Chasing Dragons in London

The University of London ice hockey team are called the London Dragons and dragons are the supporters of the City of London coat of arms. In heraldry they symbolise sharp eyesight, protection, strength, faithfulness. In western art they represent evil but also vigilance and in eastern art they are deities associated with water. The City dragons are there to watch over and protect London.

Geoffrey Plantagenet, of Anjou, Le Mans Cathedral public domain

Heraldry started in France around C11th. The symbols and colours of coats of arms may have been useful for warriors to identify their leaders on the battle field. They would have probably have been on pennants on lances before being transferred to shields. The Bayeux Tapestry made within a few years of the Battle of Hastings of 1066 depicts one or two pennants on spears or lances and a few shields with decorations although most of them are plain.

When a coat of arms on shields became commonplace, they might not have been so useful as identification in battle because the designs are similar, for example many feature a rampant lion. This suggests battle might not be the main function of a coat of arms, perhaps its jousting tournament where they came into their own. People could tell which knight was which even when they were swathed in armour and their faces covered by their helmets. Tournaments are thought to have originated in France mid C11th as a form of battle training and for sport.

The arms could also be used to distinguish someone’s importance. By mid C12th in France a coat of arms was a claim to nobility. In 1127 Henry I of England hung a plaque with gold lions painted on it around the neck of Geoffrey Plantagenet as part of the ceremony of knighting him. This took place in Rouen prior to Geoffrey’s marriage to Henry’s daughter. Geoffrey died in 1151 and an enamel image of his blue shield with gold lions on his tomb at Le Mans cathedral. It is one of the earliest pictures of a coat of arms.

By 1400s English kings took steps to stop people being able to award themselves a coat of arms culminating in 1484 with Richard III creating the College of Arms as the official registry of English and Welsh arms. By the late middle ages those who did not have a coat of arms were not allowed to fight in tournaments.

The City of London has had a coat of arms since at least 1381 when one was used on a seal for documents. It had the quartered shield seen today supported by two lions A seal from earlier 1300s is slightly different. The helmet on top did not appear until 1500s. 1609 the supporters were shown as dragons, not lions and in 1633 on the frontispiece of John Stow’s Survey of London, the crest had a dragon’s left wing on top of the helmet.  

Colours are also symbolic in heraldry. Red is for military strength and magnanimity while silver or white are for truth, purity, innocence and peace.

About the author: Gail Jones

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