The Tower of London is known to be one of the most haunted sites in London. With its grisly past, it is not really surprising that many people have claimed to have seen the traumatized spirits of those who have gasped their last breath behind its grim and imposing walls. Anne Boleyn (with head, not necessarily on her shoulders and without), Margaret Pole, Arabella Stuart, Guy Fawkes, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and the two Princes have all been seen at one time or another taking their ghostly constitutionals. There is even a suit of armour, once belonging to Henry VIII, which is believed to be possessed by a malevolent spirit who takes particular pleasure in choking night guards . However, terrifying these experiences would be; crushed by an invisible enemy or watching the figures from your history books come to life (well figuratively at least), nothing would have compared with coming face to face with a ghostly fiend in the shape of an extremely large bear.
A Terrifying Manifestation
On one strange night in 1816, at the same time as Mr George Offer claimed to hear strange noises coming from the Martin Tower, one of the guards on night duty there was alarmed to witness the “figure of a huge bear issuing from underneath the Jewel Room door” . Raising his bayonet to strike the creature, he was horrified to find his weapon went straight through it and lodged in the doorway behind. Scared out of his wits, he collapsed in a fit. On being discovered, all sign of the ghostly grey bear having evaporated, he was carried mumbling to the guard room. On enquiring about the man’s mental state before the incident, Edmund Lenthal Swifte, Keeper of the Crown Jewels was assured that the guard had been perfectly fine and in good spirits. The doctor who had been sent for, dismissed any concerns that the sick man had been drinking on duty, unequivocally stating that he could discern no signs of intoxication. Swifte checking on his guard was shocked to find him “changed almost beyond recognition ”. He never fully recovered, only managing to feebly and repeatedly recount what he had seen. He sadly died shortly afterwards. Whatever he had seen had shaken him to the core. It seems very much like he died of fright.
Taking on face value the truth of what happened and ignoring any suspicions of inebriation, what was it that the guard saw? A number of theories have been put forward over the years.
The ‘White Bear’ of the Tower
The Tower of London as well as being a prison for some of the most high-profile prisoners in the country and a safe for the most precious royal jewels, also had for over 600 years another unique function. It was the site of the Royal Menagerie.
Over the years the Royal Menagerie housed a remarkable number of diverse animals, most of which had been gifted to the English Royalty as a token of friendship, loyalty or esteem such as the three leopards and an African Elephant given to Henry III (the first by Frederick II on the occasion of Henry’s wedding to Frederick’s sister, Eleanor of Provence and the second by Louis IX). In the sixteenth century, the menagerie was opened to the eager public. From this period onwards, visitors could gaze in wonder at lions, tigers, lynxes, porcupines, eagles, tigers, camels, ostriches and even a flying squirrel.
It doesn’t take a lot to imagine that the lives of these animals were dire and many died a miserable and agonising death, such as the ostrich fed iron nails and the Indian elephant given wine instead of water to drink. It was believed water was bad for elephants! How they thought that elephants managed to access alcohol in the jungles of India is anyone’s guess. It is not that they necessarily meant to be cruel but animal welfare was hardly an important topic in a time when human lives mattered so little.
So, back to the bear. In 1251, Henry III was also the recipient of a most unusual prize, a polar bear or ‘white bear’ as it was known then. The bear was a gift from the King of Norway, Haakon the Young. Could it be that this incredible creature had returned from the grave to exact revenge for its poor treatment during its life? Maybe it was angry at the treatment of another bear, Old Martin, which was residing at the Tower at the time. Old Martin had been given to George III by the Hudson’s Bay Company. A present George III was not exactly thrilled with, as he was heard to have commented that he would have much preferred a new tie or socks!  Old Martin was believed at the time to be a grizzly bear (later testing revealed he was, in fact, a black bear) and was known for his not so gentle temper “his ferocity; in spite of the length of time during which he has been a prisoner still continues undiminished”. It does seem unlikely that this was the reason behind the apparition as Old Martin was perfectly capable of fighting his own corner without a phantom champion, although, it may explain why the sentry tried to bayonet it, maybe in his confusion he somehow thought Old Martin had escaped.
