For the first time in 28 years England have progressed to the semi-final of the football World Cup. As a result the three lions on the team’s shirt have once again become an iconic symbol of the national dream of footballing glory.
The three lions is really the emblem of the English Football Association (FA), established in 1863 to formalise and regulate a common set of rules to be used across the country. To this day, the FA is the governing body of English football.
The first international match took place in 1872 between England (representing the FA) and Scotland. England wore white jerseys with the FA crest on the chest. This consisted of three navy lions within an outline shield topped by a crown, more than a nod to the design of the Royal Arms of England.
This design was used with some variation in every international match following and was put on an official footing after the war when the College of Arms (responsible for heraldry in England and Wales) granted a coat of arms to the FA. This combined the three lions with a background of Tudor roses, but removing the crown as this design was being used by the England cricket team. The new FA arms kept the existing style of navy on white but was suitably differenced from the emblems of other sports teams and the English Royal Arms.
Representing England by three lions goes back to the Middle Ages. Lions were common heraldic devices, no doubt noted for their strength and courage. William the Conqueror was reputed to have used three lions on his shield, though this was not put forward until nearly two centuries after his death. Indeed, heraldry as a system of hereditary personal symbols only definitely appears in the mid-12th century.
Although it may have been used earlier, the first contemporary evidence we have of an English king using three lions is in the reign of Richard the Lionheart. On his second Great Seal from the 1190s he is shown riding on horseback in armour, bearing a shield with three lions. In every subsequent reign this shield design was used by kings and queens to represent England, irrespective of changes of the families who ruled.
So by the time that the FA were seeking a symbol to adequately represent the national football team of England, what better authoritative symbol could there be? Even more powerful than the flag of St George, that had long been overtaken by the British Union Flag. And so it has remained to this day.
Jeremy Goldsmith, 11 July 2018