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For other uses, see Fleur-de-lis (disambiguation).

The fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys; plural: fleurs-de-lis) is a stylised design of an iris flower which is used both decoratively and symbolically. It may be purely ornamental or it may be "at one and the same time political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic and symbolic",[1] especially in heraldry. While it has appeared on countless European coats of arms and flags over the centuries, the fleur-de-lis is particularly associated with the French monarchy. It is an enduring symbol of France, but, being regarded most notably as the emblem of the monarchy, was not adopted officially by any of the French republics. In North America the fleur-de-lis is often associated with areas formerly settled by France, such as Louisiana and Quebec.

It appears on military insignia and the logos of many different organizations, and during the 20th century it was adopted by various Scouting organizations worldwide for their badges. Architects and designers may use it alone or as a repeated motif in a wide range of contexts, from ironwork to bookbinding. As a religious symbol it may represent the Holy Trinity, or be an iconographic attribute of the archangel Gabriel, notably in representations of the Annunciation.[2] It is also associated with the Virgin Mary.

Louisiana road sign and the fleur-de-lis


Fleur-de-lis is literally translated from French as "flower of the lily", and is widely thought to be a stylized version of the species Iris pseudacorus. Decorative ornaments that resemble the fleur-de-lis have appeared in the artwork from the earliest civilizations.

"The use for ornamental or symbolic purposes of the stylised flower usually called fleur de lis is common to all eras and all civilisations. It is an essentially graphic theme found on Mesopotamian cylinders, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenean potteries, Sassanid textiles, Gaulish coins, Mameluk coins, Indonesian clothes, Japanese emblems and Dogon totems. The many writers who have discussed the topic agree that it has little to do graphically with the lily, but disagree on whether it derives from the iris, the broom, the lotus or the furze, or whether it represents a trident, an arrowhead, a double axe, or even a dove or a pigeon. It is in our opinion a problem of little importance. The essential point is that it is a very stylised figure, probably a flower, that has been used as an ornament or an emblem by almost all civilisations of the old and new worlds."[3]

It has consistently been used as a royal emblem, though different cultures have interpreted its meaning in varying ways. Gaulish coins show the first designs which look similar to modern fleurs-de-lis.[4]

Royal symbol

15th century picture of an angel sending the fleurs-de-lis to Clovis

King Clovis I

According to legend, the French monarchy first adopted the fleur-de-lis for their royal coat of arms as a symbol of purity on the conversion of the Frankish King Clovis I to the Christian religion in 493.[5] The story takes various forms, many of which relate to Clovis' conversion, and support the claim of the anointed Kings of France that their authority came directly from God, without the mediation of either the Emperor or the Pope.

Some versions of the legend enhance the mystique of royalty by describing a vial of oil sent from heaven to anoint and sanctify Clovis as king,[6] perhaps brought by a dove to Saint Remigius. Another variation says a lily appeared at Clovis' baptismal ceremony as a gift of blessing from an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is often associated with the flower.[7] Clovis' Burgundian wife, Clothilda, later to be Saint Clothilda, is usually significant in these stories. As well as her part in encouraging her husband to become a Christian, her presence helps emphasise the importance of Burgundy's support for the monarch.[8]

A story which places less emphasis on Christianity and the divine right of the French kings tells of Clovis putting a flower in his helmet just before his victory at the Battle of Vouillé, leading him to choose the fleur-de-lis as a royal symbol.[9]

From Frankish to French kings

French arms before 1376

Through this connection to Clovis, the fleur-de-lis has been taken to symbolize all the Christian Frankish kings, most famously Charlemagne. In the 14th century French writers asserted that the monarchy of France, which developed from the Kingdom of the West Franks, could trace its heritage back to the divine gift of royal arms received by Clovis. This story has remained popular, even though scepticism started in the 17th century and modern scholarship has established that the fleur-de-lis was a religious symbol before it was a true heraldic symbol.[10] Along with true lilies, it was associated with the Virgin Mary, and in the 12th century Louis VI and Louis VII started to use the emblem, on sceptres for example, so connecting their rulership with this symbol of saintliness. Louis VII ordered the use of fleur-de-lis clothing in his son Philip's coronation in 1179,[11] while the first visual evidence of clearly heraldic use dates from 1211: a seal showing the future Louis VIII and his shield strewn with the "flowers".[12] Until the late 14th century the French royal coat of arms was Azure semé-de-lys Or (a blue shield "seeded" (semé) with small golden fleurs-de-lis), but Charles V of France changed the design from an all-over scattering to a group of three in about 1376. These two coats are known in heraldic jargon as France Ancient and France Modern respectively.