Animal ghosts are not an unusual occurrence in Britain. Even in the Tower people have attested to hearing the ghostly roar of lions and the sound of hooves pounding the cobbles. There are even other accounts of ghostly bears. For instance, in a house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, there were regular reports of a phantom bear stumbling around in a frenzy. This haunting could have its seed in the stories of bears savaged to death in the cruel sport of bear-baiting, popular in the seventeenth century (a bear baiting ring was in operation very near Cheyne Walk). Another theory is that it was the spirit of a black bear belonging to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived at number 16 in the 1860s (this bear forming part of his collection of exotic pets) .
There is also another spooky tale from Nantwich in Cheshire which tells of how the landlord John Seckerton of the Bear Inn kept four bears as a marketing strategy. Unfortunately, in 1583, the inn caught fire and Seckerton released the bears, in order to save them. Those trying to put out the fire must have had a hell of a time trying to avoid these four frightened animals. I don’t know if they were killed soon after but people have claimed to have seen their spectral forms wandering the streets of Nantwich in a confused and distressed state .
So, was it the ghost of a mistreated medieval bear, or was it the manifestation of an even earlier incarnation and one which he had even more reason to harbour resentment against its human nemesis?
A Prehistoric Haunting
Elliott O’Donnell, a well-known expert in hauntings and compiler of ghost sightings refers to the incident at the Tower of London in his book Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter. In it, he puts forward a number of theories including his favourite, that the bear was
“…the phantasm of some prehistoric creature whose bones lie interred beneath the Tower; for we know the valley of Thames was infested with giant reptiles and quadrupeds of all kinds”
This is just as probable a theory as any other. Before the onset of the Ice Age, brown bears were commonly found throughout Britain including London. These herbivorous, prehistoric cave bears (Ursus Spelaeus) were huge, larger than any bear alive today being five feet tall at the shoulder, nearly 10ft long and weighing 400kg . Their population dwindled during the Stone Age, falling to very low numbers in the Iron Age until they were finally hunted to extinction .
Whether or not you believe that it was a primeval creature angry about the demise of its race or the revenge of a former captive making a one-off performance for old times’ sake, the odd feature of this haunting was that it did only happen once, all these other ghostly bear appearances have had more than one encore. Could there be a more sinister reason behind the creature’s manifestation and was it really a bear or simply a spirit in the form of a bear?
The Manifestation of a Vice-Elemental
Another theory put forward by O’Donnell was that the manifestation was that of a vice-elemental. According to him there exists in our world a number of ‘elementals’. They can be helpful and benevolent to humans but in general, most are not. O’Donnell believed that these vice-elementals (often used in occult practices) are always with us, whispering in our ear, trying to persuade us to harm ourselves; mentally, morally and physically.
These sinister supernatural entities can take many shapes including beautiful women and manipulative men as well as the “most terrifying creatures of both man and beast” . Other examples given by O’Donnell are the Gwyllgi of Wales, a Welsh version of Old Shuck (see Hell-hounds, hyter-sprites and god-fearing mermaids) and the Mauthe Dog of Peel Castle, Isle of Man.
The legend of the Mauthe Dog although diverging in many ways from the Tower’s ghost-bear definitely had the same fatal outcome for one unlucky soul. The tale goes that in the time of Charles II when the castle was garrisoned, a large black dog appeared suddenly one night. Every evening it would make its way to the guard room and sit down at the hearth, where it would remain until morning when it would vanish. The guards initially frightened by its presence gradually became used to it, although they would always remain sober and were careful never to speak bad words in its hearing. One of the routine duties of the soldiers involved taking the keys to the Captain of the Guard Room after the castle was locked up for the night. The captain’s quarters lay at the end of a dark narrow passage. Ever since the dog’s arrival the guards had preferred to do this walk in pairs, that is until one night when one of them, brave due to drink, bragged that he was unafraid and would go alone. He refused to be dissuaded, challenging the beast with the words “Let him come, I’ll see if he is dog or devil”. As he left, the dog stood up and followed. Five minutes later, the men heard soul-wrenching screams and unnatural howls coming from the passage. Terrified, they found the guard unconscious. Three days later he was dead. He was never able to reveal what he had witnessed. The hound was never seen again .
