can fly, but not very well and not too far, at least not very often. They flap up to the rooftops and battlements.
Previous caregivers trimmed the feathers so as to deny them flight. One day a raven named Thor climbed up some repair scaffolding on the White Tower, the oldest structure. When Skaife reached out to capture him from the heights, Thor leaped but did not soar and landed with a thud.
“He died in my arms,” the ravenmaster said.
After that, Skaife vowed to trim as little as possible. He calls it “feather management,” just a snip, more in the long, warm days of summer and less in the cold, dark winter.
And yet, they’ve escaped.
A bird named Munin — from Norse mythology, where ravens play an outsize role — once flew from the Tower down the Thames River toward the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich meridian line.
A local birdwatcher managed to get Munin into a gym bag. He guessed she belonged to the Tower because of the bracelet on her leg — and the sad fact that although there are 13,000 raven pairs in Britain, they have been extirpated from the London area (although they are slowly expanding their range again).
“Oh, look at that,” Skaife said on the morning of my visit, as the male raven Harris joined Merlina on the gable. “A bit of bonding going on?” The ravenmaster arched an eyebrow: “Something to keep an eye on.”
Ravens mate for life, more or less, he explained. But at the Tower things can get complicated. Ravens like literal pecking orders. Their courtship rituals can include: preening, croaking, puffing, tail fanning and attack. And ravens are choosy partners. In the wild, before they find one another, young ravens live in a large flock called a “conspiracy” or an “unkindness,” which are great words for crossword puzzles.
“They’re surprisingly like us,” Skaife observes in his book. “They are versatile, adaptable, omnivorous. They are capable of great cruelty and great kindness.”
In legend, “they are harbingers of doom, yet they are protectors and creators,” he writes.
Ravens are associated with carrion — and so with battlefields and execution grounds. That makes them a good fit for the Tower, which is of most interest to visitors these days as the macabre setting of torture (the rack is on display) and execution (by gallows and ax, mostly, although Queen Anne Boleyn was dispatched by sword right around the spot where the ravens spend the night).
The Tower has served as fortress, palace, prison, home of the Royal Mint and Royal Armory, and the storehouse of the crown jewels. At one point, it contained a menagerie, with elephants, bears and baboons. Back then, as today, the Yeoman Warders were touts. There were a few pence to be made in telling tall tales — about the gallows and queens on the chopping block and ravens, too.
Skaife understands this well. “I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination,” he observed, “and the ravens are its guardians.”