In the reign of King Louis IX (St. Louis) the three petals of the flower were said to represent faith, wisdom and chivalry, and to be a sign of divine favour bestowed on France.[13] During the next century, the 14th, the tradition of Trinity symbolism was established in France, and then spread elsewhere.

In 1328, King Edward III of England inherited a claim to the crown of France, and about 1340 he accordingly quartered France Ancient with the arms of the Kingdom of England. After the kings of France adopted France Modern, the kings of England imitated them from about 1411.[14] The monarchs of England (and later of Great Britain) continued to quarter the French arms until 1801, when George III abandoned his formal claim to the French throne.

French arms after 1376

France Modern remained the French royal standard, and with a white background was the French national flag until the French Revolution, when it was replaced by the tricolor of modern-day France. The fleur-de-lis was restored to the French flag in 1814, but replaced once again after the revolution against Charles X of France in 1830. In a very strange turn of events after the end of the French Second Empire, where a flag apparently influenced the course of history, Henri, Comte de Chambord, was offered the throne as King of France, but he would agree only on condition that the French give up the tricolor and bring back the white flag with fleurs-de-lis.[15] His condition was rejected and France became a republic.

France Modern was also on the coat of arms of the old French province of Île-de-France (for instance, as a badge on the uniforms of the local gendarmerie).

Other European monarchs and rulers

Fleurs-de-lis feature prominently in the Crown Jewels of England and Scotland. In English heraldry, they are used in many different ways, and can be the cadency mark of the sixth son. The tressure flory-counterflory (flowered border) has been a prominent part of the design of the Scottish royal arms and flag since James I of Scotland.

The treasured fleur-de-luce he claims
To wreathe his shield, since royal James

–Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel[16]
Fleur-de-lis of Florence

In Florentine fleurs-de-lis, the stamens are always posed between the petals. This heraldic charge is often known as the Florentine lily to distinguish it from the conventional design. As an emblem of the city, it is therefore found in icons of the bishop Zenobius.[17] The currency of Florence, the fiorino, was decorated with it, and it influenced the appearance and name of the Hungarian forint and other florins. Elsewhere in Italy, fleurs-de-lis have been used for some papal crowns and coats of arms, and by some doges of Venice.

The fleur-de-lis was also the symbol of the house of Kotromanic, a ruling house in medieval Bosnia where the flower is thought of as a Lilium bosniacum. It was used on the Bosnia and Herzegovina flag between 1992 and 1998. Other countries using the emblem heraldically include Serbia and Spain in recognition of the Bourbons. The heraldic fleur-de-lis is widespread: among the numerous cities which use it as a symbol are some whose names echo the word 'lily', for example, Lille, France and Liljendahl, Finland. This is called canting arms in heraldic terminology. As a dynastic emblem it has also been very widely used: not only by noble families but also, for example, by the Fuggers medieval banking family.

North America

Fleurs-de-lis crossed the Atlantic along with Europeans going to the New World, especially with French settlers, and these are now used for the flags of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Detroit and elsewhere. The Acadiana region and various cities in southern Louisiana, such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, also use the fleur-de-lis. So do several places whose name came from one of the French King Louis: amongst them, Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri where the three-petalled symbol also denotes the convergence of three rivers (the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois).

Symbolism in religion and art

File:Albarello fleur-de-lys Louvre UCAD4288.jpg
Fleur-de-lis on 14th century Syrian albarello.

In the Middle Ages the symbols of lily and fleur-de-lis (lis is French for "lily") overlapped considerably in religious art. Michel Pastoureau, the historian, says that until about 1300 they were found in depictions of Jesus, but gradually they took on Marian symbolism and were associated with the Song of Solomon's "lily among thorns" (lilium inter spinas), understood as a reference to Mary. Other scripture and religious literature in which the lily symbolizes purity and chastity also helped establish the flower as an iconographic attribute of the Virgin.

In medieval England, from the mid-12th century, a noblewoman's seal often showed the lady with a fleur-de-lis, drawing on the Marian connotations of "female virtue and spirituality".[18] Images of Mary holding the flower first appeared in the 11th century on coins issued by cathedrals dedicated to her, and next on the seals of cathedral chapters, starting with Notre Dame de Paris in 1146. A standard portrayal was of Mary carrying the flower in her right hand, just as she is shown in that church's Virgin of Paris statue (with lily), and in the centre of the stained glass rose window (with fleur-de-lis sceptre) above its main entrance. The flowers may be "simple fleurons, sometimes garden lilies, sometimes genuine heraldic fleurs-de-lis".[19] As attributes of the Madonna, they are often seen in pictures of the Annunciation, famously in those of Botticelli and Filippo Lippi. Lippi also uses both flowers in other related contexts: for instance, in his Madonna in the Forest.

