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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Lord Edward and the Leopard of Lewes

The royal arms, depicted
by Matthew Paris
BL Royal 14 C VII f.53)
If you’ve been following our Feature of the Month, you would have seen Nicholas Vincent’s recent article on ‘Leopards, Lions and Dragons: King John’s Banners and Battle Flags’. Here, Nick explained how the ‘three lions’ device – now the ‘three lions on the shirt’ of England – was first used in the heraldry of the Angevin rulers. King John, for instance, was shown on his seal charging into battle carrying a shield decorated with three lions passant gardant.

As Nick has shown elsewhere, though, from as early as the 1230s the Angevin lions were taken for leopards – indeed in 1251 Henry III ordered a set of robes decorated with ‘three small leopards’ front and back.[1] This was, perhaps, a strange development. The lion was the king of beasts and thus a fitting symbol for a ruler. The leopard, on the other hand (as Isidore of Seville explained in his Etymologies) was ‘born of the adultery of a lion and a pard... and from [this] union this degenerate offspring is created, just like a mule.’ The leopard was a mongrel, ignoble creature. Why the Angevins were happy to swap leopards for lions isn't clear (though it's been suggested that this was a reference to their descent from the most famous of leopards, born of adulterous union – William the Bastard).
A pard, shown in 13th century bestiary (BL, Harley MS 4751, f.6)
The leopard image was one that could quickly be turned against the Angevins. In May 1264, Henry III was defeated on the field of battle at Lewes and taken captive, together with his first-born son and heir, the lord Edward. The victor of Lewes was Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who was to rule England at the head of a council for the next fifteen months. Montfort and his circle were brilliant propagandists and, in an effort to win support for their regime, commissioned a poem celebrating Montfort’s victory. The Song of Lewes was probably written by a friar (the experts in preaching) and makes good use of a well-known technique of medieval sermons: similitude. This was an emotive device. Preachers, wrote Thomas of Chobham in his Summa on the Art of Preaching, ‘should know the natures of animals and also of other things, because there is nothing which moves the hearts of an audience more’.The author of the Song had learned his lessons well, as is clear in his depiction of the lord Edward:
‘Whereunto shall the noble Edward be compared? Perhaps he will be rightly called a leopard.... A lion by pride and fierceness, he is by inconstancy and changeableness a pard, changing his words and promise, cloaking himself by pleasant speech.’
The author might have chosen any number of beasts to describe the heir to the throne. But he picked the very one depicted on the royal flag and shield, with which Edward would have ridden into battle at Lewes. The author played on the ambiguity of the Angevin emblem: Edward shared some characteristics with the lion (courage and pride) but not honour. In order to hammer home his point, the poet invented characteristics for the pard. This mythical beast was known (according to Isidore of Seville) for its swiftness and ability to bring down its prey with a single leap. But here the pard is also faithless – a foil for the poet’s hero, Simon de Montfort, who refuses to abandon his oath to the Provisions of Oxford and would ‘flee neither torment nor death, for the sake of truth’.
An example of Edward I's seal held at Salisbury Cathedral

Ultimately, it was Edward who was to have the last word. At the Battle of Evesham, in 1265, he ordered that Montfort be hunted down and butchered on the battlefield, his corpse dismembered. The great seal of Edward I was to show the three lions/leopards in detail, not only on the king’s shield but also on his horse’s battledress, while elsewhere Edward was depicted before a splendid cloth of state strewn with golden lions/leopards on gules.

[1] N. C. Vincent, ‘The seals of King Henry II and his court’, in Seals and their Context in the Middle Ages, ed. P. Schofield (Oxford, 2015), 7-33, at 18. 

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