The Royal Supporters

Museum of the Order of St John Jessica Swift, Museum Assistant

Why are there Lions and Unicorns in the symbol of The Order of St John?

The symbol for the order is a white, eight-pointed cross known as a ‘Maltese Cross’, whose eight points represent the eight ‘obligations’ or ‘aspirations’, qualities which those who wore it lived by. It was the cross worn by Christian soldiers during the crusades, and became highly associated with the Order and the Knights of St John after they settled in Malta. Today, the symbol has an additional four figures – two lions and two unicorns. Known as the ‘royal supporters’, the lion and unicorn hold up the shield in the Royal Coat of Arms of the British royal family. But why did they join the Maltese Cross?

In 1888, Queen Victoria granted The Order of St John a royal charter, you can learn more about this here. When the charter was given, the symbols of the lions and unicorns were added to the symbol, showing that is had become a royal order of chivalry.

But why lions and unicorns in the first place?

The Lion has been used as a symbol for England for centuries. The first known usage is accredited to King Richard I of England – aptly nicknamed Richard Lionheart (King from 1189). He was said to ride into battle with banners showing a lion, and in 1198 had three lions emblazoned on his ‘great seal’. This is the beginning of any kind of uniform royal heraldry in England. Since the time of Richard Lionheart, the lion has been a constant symbol of England and included in our heraldry – always a ‘supporter’, literally a figure which holds up the shield. Lions in heraldry represent bravery, strength, and a kind on honour related to the belief that a lion would only kill when absolutely necessary, so was seen as a fierce but moral and noble beast.

Unicorns are also present on the English royal coat of arms – this is because they are the symbol for Scotland, added to the royal heraldry of England when King James the VI of Scotland ascended the throne on the death of Elizabeth I (in 1603) and became king of both countries. At this point, the supporters of the royal crest went from being two lions in England and two unicorns in Scotland to one of each supporting both royal crests.

In Scotland, Unicorns have also been part of the royal coat of arms since the beginnings of formal heraldry in the country. In around the 1200s, when William I of Scotland was king, there are descriptions of him using the Unicorn in his coat of arms. As a symbol, Unicorns represent (particularly in celtic mythology) bravery, innocence, purity, healing powers, pride, intelligence, joy, virility and the fierceness of a warrior. A Unicorn was said to be the most dangerous beast of all, so it is unsurprising that lions and unicorns have been depicted as enemies, fighting for the crown of ‘King of Beasts’ in mythology and fairytales for centuries, giving King James’ unification of the two animals an additional significance. Traditionally, the Unicorns on the royal crests of both Scotland and England always appear with a chain around their neck, but ours do not. The chains are thought to emphasize the dangerous nature of the unicorn, and to illustrate the strength and skill of the kings who used them as their symbols – that these men were able to tame the untameable beast. Tales of unicorns tell of a beast so elusive and dangerous that men would never see them, and that the only way to capture a unicorn was to send a virgin maiden into the forest, where her purity would call to the equally pure unicorn, who would fall asleep in her lap, and this is when the hunter would strike.

This story has lead to many medieval depictions of unicorns becoming allegories for Christ – the pure beast lays wounded and bleeding in the arms of a crying woman, while the hunters gather around. (Image: The British Library: Unicorn (detail) in a bestiary, about 1250, unknown illuminator, made in England. Pigment on parchment, 30.8 x 23.2 cm. Harley 4751, fol. 6v.)

However, Unicorns do not only appear in medieval texts as allegory, but also as animal. This image from our collection is taken from Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land) by B. Von Breydenbach. From this, you can see the Unicorn alongside other beasts you may encounter on your pilgrimage, like camels and goats, depicting unicorns in the same way. Unicorns can often be found in travel guides, memoirs and bestiaries, where they straddle the line between real and mythological. Another aspect of the ‘reality’ of unicorns were horns collected during travels, which were said to be from the unicorn and were coveted for their healing properties, supposedly being able to ride food and drink of poison. Many were added to museum collections, and later identified as Narwhal tusks, though some museums will still acknowledge their origins in their own collections.

So while we can forgive luminaries for their vary varied depictions of unicorns (as none of them would have been likely to have seen one), can we give the same benefit to those drawing lions?

Well, records show that when King John opened his menagerie at the Tower of London in around 1210, he was paying ‘Lion tamers’. The menagerie had lions almost constantly, all the way until the animals were moved to London Zoo, where the lions still reside. So though only a few people would have had access to seeing these incredible beasts, Lions have actually lived in London for more than 800 years.

So – it was when the crowns of Scotland and England were united that the lion and unicorn became royal supporters together, and when The crown granted the charter that those symbols were shared with The Order.


A royal coat of arms superimposed on the eight pointed cross




Latest blog posts