Completing our line-up of coronation beasts is the Griffin of Edward III, a mythical creature with a long history and fascinating symbolism.
Griffins originate in the ancient world, appearing in Iranian and Egyptian art as old as civilisation itself. A compound of the lion and the eagle, they have the body, tail and hind legs of a lion, and the head, wings and often the forelegs of an eagle. By conjoining the king of beasts to that of birds, a creature is formed that has greater courage, power and strength than either.
A guardian of gold
Legends describe the griffin as a large, fierce and powerful creature, with immense strength, capable of carrying off an elephant, or an armed warrior and his horse; characteristics that give it an impressive and dangerous grandeur. Early civilisations used the griffin as a protective talisman to ward off evil, and also as a guardian to protect sacred or valuable objects. For the ancient Greeks, griffins were found in the distant north or in the deserts of Asia, in a land where gold was found underground; griffins guarded the gold, and perhaps made nests from it. They also featured in Greek and Roman mythology as servants and symbols of Apollo, god of the sun, and could be seen drawing his chariot.
Later, Roman writers Pliny and Solinus drew earlier accounts together, writing of a region in Asia with abundant gold and jewels, but which was uninhabitable because griffins blocked access to the mines. Solinus thought that they were so dangerous and fearsome that it was as if they existed purely to punish men so greedy and rash as to try to steal these treasures.
A watchful sentinel
This account of the griffin as an invincible treasure guardian and a symbolic warning against greed, influenced later medieval writers. An exotic bird of remarkable characteristics, to these authors the griffin was also evidence of the amazing creative power of God. Doubly royal and strong, it remained a guardian and sentinel, being found on roofs and doors. As with other medieval monsters, the claws and eggs of griffins had spiritual or medicinal powers and were highly prized; they could detect the presence of poison for example.
The griffin could be interpreted as a symbol of Christ, with the eagle parts representing his divinity and the remainder his flesh-and-blood humanity. As a political symbol, it could be a means to demonstrate violence in the service of peace and justice: the power of a king combined with the power of the people. This had particular resonance in England, where the evolving constitution of the later middle ages saw parliaments and kings wielding power together.
A royal beast
The griffin appears in English heraldry from the twelfth century onwards, and first entered royal service as a beast of Edward III (1327–77). He is known to have had bed linen and robes embroidered with griffins. In 1360 he had a complete bed of blue worked with red griffins, and another of green worked with red griffins and white columbines. Most significant, however, was Edward III’s use of a signet seal called ‘the griffin’. A seal was the most powerful and authoritative expression of royal identity. This seal, bearing the image of a griffin, was used by the king for certain types of business for twenty years until 1354.
A symbol of power and leadership, the griffin continued to be used as a royal badge after Edward III’s death in 1377. Richard II used it as a royal beast on plate and jewellery, and following a joust in 1390, 16 knights appeared, each bearing a silver griffin on a red shield. The griffin appeared to fall out of favour as a royal beast after 1400, although a portrait of Henry VI from about 1458 shows the coat of arms of the king supported by two griffins; and some instances appear on later royal plate.
The Order of the Garter
Centuries later, the griffin remains powerfully evocative of Edward III. The epitome of medieval English kingship, Edward founded the Order of the Garter based at Windsor Castle – the fortress that forms the centrepiece of the badge of the modern-day House of Windsor. It was because of this link that the griffin appeared as one of James Woodford’s original Queen’s Beast sculptures at the coronation of Her Majesty The Queen in 1953.
You can view Jody Clark’s modern interpretation of the Griffin of Edward III on the latest coins in The Queen’s Beasts Collection.