3 lions on your shirt

Written by 'DP'.

The early history of the English royal arms is a confused one. “May have" and “probably” turn up far too frequently for comfort and the practice of attributing arms to various figures that lived before the establishment of systematic heraldry only cloud the issue further. I shall describe the various conjectural arms from the Saxon and Norman periods in another article, concentrating in this one on the evolution of the royal arms of England as we know them.

The earliest date we can be certain of is 1198, at this date we know that Richard I (the Lionheart) used Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or. That is to say, a red shield with three running gold lions, heads turned to face the viewer, arranged one above the other. This design is known in heraldic shorthand as England and has been appeared on the royal arms of every English monarch since Richard the Lionheart.

By the end of the twelfth century two gold lions on red had become the arms of the Dukes of Normandy (a title held by Richard) and Richard’s mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine used one gold lion on red. It is sometimes stated that Richard combined these two arms to create arms for his kingdom of England. We do not know if this is exactly what happened but it does fit the facts quite well.

It is sometimes stated that only a rampant lion can be described as a lion in heraldry and that lions in any other position should be called leopards. This was the opinion of some French heralds (who should have got out more) in the early middle ages, but it has no place in modern English heraldry. The leopard has become a quite widely used charge in its own right since the European colonisation of Africa and to insist on such an outré usage would only confuse. So, if a chap in the pub comes out with the line “Actually they’re leopards” tap him gently on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and point out that he is being pedantic.

This form of the English Royal Arms lasted for just over 140 years. The English lions had the shield all to themselves through the reigns of John Lackland, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and the first thirteen years of Edward III. They appeared on their standards, and saw the victorious battlefields of Evesham (1265), Dunbar (1296), Falkirk (1299) and Halidon Hill (1333) as well as the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. In the next instalment I shall describe the next stage of their evolution.

Part two coming soon!

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