Heraldry in England developed in all its elaborate glory in the middle ages. One of the most striking features was the emergence of supporters as part of a full coat of arms. Animals, both real and imaginary, humans, angels and objects could all be used to stand either side of the main shield. In England, the development of the monarchy can be traced by observing the changing supporters who form a vast menagerie of heraldic design.
On 18 July, 1484, a dangerous piece of doggerel was pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral. It read quite simply:
“the Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge
rulyth all Englande under a hogge.”
Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Viscount Lovell are easily identifiable in this piece (Lovell was referred to as a dog in insult but also in reference to the silver hound on his coat of arms) – but who was the hog?
It referred to no less a figure than the king himself, King Richard III and this made the note scandalous and treasonable. Richard III was frequently associated with a hog – Shakespeare used it to describe the maligned monarch as:
“Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!”
Why was this King of England in particular assailed with porcine insults? It all stems from the Royal Arms of Richard III and, in particular, the two white boars who acted as the supporters of his shield. They are very different beasts to the lion and unicorn that have been the supporters in the Royal Crest since James I and VI assumed the English throne in 1603.
This unlikely pair have become so well known as to feature in a nursery rhyme, appear as characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, become the name for pubs across the country and feature in the title of an essay by George Orwell on English socialism.
Whilst the four centuries since James have seen stability in the identity of the supporters, the previous 400 years were marked with a menagerie of royal beasts symbolising the different dynasties, personalities and claims to the English throne.
To begin with, the Royal Arms did not have supporters. Heraldry developed its intricate formulae of crests, mottos, supporters, mantling and helms in the middle ages, and, even once introduced, it took a long time for supporters to become a constant and unchanging feature of the Royal Arms.
The first example found in the heraldic records are the supporters for King Edward III. His arms were supported by a lion, an animal that would have recurring appearances until becoming a permanent addition, and a griffin.
King Richard II abandoned both the lion and the griffin in favour of two white harts. This beast was a personal addition, a nod to his mother Joan of Kent. The white hart would be used again to proclaim dynastic continuity with Richard II and the House of Plantagenet as England plunged into the War of the Roses and rival claims consumed the country.
The House of Lancaster would feature a white antelope with golden horns, either in duplicate or combined with the traditional lion of England. The House of York had a more diverse menagerie, featuring white lions, a white hart and the white boars of Richard III.
The arms would get even more exotic supporters on the accession of Henry Tudor, who combined a red dragon with a white greyhound. His son retained the dragon as a nod to his Welsh ancestry but combined it with a crowned lion, a more fitting proclamation of his imperial ambitions. The dragon was retained by all of Henry’s Tudor successors with the exception of Mary, who replaced it with the eagle of her Habsburg husband Philip II of Spain.
Many of the early arms were not fixed designs, and would feature different supporters for different purposes or periods of time. Wikipedia notes the full extent of the real and imaginary beasts that featured on Royal Arms, including: lion, leopard, panther and tiger, the antelope and the hart, the greyhound, the boar and the bull, the falcon, cock, eagle and swan, the red and gold dragons and unicorns.
If you are interested in this aspect of heraldry, you can visit the ‘Queen’s Beasts’ at the Palm House in Kew Gardens. These are copies of the ten plaster statues cast for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and were designed to highlight her royal genealogy. They feature the:
- Lion of England;
- Griffin of Edward III;
- Falcon of the Plantagenets;
- Black Bull of Clarence;
- Yale of Beaufort;
- White Lion of Mortimer;
- White Greyhound of Richmond;
- Red Dragon of Wales;
- Unicorn of Scotland; and
- White Horse of Hanover.
A modern interpretation of the sculptures was created to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee and toured the country.