The Royal Standard of the United Kingdom features three lions passant guardant in pale or on a red field. This distinctive heraldic emblem has a long history associated with the monarchy and can be traced back to the 12th century. The three lions symbol have become intrinsically linked with the identity of the British monarchy over the centuries. But why exactly are there three lions on the royal coat of arms and what is the significance behind this peculiar heraldic symbol?
Origins of the Three Lions Symbol
The origins of the three lions heraldic symbol can be traced back to King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart. Richard I ruled as King of England from 1189 to 1199. He was known as a great military leader and warrior during the Third Crusade. The connection to lions stems from his bravery and lionheartedness as a knight and soldier.
The link between Richard the Lionheart and the heraldic three lions first appeared on the Royal Arms of England during the reign of his nephew, King Henry III, who ruled from 1216 to 1272. It is believed that Henry III adopted the three lions in honor of his brave uncle, Richard. Over time, the symbol became more strongly associated with the English monarchy as a whole rather than just Richard himself.
Meaning Behind the Three Lions
The choice to use three lions on the Royal Arms carries important symbolism and meaning. Here are some of the main reasons why three lions were used:
- The lion was considered the king of beasts and symbolized strength, power, and sovereignty. It was a fitting emblem for the English monarchy.
- The lion also represented courage and bravery, qualities exemplified by Richard the Lionheart.
- The number three held religious significance, representing the Holy Trinity in Christian belief.
- Three equal lions passant may have symbolized England, Normandy, and Aquitaine – three territories associated with the Plantagenet kings.
So the three lions ensemble embodied attributes like courage, sovereignty, and the Holy Trinity that were highly desirable for medieval kings to project through their heraldry.
Evolution of the Royal Arms Over Time
While the three golden lions on a red field remained remarkably consistent, some evolutions did occur to the Royal Arms over subsequent centuries:
- In the 14th century, the three lions symbol was quartered with the French fleur-de-lis representing English claims to France.
- After the Acts of Union in 1707, the Scottish lion rampant was added to form the Royal Arms of Great Britain.
- Following the union with Ireland in 1801, the Irish harp was included in the coat of arms.
- The current version dates to when Queen Victoria adopted the blazon or heraldic description in 1837.
So while the essential three lions design remained, modifications were made over time to reflect changing territorial claims and unions between England, Scotland, Ireland, and other domains.
Heraldic Description of the Royal Arms
In heraldic terminology, the three lions on the Royal Arms are described as:
Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langued Azure
Breaking this blazon or description down:
- “Gules” means red, indicating the field or background color
- “Or” means gold, the color of the lions
- “Azure” is blue, the color of the lions’ claws and tongues
- “Passant guardant” means walking with head turned to the observer
- “In pale” means positioned vertically rather than horizontally
So the formal blazon captures the distinctive details of the three golden upright lions with blue features on a red background.
Symbolic Use of the Three Lions
As a royal emblem, the three lions design appears widely:
- The royal coat of arms displayed on establishments associated with the monarchy
- On various royal banners that are flown
- Incorporated into regalia like crowns, scepters, thrones, and ornaments
- Stamped or embroidered onto uniforms, banners, and flags of British armed forces and civil services
- Appearing on British passports, Acts of Parliament, and royal warrants
- On British coins, the Royal Mint, and other official objects
- Used by national sports teams representing the United Kingdom
So the three lions remain an integral part of the iconography and symbolism of the British monarchy and nation.
The Lions as a National Symbol
The three lions emblem has also become a broader patriotic symbol for England, the United Kingdom, and British people worldwide.
- It is incorporated into the design of several national flags such as the Union Jack.
- Featured on souvenirs, memorabilia, and clothing representing British identity.
- Used as a nickname or logo for UK national sports teams like the England football, cricket, and rugby teams.
- Appears on packaging, brands, and logos seeking to emphasize British heritage.
So in addition to its royal connections, the three lions has become a icon of nationalism and civic pride for British citizens.
Heraldic Lions in Other Coats of Arms
While the British monarch’s coat of arms is the most famous, other coats of arms also feature lions – although with differences:
|Coat of Arms||Description|
|Royal Arms of Scotland||A red rampant lion on a gold field. The Scottish lion is upright on one leg.|
|Royal Arms of Norway||A golden lion carrying an axe on a red field. It faces the viewer.|
|Coat of arms of Flanders||A black lion on a gold field. It faces the viewer with its tongue sticking out.|
So while royal coats of arms frequently feature lions due to their regal symbolism, the specific emblems and poses vary.
The three golden lions passant guardant on a red field have served as the distinctive heraldic symbol of the British monarchy for nearly 800 years since the time of King Richard the Lionheart. While the design has seen some additions over the centuries, the essential image of three upright lions remains a immutable representation of sovereignty for the United Kingdom. In addition to its royal associations, the emblem has become deeply woven into the cultural fabric and nationalism of England and Britain over time. The symbolic three lions are intrinsically tied to ideas of power, courage, and pride for the British people.