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Historically, the dragon is more properly regarded as William of Normandy’s emblem than the two lions posthumously conferred on him by the heralds. There is evidence that the Dragon standard was used by four of William’s successors, namely, Richard I, Henry III, Edward I and Henry V. In his account of Richard’s crusade, Richard of Devizes wrote: “ The terrible standard of the dragon is  borne in front unfurled.” Henry III is recorded as having issued a mandate “ to cause a dragon to be made in fashion of a standard of red silk sparkling all over with gold, the tongue of which should be made to resemble burning fire and appear to be continually moving, the eyes of sapphires or other suitable stones.” It is recorded that at Crécy King Edward raised “ his unconquered standard of the Dragon Gules,” and that it made its appearance again at Agincourt.

So this ancient monster, descended from an ensign of Imperial Rome, continued as the national standard of England until the fifteenth century. It is important to also note that the so-called griffins that support the shield of the City of London are in reality dragons, the griffin being composed of the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. But the London dragons are not related to the old national emblem. They had an accidental and unnatural origin. Over the shield in a sixteenth-century seal of the city is a helmet with a fan-shaped metal crest, painted with a red cross as in the Arms. In the following century the City fathers seem to have imagined that this metal fan was the wing of a monster, and, as anatomists reconstruct an extinct animal from one small bone, they created a dragon to which this supposed wing belonged, and set him up to guard and support their shield. So the City of London dragons have no heraldic ancestry. In the time of Richard II the shield in the civic seal was supported by lions.

The preservation of the dragon was in accordance with the Norman kings’ policy of placating their English subjects by identifying the crown with what national sentiment existed. In this connection a device attributed to William Rufus, by the seventeenth-century herald, Guilim, may have some historical significance. Guilim wrote that It is storied that the old eagles make a proof of their young by exposing them to the Sun-beames, and such as cannot steadily behold their brightness are cast forth as unworthy to be acknowledged their Off-spring. In which respect William Rufus, King of the land, gave for his device an Eagle, looking against the sun, with this word “ Perferro “, “I can endure it”, to signify he was no whit degenerate from his puissant Father the Conquerer.” The Norman baronage would have been better pleased if William II had indeed proved himself to be a degenerate; in fact, there was a movement to place William the Conqueror’s eldest son, the weak and careless Robert, upon the English throne. William’s device was not intended to appeal to them, but rather to the English. It is true that at the start of his reign William threw himself upon the loyalty of the English, who mustered in strength to expel the rebel lords, undoubtedly feeling that however oppressive the royal hand may be it was preferable to baronial anarchy.

William Rufus

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