In both the cases of the Mauthe Dog and the Tower Bear, the men saw something that frightened them to death. What it was we will never know. Was it an evil spirit or was it the Devil itself?
The Devil as a Bear
The Devil was believed to have the ability to transform into any creature, his favourite forms seem to have been cats, dogs, wolves and goats. He was also known to on occasion take the form of a bear.
In a pamphlet produced by the Rev. John Davenport in 1646, he includes a morality tale set twenty-four years earlier concerning the ‘witch’ John Winnick. Winnick was angry, he had lost seven shillings and was convinced that a member of his family had stolen his money. In a moment of rage, he declared that he would accept help from anyone even a ‘wizzard’ [sic]. Just then the spirit of a black, shaggy creature appeared before him with the paws of a big bear. The bear-like spirit agreed to help Winnick, if he would in return worship him. Winnick, his greed taking over, assented to this condition and as promised his money was returned. Unfortunately, Winnick had made a terrible mistake. The bear revealed itself to also be Satan in disguise, so not only did Winnick have to bow down to a bear spirit but he had forfeited his soul to the Devil, all for a few coins .
So, perhaps the guard in the tower saw the face of the Devil or perhaps not. There is one last theory which if you believe in ghosts might seem the most likely and would link itself to the history of the Tower. This is the idea that the ghost was the spirit of a man or woman who had taken the form of a bear.
A Phantasm of a Human Being
The history of the Tower is a gruesome one, to put it mildly. Countless numbers of people were imprisoned there. Their suffering would have been immense. Most of them would have been interrogated and many tortured. In a way, worse than the physical abuse would have been the mental agony; not knowing what was happening or if they would ever be released. Often this anguish would last for years. If you believe that ghosts are echoes of the past and that walls of buildings can absorb negative energy than it is perfectly possible to accept that maybe the ghost bear was either a manifestation of this pain or the anger of one particular soul whose nature in life was already hardened and violent or became so during their incarceration. Maybe in death, they associated themselves with the ferocity of the bear and so for one night only, manifested as such.
Hallucination, Demonic Entity or Spirit?
No-one will ever know what the guard really saw if in fact, he saw anything at all. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The legend of the Tower of London’s ghost-bear will continue to fascinate visitors and locals for years to come, as does the grim beauty of the Tower itself.
A word of warning, if you happen to see a bear-like form start to manifest itself in front of you whilst taking a tour of the Tower…run!
McCann. Erin, These are the all the ghosts haunting the Tower of London, https://m.ranker.com/list/what-ghosts-haunt-the-tower-of-london/erin.mccann
Redfern. Nick, The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London, https://www.mysteriousuniverse.org/2017/05/the-ghostly-bear-monster-of-london/ 2017
Underwood. Peter, Haunted London, 2013
Old Martin, https://.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/old_martin
O’Donnell, Elliott, Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter (1913), Reprinted 2012
Briggs. Helen, Lost History of brown bears in Britain revealed, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/amp/science-environment-44699233, 2018
Henriques, Martha, The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150722-lost-beasts-of-the-ice-age, 2015
O’Donnell. Elliott, The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural, E-book Series, 2016
The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo, https://www.isleofman.com/welcome/history/mythology-and-folklore/the-moddey-dhoo/
Rennison. Nick, The Book of Lists, 2006
Gater. Paul, The Secret Lives of Ghosts, 2013
Miller. Charlotte-Rose, Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain, 2017
The Tower of London Ghosts: Headless Haunts, Suffocating Sensations and Wandering White Women, https://www.exploring-castles.com/uk/england/tower_london_ghosts/
Stuart. Julia, The polar bear who lived at the Tower… along with a grumpy lion and a baboon who threw cannon balls: Britain’s first (and most bizarre) zoo, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1313816/The-polar-bear-lived-Tower–grumpy-lion-baboon-threw-cannon-balls-Britains-bizarre-zoo.html, 2010
Notes  These are all the ghosts and ghouls haunting the Tower of London  The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London  Ibid  Old Martin  The Book of Lists  The Secret Lives of Ghosts  The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age  Lost history of brown bears in Britain revealed  The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural  The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo  Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain