DNA matches show that very large lions lived in Britain some 13,000 years ago, weighing up to 50 stone (317Kg) compared to African Lions today 39 stone (250kg). They lived in caves in Yorkshire, Devon and London.
Yet the association of Britain and Britishness with the Lion is much more recent. At the time of William the Conqueror few people in Britain or Europe had seen lions – they were as mythological as Dragons and Griffins. Yet they were known to exist.
In Medieval Britain several Nobles used Lion insignia and this was becoming popular in Scandinavia , Germany and France. Henry I, who was the fourth son on William the Conqueror, was known as the ‘Lion of Justice’ as well as ‘Beauclerc’ for his scholarly interests. He is believed to have had a single Lion Rampart as his emblem, on a shield – the Lion Rampart fits onto the Kite-shaped shield well, and would be easily seen and understood as a symbol of the King. At that time, and ever since, the Lion has personified qualities of Britishness: Strength, Courage, Dignity, Pride, the Man ruling his Castle and protecting his wife and family. Indeed the word for a family of lions, a ‘Pride’, was coined in Britain and comes from the book of St Albans in 1486.
Henry II followed Henry I in 1154. He Married Eleanor of Aquitaine, owned large parts of France and, like most British nobles at the time, spoke French. It so happened that Lions formed a part of the Dutchy of Aquitaine’s coat of arms too. So Henry is believed to have sometimes had one Lion (which fitted well on a shield) and sometimes had two.
Henry II was a great book reader and it was at this time that the great Arthurian Legends were copied and published across Britain. The stories had been around for years, but Chretien de Troyes book, Yvain was also called The Knight with the Lion and it was very popular. Yvain saves a lion from death by battling a fierce dragon that was attacking it. The Lion then becomes his constant and faithful companion, symbolising the courage of a knight.
This book would have been read to and loved by Henry II’s sons, Richard I, who became Richard the Lionheart, and King John. Both these sons loved Aquitaine, spoke French and loved their Mother deeply. So it was a logical step to make the Lion the Royal insignia of the British monarchy. And indeed the story of Yvain no doubt influenced Richard I to adopt Saint George as the Patron Saint of England while he was en route to the Holy Land.
Meanwhile in Scotland, William I, “The Lion” , came to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Malcolm IV in 1165. The nickname “The Lion” was accorded to him after his death and may have been due either to his valour and strength in battle (though he was not always successful) or, more likely, to the heraldic symbol which he adopted – the red lion rampant on a yellow background – which has remained a royal symbol to this day.
Richard Coeur de Lion came to the throne in 1189, though he barely spent six months of his ten year reign in England. He started with one lion Rampart on his shield, like his Father and Grandfather, but when his younger brother John had two lions as his coat of Arms, Richard I adopted the three lions that have stayed as the Sovereign’s Crest ever since.