The lion is a common representation in heraldry. Traditionally it symbolizes courage, nobility, royalty, strength and courage, and has always been considered the “king of animals“. This feline also refers to a Judeo-Christian symbolism. Indeed, the Lion of Judah is represented in the coat of arms of Jerusalem. A lion of comparable appearance is found in the coat of arms of the Swedish royal house of Bjelbo, or it is itself derived in the coat of arms of Finland, which once belonged to Sweden, as well as in many other examples for comparable historical reasons.
The animal motifs of early medieval heraldry are a continuation of the animal style of the Viking Age, derived from the style of Scythian art as it developed from the 7th century BC onwards.
The symmetrically paired animals in particular find a continuation from the art of the Migration Period, through island art, to Romanesque art and heraldry.
The animals of the “barbarian” (Eurasian) predecessors of heraldic designs were probably used as clan symbols. After being adopted within the Germanic tradition around the fifth century, they were reused in a Christian context in the western kingdoms of Gaul and Italy in the sixth and seventh centuries. The trait of making the lion a royal animal is due in part to the influence of the Physiologus, an early Christian book on animal symbolism, originally written in Greek in the second century and translated into Latin around 400 AD.
From the beginning of the development of heraldry in the 12th century the lion was present. On the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, is one of the earliest examples of armory from this period. An enamel, probably commissioned by Geoffrey’s widow between 1155 and 1160, depicts him wearing a blue shield with six rampant golden lions and carrying a blue helmet with a lion on it. An account dated about 1175 indicates that Geoffrey was given a shield conforming to the above description when he was knighted by his father-in-law, Henry I, in 1128.
William the Conqueror was given the lions of England by early heraldic writers, however the earliest evidence of association with the English crown is a seal bearing two lions passant, used by the future King John during the lifetime of his father, Henry II, who died in 1189. Henry was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, so it would be possible that the choice to use lions as a heraldic emblem by Henry or his sons could have been inspired by Geoffrey’s shield.
Richard the Lionheart being the eldest brother of John, who succeeded his father to the throne, would have been the very first to display the arms of three lions passant-gardien, previously used two lions passant-gardien, these arms could have belonged to his father. Richard was also the originator of the English crest of a lion passant-gardien.
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Apart from the lions of the Plantagenet arms (England and Normandy), the various examples of lions used as heraldic charges in the 12th century include the arms of the Staufen as well as the Wittelsbachs (Palatinate), both of which were derived from the royal arms of Scotland, Henry the Lion, attributed to William the Lion, the coat of arms of Denmark, first used by Canute VI, the coat of arms of Flanders, first used by Philip I, the coat of arms of Leon, an example of a cantonal coat of arms attributed to Alfonso VII (1126), and the coat of arms of Bohemia, first granted to Vladislaus II.
The coat of arms of the thirteenth century contains those of the House of Sverre (coat of arms of Norway), the Ludovingians (the lion of Hesse used by Conrad of Thuringia), Luxembourg, the kingdom of Ruthenia (Volhynia), the house of Habsburg, the kingdom of Bulgaria and the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia (Rubenides).
In heraldry, the eagle is quite rare since it is reserved as an imperial symbol, while the lion has become a symbol of chivalry and is not restricted to the royal coat of arms. The armorial of Zurich (14th century) has several coats of arms with lions, the majority of them being ministers of the house of Habsburg.
The lion in the Bohemian coat of arms is shown with two tails (its tail is forked).
Many attitudes (positions) exist in heraldry, this is explained by the desire to always want to be different, however very few of them were known to medieval heralds.
A distinction is often made even if its importance is limited, is the distinction of lions in walking position as leopards. Here is a table summarizing the main attitudes of lions in heraldry:
|Rampant||A “Lion Rampant” is shown in profile, standing with its front legs raised. The position of the hind legs will vary according to local custom: the lion may stand on both hind legs, wide apart, or on one, the other being raised to strike. Most of the time the word rampant is missing, and mostly on the first blazon, because this is the most usual position of this carnivore.|
Note: the term segreant designates the same position, but is only used in reference to winged quadrupeds such as griffins and dragons.
|Passant||A “Lion Passant” is a lion that walks with its right paw raised and the rest of its paws on the ground. A “lion of England” is a passing lion that is guarded or used as an augmentation.|
Note: A lion so depicted may be called a “leopard”.
|Statant||A “Lion Statant” stands with all four feet on the ground, usually with the front paws side by side. This posture is more common in crests than in shield charges.|
|Salient||A “Lion Salient” represents a jump, with the two back legs on the ground and the two front legs in the air. This is a very rare position for a lion, however it is also used by other heraldic beasts.|
|Sejant||A “Lion Sejant” sits on its haunches with both front paws on the ground.|
|Sejant Erect||A “Lion Sejant Erect” sits on its haunches, with both front paws raised in a “creeping” position (sometimes referred to as “sejant rampant”).|
|Couchant||As the name implies, a “Lion Couchant” is lying down, but with its head up.|
|Dormant||A “Lion Dormant” is a Sleeping Lion, lies with its eyes closed and its head down, resting on its front legs as if it were sleeping.|
Different terms are used to describe the lion’s position in more detail. Each coat of arms has a right and a left side. The lion’s head is seen in accordance with the general position, facing left unless otherwise indicated. If the entire body of a lion faces to the right, it is sinister or contourned. If his entire body is facing the viewer, he is faced. If his head faces only the viewer he is guarded, and if he looks back over his shoulder, he is considerate.
