The Lion and the Unicorn

Statues of a Lion and Unicorn in Cromwell Hall

The story of these two beasts and their repeated clashes actually represents the long-standing difficult position between the thrones of England and Scotland. The lion and the unicorn are, properly speaking, heraldic supporters which appear on the full Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, the lion standing for England, and the unicorn for Scotland.

Depictions of lions (always an image of strength) can be found as far back as the artwork of cave-dwellers, the Egyptian Sphinx, Greek myths and Biblical references: the Unicorn, a fanciful creation, was nonetheless believed to exist – Queen Elizabeth I had a cup made of ‘alicorn’ – allegedly the horn of the Unicorn!

The Lion and the Unicorn

Were fighting for the Crown.

The Lion beat the Unicorn

All around the town

Some gave them white bread,

And some gave them brown;

Some gave them plum cake

And drummed them out of town

And when he had built him out,

He beat him in again;

He beat him three times over,

His power to maintain.

Henry II’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou, may have been the originator of the lions on the English Royal coat of arms, as his grandson, Richard I, combined them into his heraldic emblem from 1198 to 1340.

The lions which we see on the English coat of arms are Barbary lions, with which some English people would have been familiar if they had been to the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, where a few were kept. Where lions were not indigenous it is sometimes possible to see ‘creative’ depictions of their features … look at the picture of Orpheus charming the animals, hanging in the Pugin Corridor, at the end of your tour!

The combination of Lion with Unicorn dates from the 1603 accession of King James I of England – who was already King James IV of Scotland.

The image of the lion became gradually associated with the notion of the ‘divine right’ of the King to rule.

By the Act of Union of 1707, the legend of the two animals had become very well-known, and it is round about this time that the last verse (as well as several others) appeared.

They were so familiar that they appeared in Victorian popular fiction – most notably in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ where they are fighting for the White King’s crown.