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England's Uniforms

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England's Emblems: Origins and Evolution

 Three Lions on a Shirt

The Three Lions

We can probably trace the origins of the Football Association’s emblem for the England team back to biblical times. The lion might seem a strange choice of animal as a heraldic symbol for a country in northern Europe. Nowadays, we think of lions as being native to Africa. Cameroon’s national team are known as the Indomitable Lions. Yet, ten thousand years ago, this majestic beast was the most widely spread land mammal after humans, and occupied much of western Europe. 

Lions (and also leopards) are believed to have evolved from jaguars over a million years ago and humans have long regarded them as strong, but noble beasts to be feared. They are kings of all they survey and they provided inspiration for biblical royalty to portray themselves as ‘brave lions’. To emphasize this, they were immortalised in paintings, statues, entrances and emblems at the command of royalty. The lion was the emblem of the Kingdom of Judah and is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as “the king of beasts”.

So, it was a long held tradition for kings, and those who felt that they should be king, to use the lion to promote themselves in a very early form of marketing. By the time of the eleventh century, this form of heraldry extended to the nobility creating their own Coats of Arms. William the Conqueror brought the arms of the House of Normandy to the throne of England. This depicted two lions on a red background.

William’s son, Henry became King in 1100. Henry I was keen to build strong bonds between the Houses of Normandy and Anjou. His daughter, Matilda, was allowed to marry the ruler of Anjou; Geoffrey, in 1127. Henry presented his new son-in-law with an azure shield depicting four gold lions, no doubt symbolic of the coming together of two dynasties.

On Henry’s death in 1135, a bitter struggle ensued for the throne. Stephen, Matilda’s cousin became King. Matilda was never crowned, but her son, Henry took on the fight on his mother’s behalf. In 1152, he married Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine and added the single lion from the Aquitaine Court of Arms to the two on the House of Normandy Arms. The Three Lions were born!

This marriage meant Henry acquired vast lands and his new powers gave him the momentum to lay claim to the throne of England. Stephen’s son and heir had died and he was forced to concede the monarchy to his cousin’s son, who became Henry II on Stephen’s death, in 1154.

The new King named his house Plantagenet, after his father’s nickname, and also created the first Coat of Arms for the English monarchy. Although the Normandy Arms had two lions and the new Plantagenet Arms had three, the first royal coat had just a single lion.

Henry died in 1189 and was succeeded by his son, Richard the Lionheart, who added a second lion to the royal coat to match that of the House of Normandy, one of the titles he had inherited. In 1198, just a year before his death, the third lion was added. Why he chose to do this at that time is unclear, but his crusades certainly helped associate his name with that of the lion, and it meant that, at last, the royal coat was aligned to that of the House of Plantagenet.

From this point onwards, the Three Lions would remain the symbol of the crown of England and, ultimately, representing England in the United Kingdom’s Royal Coat of Arms. Today, there are many examples of symbolic lions reminding us of their place in our history. In London’s Trafalgar Square, for example, there are four huge bronze lions protecting Nelson’s Column.

The blazon (official description) for the Three Lions that were introduced by King Richard is:

‘Gules in pale three lions passant guardant or’

‘Gules’ means ‘red’.

‘in pale’ means they are on a central, vertical axis.

‘passant’ means head to the left, body horizontal, with three legs on the ground, right front leg stretched forward and tail reflexed back over the body.

‘guardant’ means head facing out to the observer.

‘or’ means gold or yellow. 

There is a suggestion that the lions are actually leopards. This is because in the original French blazon terminology, a ‘lion passant guardant’ is referred to as ‘leopard’, but this is intended to describe the animal’s posture, rather than the species. In all English heraldry interpretations, these are definitely lions.

The term ‘Three Lions’ was barely used until David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds wrote and recorded a song to sum up what it was like to be an England fan in the years since the World Cup triumph of 1966; ‘Three lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming, thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming', perfectly capturing the mood of the fans at the European Championships, held in England in 1996. The single was a smash hit and established the term, ‘wearing the Three Lions’ as a reference to the pride of playing for England.

