In his answer to a recent question on whether there had been a Viking Exchange between Europe and the Americas, LangLangC brings up that the King of Norway offered a polar bear to Henry the 3rd in 1252 (1251?), and that another such polar bear made its way to the Sultan of Egypt via Emperor Frederik earlier that century.

The official Historic Royal Palaces website adds this nugget:

Although it was kept muzzled and chained, the bear was allowed to swim and hunt for fish in the Thames.

A collar and a ‘stout cord’ were attached to the bear to keep it from escaping.

Insofar as I understand, male polar bears range from 350-700kg and measure 2.4-3m, and females are about half that size, and I'm not aware of any reason why that might have changed much in the past thousand years. Its medieval zookeepers would have been about an inch shorter on average than we are today.

Even in the best of scenarios (a small female) polar bear is comparable in size and weight to a typical adult male black bear, so I'd imagine they were captured and tamed while still cubs. Still, I'm somewhat struggling to make any sense of how one would go about with muzzling an adult polar bear without tranquilizer, except perhaps one (dead or injured) zookeeper at a time.

Is there any documentation anywhere on how they were handling the beasts? More specifically, on how they'd get the muzzle on without anyone getting injured or worse?

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    I actually heard a tourist ask one of the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London this question once. The answer was "Very carefully, madam". Apr 27, 2019 at 14:24
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    That sounds British enough, yes. Almost beats Hemingway's "Gradually, then suddenly." :D Apr 27, 2019 at 14:37
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    You must not have watched the Crocodile Hunter. Lots of people, lots of ropes.
    – justCal
    Apr 27, 2019 at 14:54
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    One would imagine the process wasn't too much different then than the one the Ivanovo Circus uses to muzzle Polar Bears today.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 27, 2019 at 15:39
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    No sources at hand, but Californians used to reliably capture and transport grizzly bears using lariats. Apr 27, 2019 at 18:11

3 Answers 3


Short answer

Although we don't have much detail on how this large animal was handled beyond "muzzled and chained" and "collar and a ‘stout cord’", it is likely that the white bear was relatively tame and that its keeper was experienced at handling the animal.

The experience of late 19th century / early 20th century circus keepers was that polar bears were not difficult to tame but that keepers had to recognize the personality of individual bears. Nor, it seems, did they necessarily need tranquilizers or any other modern 'aids' which would not have been available in the 13th century.


One primary source I can trace for this is appears to be the Calendar of the liberate rolls

On Sept 13, 1252 it states:

To the sheriffs of London. Contrabreve to let a white bear, which the king is sending to the Tower to be kept there, and its keeper, have 4d. daily for their maintenance so long as they are there.

On Oct 30, 1253 it states:

To the sheriffs of London. Contrabreve to let the keeper of the king's white bear, which was lately sent to him from Norway and is now in the Tower of London, have a muzzle and an iron chain to hold the bear when out of the water, and a long and strong cord to hold it when fishing in the Thames.

According to Nigel Jones in Tower: an Epic History of the Tower of London, the white bear came with a Norwegian keeper. There are many stories in Icelandic texts concerning polar or white bears as gifts and / or in the company of humans, of which Audan's Tale is probably the most famous. Although the historical accuracy of some of these stories is questionable, it is clear that the idea of gift-giving and managing polar bears was one familiar to Norwegians and other Norsemen.

King Haakon IV of Norway (reigned 1217-63) was near contemporaneous with Henry III (reigned 1216-72) and had long maintained close relations with the English king. The bear was not the first gift exchange: Haakon had sent Henry an elk in 1222, and Haakon's seal had been given to him by Henry in 1236. It would therefore not be unreasonable to suggest that the Norwegian king chose his gift with some care.

Further, the bear was not the first dangerous animal in Henry's menagerie - he also had (or had had) lions and leopards - so there may have been someone with experience in handling large wild beasts should the Norwegian keeper have required assistance.

Lucy Inglis, in Georgian London: Into the Streets implies that the bear was not full-grown when it arrived. Although she cites no source for this, it is plausible as there are tales of cubs being brought to Norway from Iceland.

Michael Engelhard, in Ice Bear: the Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, relates the experiences of late 19th / early 20th century keepers. It is entirely plausible that Norsemen would have known much of what follows:

Training, for bears born in the wild, began with their capture..., with the preliminary step of taming by animal keepers.... Most traders and circus men thought the polar bear, if taken young, was easily gentled.

Trainers preferred bears that were about one year old.

Polar bears, though, can be unpredictable and care has to be taken not startle them. They can also get irritable in warm temperatures (so a dip in the Thames wouldn't have done any harm). Englehard adds that:

Trainers found that it was important to get to know the temperament and idiosyncrasies of each animal. Like other people familiar with the animal, such as Native hunters,...they speak of differences in the behavior of individual bears;... Trainers... developed a repertoire of techniques for different bear characters, from the “unmotivated toddler” to the “obstinate” or even “volatile” “teen.” ...A keeper spent ... time “to educate them out of their savage state—by contact, kindness, sugar and fruit”...

