“3 Lions on their shirts, it’s coming home….” We all know the lyrics, we all know the logo, but do we all know why England proudly wear the lions?
The simple answer is that the English football team are representatives of the Football Association (FA) and therefore wear the crest because that is the official logo of the FA itself, but the longer answer looks at the history of the 3 lions themselves and why they are so iconic in England sportsmanship.
Royal Arms of England
The 3 gold Lions on a red background as the Royal Arms of England was formally adopted in the late 12th century by the Plantagenet kings; Richard I (1157–1199, second king in the House of Plantagenet) was the first to use it in royal documentation, however the use of a Lion as a emblem dates back earlier than this.
Henry I (known as the “Lion of England”) had a single lion on his standard when he entered power in 1100. When he married his second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, in 1121, he added a second lion in honour of her father, who also had a lion on his shield. Two lions then became three in 1154 when his grandson, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152; her family crest was also a lion.
That explains the 3 lions, but why have they stood the test of time?
The answer to that is simple; when Henry II’s son, Richard I, took the throne in 1189, he continued with the 3 lions on his standard. During the two-month siege of Castillon-sur-Agen some 14 years prior, he had earned the nickname ‘Richard the Lionheart’ for his “noble, brave and fierce leadership”. This further enforced his standing to continue with the 3 lions crest upon his ascension to the throne; in 1198 (9 years into his reign), the shield was permanently altered to depict three lions passant. Some say this was to represent Richard I's principal three positions as King of the English, Duke of the Normans, and Duke of the Aquitanians.
Every succeeding monarch since has used the 3 golden lions on a scarlet background as the Royal Arms, although there have been some deviants through the years. Officially, the arms depict lions with blue (azure) tongues and claws, but not all blazons show this.
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom
The Union of the Crowns in 1603 formed what is now the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, which also appears in a very similar fashion as the Arms of Canada and on the Queen’s Personal Canadian Flag.
The Union of the Crowns saw the unification of Scotland, England and Ireland into what we call the United Kingdom, following the death of Elizabeth I (Elizabeth Tudor) in 1603. Her nearest royal relative was actually James VI of Scotland, already on the throne and as such had an uncertain claim to the throne. However, Elizabeth I, whilst having made no explicit wishes for him to succeed, had written to him before her death in a favourable fashion, and the announcement was made to the public with no major outcry.
Whilst the Union of the Crowns under a single monarch (James VI, also hereafter known as James I of England) took place in 1603, his best efforts at creating a new “imperial” throne did not fully succeed until the Acts of Union in 1707.
Also known as Leopards?
It is true that not everybody recognises the lions as lions; many are of the opinion they are actually leopards, although officially in England they are lions. France historically used the term “leopard” instead of “lion” to represent the lion passant guardant, although now they do use the term “lion”.