Why are lions so closely aligned with the English national identity? Why are there three of them? And why do they grace the English football team’s shirts?
The desultory answer to the football part is that the three lions are also the emblem of the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. They have been part of strip since the first official international in 1872, when England played Scotland, ending in a 0-0 draw. Still, that doesn’t explain where the FA got them from.
The FA did not pick their big cats on a whim – they borrowed a powerful royal emblem (which also means they had to ask persmission to use it). A trio of lions has appeared on the arms of every English (and British) monarch since the late 12th century, and has been flown as a battle standard on English soil and abroad.
The story is said to begin with King Henry I, whose arms were single golden lion, rampant (rearing on its hind legs) on a red field. He became a widower in 1118, and perhaps would have remained so had his sole male heir not died at sea in 1120.
The following year, he married Adeliza of Louvain. Her father also used a lion, and so Henry adapted his own arms to include two.
Skipping a generation brings us to Henry II, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Her family crest featured a lion as well. It took their son, Richard the Lionheart – a man who, in his entire reign, spent barely six months in England despite being born here – unite the three lions of his forebears into the national symbol it is today.
We only know of his arms from two Great Seals, one of which bears the three lions passant-guardant (striding left but facing the observer). Every Plantagenet king used these arms unchanged, lions golden on a field of red, until the ascension of Edward III in 1327.
There is an alternative theory to why Richard opted for three lions – he simply wanted to show off that as well as being King of England, he was also lord and master of the Dukedom of Normandy and Aquitaine. The symbol of Normandy is two lions, and the symbol of Aquitaine one lion (you can see where this is going).
The badge on the English football team’s shirts bears another very English emblem, a smattering of ten Tudor roses, the propaganda device that symbolises Henry VII uniting the house of Lancaster and the house of York after the Wars of the Roses.