The three petals of the heraldic design reflect a widespread association with the Holy Trinity,[20] a tradition going back to 14th century France,[21] added onto the earlier belief that they also represented faith, wisdom and chivalry.

"Flower of light" symbolism has sometimes been understood from the archaic variant fleur-de-luce (see Latin lux, luc- = "light"), but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests this arose from the spelling, not from the etymology.[22]

Modern usage

Fleurs-de-lis in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005
Also see North America section above.

Some modern usage of the fleur-de-lis reflects "the continuing presence of heraldry in everyday life", often intentionally, but also when users are not aware that they are "prolonging the life of centuries-old insignia and emblems".[23]

Fleurs-de-lis feature on military badges like those of the Israeli Intelligence Corps and the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force . They may be chosen for sports teams, especially when it echoes a local flag, as with the former Quebec Nordiques NHL hockey team and the New Orleans Saints football team, and in coats of arms and logos for universities (like the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Saint Louis University in Missouri), schools (in St. Peter, Minnesota) and companies (like the Royal Elastics shoe company).

The symbol may be used in less traditional ways. After Hurricane Katrina many New Orleanians of varying ages and backgrounds were tattooed with "one of its cultural emblems" as a "memorial" of the storm, according to a researcher at Tulane University.[24] The US Navy Blue Angels have named an elegant looping flight demonstration manoeuver after the flower, and it can be found on various album covers, notably as a symbol for heavy metal band Stratovarius who are identified with the image of a fleur-de-lis in flames.

Symbol of Scouting


The World Crest of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, elements of which are used by most national Scout organizations

The fleur-de-lis is the main element in the logo of most Scouting organizations, representing a major theme in Scouting: the outdoors and wilderness.[25] The three petals or leaves represent the three-fold promise of the Scouting organization (Duty to self and others, to God and country, and to the Scout Law) in much the same way as the three leaves of the trefoil represent the threefold promise for the Guides. The symbol is also often used on a compass rose to mark the north direction, a tradition started by Flavio Gioja. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement, explained that the Scouts adopted the fleur-de-lis symbol from its use in the compass rose because it "points in the right direction (and upwards) turning neither to the right nor left, since these lead backward again".

In literature

The symbol has featured in modern fiction on historical and mystical themes, as in the successful Da Vinci Code and other books discussing the Priory of Sion. It recurs in French literature, where examples well-known in English translation include the Fleur de Lys character in the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, and the reference in Dumas' The Three Musketeers to the old custom of branding a criminal with the sign. (Fleurdeliser in French). In Elizabethan English literature it is a standard name for an iris, a usage which lasted for centuries,[26], but occasionally refers to lilies or other flowers.

The lilly, Ladie of the flowring field,
The Flowre-deluce, her louely Paramoure
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1590[27]

See also


  1. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning translated by Francisca Garvie (Thames and Hudson 1997), ISBN 0-500-30074-7, p.98
  2. Hall, James (1974). Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-433316-7. p.124.
  3. Michel Pastoureau (2006) Traité d'Héraldique, "Treatise on Heraldry", translated by François R. Velde
  4. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.99
  5. Lewis, Philippa & Darley, Gillian (1986) Dictionary of Ornament
  6. Ralph E. Giesey, Models of Rulership in French Royal Ceremonial in Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics Since the Middle Ages ed. Wilentz (Princeton 1985) p43
  7. A.C. Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry (London 1909) p273
  8. British Library commentary on the legend presented in the Bedford Book of Hours.
  9. François R. Velde
  10. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.99-100
  11. Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry p274
  12. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.100
  13. Chronicles of Guillaume de Nangis quoted in Nouvelle collection des mémoires pour servir a l'histoire de France (1839)]
  14. Fox-Davies
  15. Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History, translator Maarten Ultee, (Routledge 1991) p.267
  16. Sir Walter Scott (1833) The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott, Volume 1 of 7, Canto Fourth, VIII, NY: Conner and Cooke
  17. Hall, James (1974). Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-433316-7. p.124.
  18. Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester 2003) p130
  19. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.100
  20. F.R.Webber, Church Symbolism 1938 (Kessinger 2003) p.178
  21. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.99
  22. A "fanciful derivation", Oxford English Dictionary (1989)
  23. Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: its origins and meaning p.93-94
  24. Times-Picayune, July 16 2006
  25. Walton, Mike The World Crest Badge...(and why do we *all* wear it?). 1999.
  26. OED
  27. Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene 2:vi

External links


bg:Хералдическа лилия ca:Flor de lis he:פרח החבצלת no:Lilje (figur) pl:Fleur-de-lis