Why is a lion the symbol of England? The answer must be that the early kings of England going back to the Norman dynasty, chose the lion as a badge or symbol of their courage and strength. The choice of a lion was arbitrary and it could have been the tiger. Although there may have been a biblical connection as only large wildcats are (very rarely) referred to in the bible (Christ being called “The Lion of Judah”). Also the lion was better known to Europeans at the time due to its geographical range (North Africa’s Barbary lion compared to Asia). Other nations such as Denmark use three lions.
This is unsurprising because anywhere in the world people have admired and feared the big cats: lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard. People have used symbolic artwork of these magnificent predators to bolster their presence in society. People also worship them.
People still wear clothes made from lion or leopard skins as a sign of status. In China the rich eat tigers for the same reason. It is all part of the same thing: to acquire status, strength and respect by associating themselves with one of the big cats. In England the lion was chosen from Norman times (early 900s to mid 1100s).
The coat of arms of England is three lions walking and guarding (‘passant’ and ‘guardant’). This badge was first adopted by the Plantagenet kings (1154 to 1485). There appears to be little if any change over the past almost 900 years.
Sarah Hartwell comments:
“Don’t forget the term “Lionheart” – refers to a great, powerful and brave individual. Plus lions rule prides, just as kings rule courts. Lions were given to several English monarchs (as tributes and gifts from other countries) and housed in the royal menagerie, which used to be at the Tower of London.
Why a lion? The type specimens for the lion was the Barbary lion, well known to Romans and once endemic to north Africa. They were used in the Roman arenas and therefore known in Europe for centuries.”
John K. Bromilow, a person who commented on the Guardian online newspaper wrote:
“The arms of three lions can only be said to date for certain from the time of Richard l. Some earlier monarchs may have used badges but there is no certain evidence of systematic use…”
Sports teams playing for England have badges which are almost identical to the 900-year-old coat of arms.
This is an excellent badge for a sports team for obvious reasons. Many sports teams in America choose wild cats as their emblem such as bobcats and cougars.
In conclusion: it is all about the power of association with an animal that is stronger and more courageous than humans.
- full illustrated list and full descriptions of the world’s wild cats.
- In heraldry cats are the emblem of liberty.