The Tudor Roses 

King Henry VII was responsible for the creation of the Tudor Rose, having ended the War of the Roses in 1485, by taking the crown from Richard III in battle. He married Elizabeth of York, the following year, and celebrated by amalgamating the Red Rose of Lancaster, with the White Rose of York. As the first Tudor King, he introduced the rose as the heraldic floral emblem of England and a symbolic unification of the two factions in the war.


The Adoption and Usage by the Football Association

The first emblem of the England football team was worn in the world’s very first international match, in 1872, against Scotland, in Glasgow. It consisted of three lions within a shield, in a similar stance to that of the English Coat of Arms, except that these lions were navy blue and the only distinguishable features were red eyes and mouths. A red and navy crown sat upon the top of the shield.

Designs were quite rudimentary at first. The example above left was used in the early 1890s and shows both front legs pointing downwards (not 'passant').

Around the turn of the century, the badge was narrowed, making the lions appear more upright and realistic, and the crown on top was also made smaller. A further change saw small red crowns placed on the heads of each of the lions. Then, before the Second World War, red whiskers were added to the design, before being enhanced after the war. The two examples above second left are from 1948 (left) and 1923 (right).

The fourth example (above right) is from a shirt worn by David Jack in 1930. This is a curious one, because the whiskers are white, and white thread appears in various places around the design. Clearly, there were a number of variations of the original design and we have yet to work out whether there is a noticeable pattern to when each appeared.

England Emblems From 1949

In a possible attempt to distinguish the badge from that used by the England cricket team, a new emblem was designed by the College of Arms. The lions were re-drawn with red claws and more features, and the crowns were removed. Ten Tudor Roses were scattered around the lions probably to represent the ten regional divisions, each of which has a seat on the Football Association Council.


A revised design was introduced in 1950, incorporating an additional eleventh Tudor Rose. This may have been as a result of a change to the regional divisions of the FA, possibly connected to the 1951 Festival of Britain. It may even have been representative of the eleven members of a football team. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know (including the FA). At the same time, a scroll was introduced beneath the emblem to include the name of England’s opponents for each match, in blue. Underneath this was the season, in red.


In 1953, a special commemorative scroll was used for the FA's ninetieth anniversary match against a side selected by FIFA from the rest of Europe. The scroll is not easy to read, but says:




At the beginning of the 1951-52 season, a small blue ‘v’ had been added between the badge and the scroll, as an abbreviation for ‘versus’. From the following season, the shirts worn in friendly matches only displayed the single year, rather than the season. The shirts worn against the other home nations continued to display the season.


For each of the last three games of the 1954-55 season, England omitted the opponents' names from the scrolls and replaced them with CONTINENTAL TOUR, 1955. This, presumably, meant that the players had to wear the same shirts in each game. The scrolls were then absent from the shirts completely for the following season (1955-56). Perhaps, this was so that they could re-use shirts to save costs, because the players appear to have still been separately issued with the emblems, including the scrolls. The scrolls returned for the 1956-57 season, but this was the last time that they would be used for the British Championship matches, and the 1958 World Cup games were also not included, as had been the case for the two previous World Cup tournaments in the fifties. They were worn for the last time (in full internationals), at the end of the 1959-60 season, though they were still used to distinguish shirts worn in intermediate internationals (with words such as 'AMATEUR', 'YOUTH' and 'INTERMEDIATE' appearing inside the scrolls) intermittently right up until 1999.


When the Football Association celebrated its centenary, a commemorative emblem was worn in every game during the calendar year of 1963.

