The City of London, the mile square area that roughly constitutes the Roman settlement of Londinium in the 1st century AD and is commonly referred to as “The City” is guarded by a fearsome creature.
The City’s coat of arms depicts two of these, for they are the London Dragons. The use of them as an emblem is recorded at the College of Arms as being of Time in memorium, that is being beyond memory or record. The first documented use is on a seal designed for the then Lord Mayor William Walworth in 1381.
These fantastic beasts are employed all around The City in emblems, moldings and stone carvings, but it is at the points that demarcate the entry across The City’s boundaries that they are at their fiercest. The Celts believed in dragons and used its symbol to portray strength and power. In mythical legends, dragons were associated with protection and defense—and in medieval romance stories they guarded captive women.
The best example of this is the tall, black Dragon who menacingly stands guard on Fleet Street at Temple Bar, which stands on the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster. Temple Bar is probably the most important gateway into The City as it was the point where the Lord Mayor would welcome the ruling monarch. The present incumbent was designed by Charles Birch in 1880.
Shirley (think about it), as I have always affectionately known him/her is supported by twelve smaller brothers or sisters spread across the boundaries of The City.
Apparently the design for these smaller sentinels came from two earlier seven foot high Dragons who used to adorn the entrance to the Coal Exchange near Billingsgate (Demolished in 1962 and nothing short of an act of vandalism by the City of London Corporation.) These two were put out to pasture (if that’s the correct term) and now spend their days protecting the boundary at Temple Gardens on the Victoria Embankment.
The modern day boundary guardians are smaller than their Coal Exchange cousins and are painted silver with fiery red tongues. They clutch the shield from the City of London coat of arms.
In a strange twist, these stalwart defenders of The City have an overseas relative. When the previous London Bridge was demolished and shipped over to Lake Havasu City in the USA to be rebuilt in 1971, it was decided that a replica of the dragon who guarded the bridge should go with it. And there he/she stands bathed in Arizona sunshine, probably a climate closer to a Dragons heart.