Lion passant guardant vs. leopard in Medieval heraldry and symbolism

In researching my graduate thesis on the uses of the Arthurian legend by Edward I and Edward III (I can’t rightfully say it’s about Edward II’s use of the legend because he failed to do so), I’m doing some research regarding heraldry, since it’s so intimately linked to symbolism, chivalry, and medieval noble identity.  There was a problem tugging at the back of my brain for several weeks now, regarding leopard symbolism in the case of both men.

Now, my research had shown that when Edward I was referred to as the leopard when he was young and a pain in everyone’s ass (often especially in his father’s ass), it was a bad thing.  And yet much later, when his grandson Edward III was called the leopard, it was a good thing.  So why the dichotomy?  How did the image of the leopard shift?  Turns out that there’s a pretty simple answer.

The following is from my scribbles for my thesis:

The heraldric device of the leopard was an accepted symbol of the English crown by the age of Edward III.  The heraldric leopard, however, should not be confused with the actual animal: a heraldric leopard was a lion.  The “leopard” device, a lion passant or lion passant guardant, is in fact a form of lion, shortened to leopard from leo pardes and is referred to by the French as a leopard.  The image of the leoprard is thus a sticky problem.  Beastiaries painted the leopard in a negative light–thus it was a grave invictive when Edward I was called the leopard in his youth–but with the rise fo chivalry and the increase in the importance of heraldry, the image of the leopard, in these cases a reference to the lion passant guardant, began to shift and take on a mmore positive connotation.  The English “leopard” is thus a lion, a strong symbol of royal authority as the king of beasts.

So, if sources such as Caroline Shenton’s article in Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England (eds. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen) are to be believed…heraldry played a large part in forming positive images of monarchs, at least in the minds of their own people.  It’s an interesting thing to note, however, that the very people that the English were fighting throughout the reign of Edward III are the ones that insist that the lion passant guardant is in fact a leopard, not a lion.

Interesting indeed…considering that the leopard was a symbol of the Antichrist.[1]  Who would have thought that, huh?  Very interesting indeed….

1. Caroline Shenton, “Edward III and the Symbol of the Leopard” in Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, Peter Coss and Maurice Keen, eds. (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2002), p. 73.

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1 thought on “Lion passant guardant vs. leopard in Medieval heraldry and symbolism

  1. So basically when they pissed him off “It’s that damn Leopard.”
    But when they liked him “It’s a Lion Passant Guardant”?
    Or was it more that it got to be cool to be a Leopard after Edward I? Like before Madonna, wearing undies on the outside was bad, but after, it was cool?

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