1966 The lions appear to have turned a very dark shade of blue as England were about to lift the World Cup.
1970 As they appeared on the lightweight aertex shirts worn at the World Cup in Mexico…
…but against Czechoslovakia, the emblem had the same blue background as the shirt, due to it being sewn into the shirt, as opposed to being part of an embroidered patch. This was also the case on the yellow goalkeeper's jersey, where the emblem had a yellow background, but the emblem on the navy blue jersey, worn against Brazil, was on a white background, because it would, otherwise, have not stood out.
1974 Admiral took on the role of England’s kit manufacturer and a richer blue was used, matching the shade of blue on the shorts.
1982 Admiral’s second England design brought the colour of the lions back to a darker shade of blue, here for the World Cup in Spain. For the World Cups of 1986, '90 and '98, and the 1992 European Championship, lettering was added underneath the emblem to signify the tournament that the shirt was worn in. These were as follows:

This practice was eventually replaced by the addition of embroidered tournament logo patches to the sleeves.

1995 A white margin was introduced around the motif and the emblem was positioned centrally on the chest with 'UMBRO' spelt out in large navy capitals above it.
1997 Several breaks in tradition as the lions changed to a lighter shade of blue. The team name appeared underneath the emblem and, most significantly, for the first time, the centres of the roses were changed from yellow to red, and the green petals were removed. The registered trademark (®) probably gives us a clue as to the reason why. It would be easier to reproduce a simpler red and white rosette on merchandising.
2000 David Davies, the FA's Executive Director in 1999, revealed, in his autobiography, that the lions' eyes appeared to have closed. Changing the colour back to navy and making the eyes more prominent meant that Davies 'skilfully' avoided any suggestion that the FA were lacking vision! The other significant change was that the team name found a new home above the emblem, thankfully replacing the 'UMBRO' lettering. The emblem also returned to the left breast. In 2005, a gold star was placed above it to represent England's solitary World Cup win.
2009 At long last, after years of criticism of Umbro's constant tinkering with the design of the kit and changes to the emblem, the FA finally relented and restored some of the traditions held so dear to thousands of England fans. Not only did the shirt revert back to plain white (apart from the essential markings) for the first time since 1974, but they also revived a 1954-style collar, whilst the emblem  was larger and much more prominent, with the lions re-drawn to appear more distinctive in a lighter blue. The outer roses down each side were re-positioned closer to the edge to stand out better. It was also a pleasant surprise to see that the green petals of the roses were back and that their centres had changed from red, back to yellow. The star above it was changed to white and only visible in close-up. Finally, with a further nod to the fifties shirts, the scrolls with the opponents' name re-appeared underneath the emblem. The year was displayed in red for a home game and blue for away.
2012 Another unexpected twist, as the emblem turned completely red (as did the star above it), in keeping with the Cross of St. George theme, with no navy blue at all on the kit. In truth, it was the latest in a long line of different-coloured emblems that had already featured on the shorts and on the goalkeeper's kit, though often unnoticeable due to them being the same colour as their background. These were as follows:
  • 2009 - all-white emblem on the white shorts.
  • 2009 - all-green emblem on the goalkeeper's green shorts.
  • 2009 - all-blue emblem on the blue shorts.
  • 2010 - all-red emblem on the white shorts.
  • 2011 - all-green emblem on the goalkeeper's green jersey.
2013 Having acquired Umbro, Nike then proceeded to take on the England contract themselves, and produced two new kits to commemorate the FA's 150th anniversary. They launched the new white shirt at the end of May 2013. The scrolls were replaced by a gold ribbon and the emblem returned to full colour, but with an additional inner gold border. Four days later, the red shirt was worn for the first time, in Brazil, and the emblem was all gold for the first time. The emblems on the two goalkeepers' shirts were also co-ordinated, with a full-colour emblem on the gold first-choice (worn alongside the white shirt in home games), and a gold emblem on the green second-choice (worn alongside the red shirt in away games).
2015 The lions were back to royal blue, but this time with a silver star above the emblem. Nike resisted the practice of adding the opponent's name in a scroll underneath until the 2014 World Cup, when they came up with their own design (including the date) to make each shirt unique once more.

N.B. The Football Association have used the same emblem as the England team since 1949, but often with a lighter shade of blue.