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Kingdom of León (Spain)

Last modified: 2016-07-02 by ivan sache
Keywords: león | castile and león |
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Presentation of the Kingdom of León

The Kingdom of León was founded in 910, merged with the Kingdom of Castile in 1230, independent again from 1296 and 1301 and eventually merged again with Castile, nominally as an independent state under personal union with the Kingdom of Castile.

Ivan Sache, 5 June 2011

Origin of the lion of León

The tradition says that the Leonese lion is the oldest heraldic emblem in Europe. Ricardo Chao Prieto has made an extensive study on the flag and arms of the Kingdom of León (La bandera medieval del Reino de León, Diario de León, 22 May 2005; La bandera medieval de la corona de León, Banderas [ban], No. 96).

The lion appeared for the first time on coins minted by King Alfonso VII "The Emperor" (1126-1157). Used beforehand by the Kings of León as their symbol, the cross was progressively superseded by the lion. At the end of Alfonso VII's reign, the lion was the personal emblem used by the king to sign official documents; its use was continued by Ferdinand II (1157-1188) and Alfonso IX (1188-1230).

The first written source mentioning the use of the lion as the personal symbol of the King, and, of the Kingdom, is Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris (Chronicle of Alfonso the Emperor). Describing the Royal army besieging Almería, the chronicler writes: "the best of the cavalry from the town of León, bearing standards, unbreakable like a lion [...]. As the lion exceeds all the other animals in repute, the town greatly exceeds all the other towns in honor. Its emblems, which protect it against all evil, are the Emperor's standards and arms; they are covered with gold every time they are raised for the battle".
Accordingly, the Leonese lion is the oldest royal emblem in Europe, being older that the Castilian castle, the English leopards and the French fleur-de-lis.

Other sections of the chronicles describe the hoisting of Royal standards on conquered places, here again the flags are charged with the lion. Whether the lion represented the King or the Kingdom has been a matter of discussion; first, the lion was used to symbolize the sovereign's power, but it is quite clear that the identification of Legio, the Latin name of León, to leo, the Latin name of the lion means that the lion was used as the symbol of the town and of the Kingdom of León. In the aforementioned chronicle, the rhyme legionis / leonis is widely used.

As opposed to the general belief, the historical flag of León was quite different from the modern flags used in the Province. First, the lion was not rampant but passant. All the lions showed on Royal coins and seals are passant, looking either dexter or sinister. The only two exceptions are Ferdinand II and Alfonso IX's shields shown on Tomb "A" in the Santiago Cathedral. On Tomb "A", the lions are represented in purple-purpure color. Alfonso IX's lion seems to be included in a white flag with a light purple border. On the shield bore by the King, the lion has the same color and is placed on a white / argent field. The same colors are used for the two lions passant shown on the tree of the King's saddle.
A purple lion - rampant - on a white field was subsequently used in the quartered coat of arms and flags used by Ferdinand III and Alfonso IX, following the reunification of Castilla y León in 1230.
The Leonese lion was, originally, not crowned. The crown appeared later, on coins and seals representing Sancho IV (1284-1295).

To summarize, the medieval flag of the Kingdom of León was basically made of a purpure lion rampant covering most of the flag's field; the background of the flag was white or very light gray (argent). The Galician, Leonese, Asturian, Extremadurian and Castilian armies fought under this flag in Alfonso VII's times. Following the split of the Kingdom in two parts, León kept the symbols while Castile had to design new ones. The Castilians seem to have used first a simple cross; after the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Leonor Plantagenet, Alfonso VIII's wife, designed the golden castle on a red background. Leonor used emblems similar to those of her lineage, which also allowed a strong contrast with the Leonese symbols on battlefields. After the reunification of the crowns of Castilla y León, León still existed as a Kingdom with some administrative and legal autonomy, at par with the Kingdoms of Castile and Galicia. On the drawing of Charles V's funerary cortege made in 1559 by Jean and Lucas Doetecum, the flag of León is shown as white with a purpure lion rampant crowned or. A plate in Manises ceramics from the 15th century shows a lion with the same colors. It is probable that the flag was used in the whole Kingdom of Castilla y León in solemn circumstances.

The origin of the modern flag of León is unknown. The flag is most probably not as old as usually believed. First, the design of flags with a coat of arms in the middle is a late heraldic tradition. Second, the first description of a banner of that design is credited to Waldo Merino in an act dated 18 February 1789, recorded in Libro de Acuerdos Municipales (Record of Municipal Acts); the town's banner is described as crimson with six escutcheons argent with a lion or. In the 19th century, the banner was renewed for each coronation of a new King, with the number of escutcheons varying. The banner kept today in the Mayor's office, the one mentioned by Merino or a slightly later one, is crimson with a shield bearing a lion rampant in the middle and two smaller escutcheons in the point. This banner must have been used in the 19th century to design the modern Leonese flag.

Ivan Sache, 5 June 2011