There is also the (more modern) case of Mark Dumas and the 800 lb Agee (there's also a video):

Agee is a 60-stone (800lb) polar bear that they've managed to train to star in high-budget TV adverts and movies. She's also often seen messing about with Mark, giving him bear hugs, accepting loving kisses and even swimming with him.

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    Just saw Agee in Arctic. She gets jealous if anyone talks to her trainer, so you have to tell his wife and she relays it. And I can't find the source but iirc everyone has to clap to get her to come out of her trailer to go shoot.
    – Mazura
    Apr 28, 2019 at 6:19

An accessible source for the story of the "White Bear", which is presumed to be a polar bear, is to be found in Thomas Maddox's The history and antiquities of the Exchequer of the kings of England. This also includes the instructions to the Sheriffs of London to build a house at the Tower of London for the King's elephant:

"The Sheriffs of London were commanded to supply four Pence per Diem, for the Maintenance of the King's white Bear and his Keeper in the Tower of London The fame Sheriffs were commanded to provide a Muzzle and an Iron Chain and a Cord for the King's white Bear in the Tower of London (a); to build a little House in the Tower of London for the King's Elephant (b); and to find Necessaries for the King's Elephant and his Keeper in the Tower of London (c)"

(a) Rex Vicecomitibus Londoniae salutem. Praecipimus vobis, quod cuidam Urso nostro Albo quem mittimus usq; Turrim nostram Londoniae ibidem custodiendum, & custodi ipsius, singulis diebus quamdiu fuerint ibidem, habere faciatis quatuor denarios ad sustentationem suam. T. Rege apud S. Edmundum xiij die Seplembris. Liberat. 36. H. 3. m. 4. [Hanc instantiam, & sequentes sex septemve, mecum communicavit Vir in me amicissimus Georgius Holmes Generosus, Antiquarius.]

(b) Rex Vicecomitibus Londoniae salutem. Praecipimus, vobis quod custodi albi Ursi nostri, qui nuper missus suit nobis de Norwagia & est in Turri nostra Londoniae, habere faciatis unum Musellum & unam Cathenam ferream, ad tenendum Ursum ilium extra aquam, & unam longam & fortem Cordam ad tenendum eundem Ursum piscantem in aqua Thamisiae; Et custum &c computabitur &c. T. R. apud Windesore xxx die Octobris. Liberat. 37. H. 3- m. 15.

(c) Rex Vicecomitibus Londoniae salutem. Praecipimus vobis, quod de firma Civitatis noftrae Londoniae, sine dilatione construi facialis apud Turrim noftiam Londoniae, unum domum longitudinis xl pedum & latitudinis xx pedum, ad Elefantem nostrum; provisuri quod taliter fiat & ita fortis fit, ut cum opus fuerit ad alios usus apta & necessaria. Et custum &c computabitur vobis ad Scaccarium. T. R. apud Westmon. xxvj die Februarij. Liberat. 39. H. 3. 7n. 11.

To the best of my knowledge, we have no record of any injuries sustained by the keeper responsible for the white bear, so I think we can assume that, however he attached the muzzle in practice, the bear was fairly amenable, and the keeper good at his job!

It may also be worth considering the case of Knut, the polar bear that was hand-reared at Berlin zoo. In that case, modern attitudes and concerns for the well-being of both Knut and his keepers meant that the bear's interaction with human handlers was diminished as he got older. I doubt those factors were as important in the thirteenth century!

The example of Knut shows that it was possible for polar bears to become acclimatised to being around humans. In which case, it would probably also have been that much easier to get it to wear a muzzle.

  • Your answer is every bit as excellent as the one Lars gave, and I'd give it a tick too if I could. What tipped things his way merely was him answering first. Apr 27, 2019 at 16:10
  • @DenisdeBernardy Not to worry. :) Actually, I didn't see Lars' answer until I just refreshed the page. Looks like the SE Android app is playing up again. Apr 27, 2019 at 17:33
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    +1 to the last part - get 'em small and young enough, hand raise them, and you can acclimate them to almost anything. Modern zoo keepers call this training "enrichments" but it still comes down to training in certain reactions to certain stimulus to make the keeper's job easier. Can be done in a "negative" training fashion as well - one of the reasons snakes aren't fed in their normal habitats. Don't get 'em used to "lid open, hand comes in means dinner time".
    – ivanivan
    Apr 28, 2019 at 1:00

Assuming you can get it into a cage somehow, get it to stick its head out (wave a fish in front of it?) through something resembling a pillory/stocks attached to one of the gaps. Now clamp this shut. Optionally, capture its snout with a loop on a pole. It can't move much now it's in a neck-lock, so it should be easy enough to get the muzzle on now.

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    Is there any evidence that this technique has ever been used? Or is this an account of how you would muzzle a polar bear?
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 28, 2019 at 8:15
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    It's an answer to the question. The question says "how would one", not "how did they". Apr 29, 2019 at 7:20
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    @BlokeDownThePub: I was first and foremost interested in primary sources that hinted or were explicit about whatever they did and how well they pulled it off. Apr 29, 2019 at 9:41
  • @BlokeDownThePub The title says that. The question asks explicitly "Is there any documentation anywhere on how they were handling the beasts?" Apr 29, 2019 at 13:55

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