A “Lion Coward” carries its tail between its hind legs. This tail can also be knotted, forked, doubled or cut.
In addition to all the attitudes in which it is represented, there are additional physical characteristics of lions. Heraldic lions are sometimes depicted with two heads, as is the case with the arms of the Birmingham Mason, from which they have been passed down to the University of Birmingham. The lion may also be represented with one head attached to two separate bodies, and is said to be bicorporate. If there are three bodies, it is called tricorporate. However, multi-bodied lions are still rare.
The arms of the Cinque Ports represent lions dimidiated with the hulls of ships, incorporating the front half of the lion and the back of the ship. This originally resulted from the union of the lions or royal arms of England with the silver ships of the arms of the townships of the Ports. Over time, the conjoined figure came to be considered a single heraldic charge in itself, and granted as such as a new charge.
Winged lions are depicted in arms as passant and, more commonly, sejants, and also appear as supporters. This figure is commonly referred to as the Lion of St. Mark, although Arthur Fox-Davies defined the Lion of St. Mark as one that is present in a specifically religious context and represented with a halo. The winged lion is the traditional symbol of Venice, whose patron saint is Mark the Evangelist.
A sea lion, also known as a walrus, is depicted with the tail of a fish replacing its hindquarters, hind legs and tail. It is described as naïve when depicted horizontally, and as resurgent when it emerges from the water. They usually appear as followers, but are also known as charges and crests. The dragon-lion is a lion with the lower body, hind legs, wings, and tail of a wyvern, although Fox-Davies doubts the existence of this figure outside of heraldic books and states that he does not know its actual use. The lion-man, also called a lymphatic, has a human face.
4) Lions versus Leopards
Lions and leopards were probably among the first creatures to appear in heraldry. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry reveals that the earliest English treatise on heraldry, a late 13th or early 14th century Anglo-Norman manuscript entitled De Heraudrie, mentions the raven, eagle, griffin, heron, leopard, lion, marten, popinjay and swan. Quoting Bado Aureo, the Oxford Guide suggests that the leopard, said to be “born of an adulterous union between a lioness and an overcoat,” and like a mule unable to reproduce, may be an appropriate charge for a person born of adultery or forbidden to reproduce (such as an abbot).
Generally, English heralds identify lions as rampant (standing, in profile, facing dexter), and leopards as passant guardant (walking, head facing full face), however the heraldic distinction between lions and leopards is often ambiguous and in some cases can be controversial (as in the case of the Royal Arms of England). This confusion stems from international differences in translation or in the definition of the characteristics of each, especially in the charges that show certain characteristics of each.
The English herald Arthur Charles Fox-Davies stated in 1909 that the leopard, denoting a lion on guard, was a term of French origin that had “long since become obsolete in the English arsenal.
In the French coat of arms, however, the old distinction is still observed. Fox-Davies continues: “[The French heralds] call our lion passant a leopard-lioned and our lion rampant guardian is their lion-leoparded.” The Dutch herald Johannes Rietstap, however, defines a leopard-lioned as a lion rampant guardian. German-American heraldist Carl-Alexander von Volborth agrees with Rietstap’s translations, unlike Fox-Davies’ as noted above.
As if to clarify the situation, the English heraldist Hugh Clark wrote in his “Introduction to Heraldry” (1829):
The true heraldic lion, according to the French authors, should always be represented in profile, or, as the heralds of antiquity say, showing only one eye and one ear. His attitude, too, must always be rampant or devastating. When he was in passage and in front, he was blazoned as a leopard, empty Leoparded Lion: in England, however, lions of royal and other accomplishments have always been blazoned as lions, however they have been represented since the time of Henry III, in whose reign they were called “Leopards.”
Leoparded Lion is a purely French term for what the English call a Lion passant gardant. The word leopard is always used by French heralds to express in their language, a lion in front, or guarding. Thus, when a lion is placed on a crest in this attitude that we call rampant gardant, the French blazon designates it as Lion Leopardé. When it is only passing through, it is called leopard lioné.
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English heraldist Charles Boutell wrote in 1890 that lions in England were often called leopards until the late 14th century, notably in the book of arms of Henry III of England, and in a statute of Edward I of England, dating from 1300, which referred to “signed with a leopard’s testee – marked with the king’s lion,” Boutell explains in English Heraldry (1867) :
Only when he was in this crawling attitude did the early heralds consider any lion to be a lion, and blazon him with his real name. A lion walking and looking around, the early heralds considered him to be playing the role of a leopard: therefore, when he was in such an attitude, they blazoned him as “a leopard. The animal bearing this name simply bore it as a heraldic title, which distinguished a Lion in a particular attitude. These heraldic “leopards” were drawn in all respects like other heraldic “lions”, without any leopardic markings or distinction.
This explains the usage, preserved until the end of the 14th century, of calling the Lions of the Royal Shield of England “leopards”. They were so called, not by the enemies of England for reasons of derision and insult, as some people, in their ignorance of ancient heraldry,