Where do the ‘three lions’ come from?

Worn on the English football shirt since the team’s very first international game in 1872, the badge bearing three lions might initially seem an odd choice...

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But the Football Association were in fact taking up a royal heraldic tradition that stretched back at least as far as the twelfth century. Strangely, we owe our symbolic use of lions – in this posture, technically termed ‘leopards’ until the fourteenth century – to our Norman heritage, where they were a popular heraldic device. As such, although it dates to the early Plantagenet dynasty, we can’t be certain of its exact lineage.

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According to tradition, the first English king to adopt a lion as his symbol was Henry I, son of William the Conqueror. Upon his marriage to the daughter of the Count of Louvain, whose symbol was also a lion, the Royal Arms incorporated both. The third lion was added to represent the house of Henry II’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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This striking image of majesty and strength was granted official use by Richard I – the Lionheart – on the Great Seal of 1198, and from then featured on the Royal Arms almost continually. It adorned the banners used to inspire the English troops in battle and – by the nineteenth century – our football shirts.