Q&A: When did the leopards on the royal arms of England become the lions depicted today?

The England football team has secured their place in the semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and chants of "football's coming home" – taken from the 1996 song 'Three Lions' by The Lightning Seeds – are louder than ever. So when did the three lions symbol come to be used as England’s royal arms? Here, Eugene Byrne reveals why in the past we might be singing "three leopards on a shirt"

Illustration by Glen McBeth.

Author and historian Eugene Byrne explains the origins of England’s royal arms and the three lions – or ‘leopards’ – upon it 

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Medieval bestiaries comprised both real and mythical creatures, and the medieval intellect wasn’t interested in our modern post-Enlightenment taxonomy. Hence the yarn about a heraldic painter [someone who designed coats of arms] who visited the royal menagerie in the Tower of London and protested that the caged lions are not lions. “I know what lions look like,” he says. “I’ve been painting them all my life.”

Generally speaking (and there are many exceptions in different traditions), a lion rampant (standing erect with forepaws raised) was a lion, while a lion walking with head turned full-face (passant guardant) – as in the English royal arms – was a leopard. It’s important to note that ‘leopard’ was a technical heraldic distinction; there were no spotted felines on any coat-of-arms in the Middle Ages.

Like all heraldic animals, the leopard carried some symbolic meaning; it was thought to be the result of an adulterous union between a lion and a mythical beast called a ‘pard’ (hence leo-pard). Believed to be incapable of reproducing, leopards were sometimes (but not always) used for someone born of adultery, or unable to have children – a senior clergyman for example. The English royal arms included the three lions from the time of Richard I (reigned 1189–99) onwards (with a few early gaps).

The English usually referred to them as leopards until the late 1300s when they started calling them lions. French heralds continued to call them leopards, and, during the Hundred Years’ War, the French sometimes referred to the English as ‘the leopards’.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.

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This Q&A was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine