Why is a lion the symbol of England?

Royal Arms of England
Royal Arms of England
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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.

Note – 7th May 2021: the page has been added to – see base of page.

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 were 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.

For example:

Football:

England football badge
England football badge

Cricket:

England cricket badge
England cricket badge

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.

Associated:

A Scotsman, says that the rampant lion is part of the flag of Scotland and when they became part of United Kingdom it was incorporated into English culture. He says that the earliest recorded use of the lion rampant as a royal emblem in Scotland was by Alexander II in 1222. An English barrister, Martin Collier, says that the use of three lions as part of the royal arms of England goes back to Richard I. He also says that evidence points to the fact that the Plantagenet dynasty made use of lines as heraldic symbols in the 12th century.

Update

The Football Association (FA) have updated the England Three Lions crest in an effort to promote diversity in football. It is part of the ‘woke’ movement. The three lions are no longer male lions but one male lion, one lion cub and a lioness. The idea is to give this mediaeval crest a “fresh purpose”. They wanted to symbolise “progression” and better accessibility at all levels of the game from “grassroots to elite”.

They say that the senior football teams will wear the traditional Three Lions badge which has been worn since the first international match in 1872. The response from fans is mixed. Some praised it but others thought it was just part of the woke movement and unnecessary.

The FA said that the redesigning process had been difficult and the logo had gone through several re-drawings before they chose this one.

The Telegraph newspaper which reported on the story also, helpfully, provides us with their version of the evolution of the Three Lions. I am therefore able to add a bit more information about that on this page.

They say that the origin of the Three Lions in the Royal Arms of England is disputed among the experts. It gained prominence about 800 years ago during Richard the Lionheart’s reign. It appears to have evolved from the first lion which arrived with Henry I who was known as the Lion of England and who had a lion on his standard when taking power in 1100. The second lion was added on his marriage to his second wife whose father had a lion on his shield. The third was believed to have been added in 1152 when Henry II married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine.

On a slightly complicated twist to the story, technically speaking, we are told that for around 200 years the Three Lions were Three Leopards. A “lion rampant”, which is a lion standing erect with forepaws raised was considered to be a lion while a lion walking with its head turned full-face was a leopard. They believed at that time that the leopard was a hybrid of a lion and a ‘pard’.

Some more on the lion

4 thoughts on “Why is a lion the symbol of England?”

  1. In heraldry, an attitude is the position in which an animal, fictional beast, mythical creature, human or human-like being is emblazoned as a charge, supporter or crest. Many attitudes apply only to predatory beasts and are exemplified by the beast most frequently found in heraldry—the lion.

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  2. 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.

    Why not a tiger? The tiger was a much less familiar beast to Europeans due to its geographical range (Asia, extending into Siberia). If you’re going to pick a regal beast, you need to choose one that is widely recognised as a symbol of power and courage, and thanks to the Romans, that would be the lion rather than the tiger.

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