This Q&A was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Hence the yarn about the heraldic painter who visits the royal menagerie in the Tower of London and protests 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. ‘Leopard’ was a technical heraldic distinction, and 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’.