Stained glass window in the shape of a fleur-de-lys, Bourges cathedral, 15th c. Note the various themes: the Trinity, which the 3 petals were understood to recall, is represented; angels are bearing the shield as they are supporters of the arms of France, the dove descending from heaven recalls the legend of the baptism of Clovis when a dove brought the sacred ointment to Saint Remigius.
The origin of the fleur de lis has been debated for centuries. There are a number of inter-related questions with respect to the fleur-de-lis:
This article provides answers and clues. My personal opinion is as follows:
A bonus of this theory is that the yellow flag is also called "flambe" or "flamme" in old French, which links it very nicely to the oriflamme.
As will be shown later, they were Azure, a semis of fleur-de-lis or since 1200 or perhaps even 1170-80. They were changed to Azure, 3 fleur-de-lis or in 1376, by order of Charles V the Wise. It is sometimes said that the reason was to spite the English King, who bore quarterly France Ancient and England, and differentiate the arms of France from that claimed by England. I am pretty sure the arms of France were shown with 3 fleur-de-lys prior to that, and possibly prior to the Hundred Years War, for esthetic reasons. But it's an interesting idea.
Here is a loose translation from translation Michel Pastoureau: Traité d'Héraldique, Paris, 1979.
"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.
The oldest known examples of fleur-de-lis similar to those used in the Medieval Western world and in modern times can be found on assyrian bas-reliefs from the 3d millenium BC. It is found on tiaras, necklaces, scepters, and seems already to play the role of royal attribute. Those found a little later in Crete, India and Egypt probably have a similar meaning. In numismatics, we find the fleur-de-lis on a few Greek coins and on several Roman coins from the Republic (mark of monetary magistrates) or the Empire (attribute of Hope) and especially on Gaulish coins. [The book shows three coins: a Gaulish coin (1st c. AD), a Mameluk coin (1390) and a coin of Louis VI of France (1110-30), all displaying an unmistakable fleur-de-lis (at least the upper-half of one, and a sort of triangle in the lower-half).] Whereas, in Greek and Roman coins, it is a fleuron of variable shape, in the Celtic case it is a true heraldic fleur-de-lis as it reappears in the 13th c.
While retaining its value as royal attribute, the fleur-de-lis acquires in the high Middle Ages a strong Christic meaning, stemming from (among others) the famous verse of the Song of Solomon (2:1): "ego flos campi et lilium convallium" many times repeated and commented from Saint Jerome to Saint Bernard. Therefore it is not rare, until the end of the 12th c., to see Christ represented amidst more or less stylised lilies or fleurons, whose design could also recall the Trinity of the Chrismon (Christ's monogram). Then, slowly, on this Christic content is added a Marial symbolic, linked to the development of the Cult of Mary, and to which the next verse of the Song of Solomon is related (2:2): "sicut lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias" as well as many parts of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, where the lily is presented as symbol of purity, virginity and chastity. In iconography, the lily becomes a favorite attribute of the Virgin Mary and will remain so until the 16th c.
The origin of fleur-de-lis adopted as heraldic emblems by the Kings of France is a problem that has elicited much discussion. From the middle of the 14th c, several works (mostly designed to legitimize the Valois claims on the throne, against Edward III of England), explain that the king of France "bears arms of three fleur-de-lis as sign of the blessed Trinity, sent by God through His angel to Clovis, first Christian king... telling him to erase the three crescents he bore on his arms and replace them with the fleur-de-lis." This legend reappears at the end of the 15th c, but this time the alleged arms born by Clovis before his baptism are not azure, three crescents or but azure, three toads or. Significantly, at the end of the Middle Ages, Clovis' paganism is not represented by a Muslim symbol (crescent) but a demonic one (toad). In any case, it is only in the 17th c that this legendary origin of the fleur-de-lys began to be subject to the criticism of scholars. The famous Scevole de Sainte-Marthe seems to be the first to assert that the fleur-de-lys appeared on the shield only under Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) or Louis VIII (1223-26). However, until the end of the 19th c writers continued to profer the most fanciful opinions on the subject. Today, Sainte-Marthe's opinion cannot be denied anymore: it is known that there are no coats of arms before 1130-1140, and the king of France was no the first to adopt a coat. H. Pinoteau's work of the past 30 years have shed definitive light on the subject: although we have no iconographic testimony of the coat azure, semy of fleur-de-lys or by a king of France before Louis VIII (on a stained glass window in Chartres of 1230; Louis VIII did bear the coat before becoming king, on a seal of 1211), several chroniclers contemporary of Philippe Auguste report that he used a banner with these arms, and his seal shows that as early as 1180 he used a fleur-de-lys as emblem. [example of an official of the royal demesne bearing the coat on his 1207 seal, and a cousin of the king augmenting Courtenay with a shield of France Ancient on a 1210 seal. It may even have been adopted by Louis VII (1154-80).]
[The seals of Philip Augustus clearly have a single fleur-de-lys on the reverse as of 1180. Before that, from 1050 at least, the seals of French kings show them sitting, holding a sceptre in their left hand and what looks like a fleur-de-lis in their right hand. The head of the sceptre is a lozenge, but often the fleurons on the crown (3 of them) look like fleur-de-lys.]
It remains to know why the king of France adopted the fleur-de-lys as an emblem when all other sovereigns of Europe chose animals. The reason seems twofold: on the one hand this flower had always retained its role as attribute of sovereignty: it is in this capacity that it appears on several royal Carolingian and Ottonian attributes, on the scepter of Capetian kings since Robert (996-1031), on the reverse of Louis VI coins (early 12th c) and even on coins of Lothaire (954-986). On the other hand, the flower acquired a strong religious meaning, either Christic or Marial; it is probably under the influence of saint Bernard and Suger that Louis VII (who was with Saint Louis the most pious king of France) adopeted this emblem which symbolized both the royal dignity and Christian piety of his person and his lineage.
[discussion of other families with the fleur-de-lys on their coat.]
The design of the fleur-de-lys has always been relatively stable and since the 13th c the heraldic vocabulary used adjectives or phrases to specify the design when it varied from the usual one. The most ancient variation is the fleur-de-lys 'au pied nourri', i.e. without the lower part, everything under the horizontal bar apparently cut off. Old French also calls this fleur-de-lys 'en lonc' or 'a pié coupé'. Sometimes the lower part is represented but in a triangular shape: it is then called 'au pied posé'. These two variants appear in the North of France and the Netherlands. Towards the middle of the 13th c, some seals represent the fleur-de-lys in a more naturalistic fashion: it has stamina between the petals, and the petals end with arabesques, as if one was trying to evoke the last stage of bloom. Such a flower is called épanouie or florencée, that of Florence being the most famous example [Lille also bears the fleur-de-lys épanouie]."
"Of all the floral devices used in Heraldry the most famous is the fleur-de-lis now generally identified with the iris. Its floral character has been altogether denied by some writers who have professed to trace its origin to the head of a lance, spear or sceptre, to an architectural finial; to a frog, bee, a sacred monogram, etc. (The student who is interested will find all suggestions stated, and refuited, in the excellent work of M. Rey: Histoire du Drapeau, Paris, 1837, and can hardly failed to be surprised at the prodigious number of treatises which have been published on the subject).
It is at first sight so difficult to explain the reason why, when other great potentates were assuming for their armorial emblems the lion, the eagle, etc, the sovereigns of France should have preferred the apparently humble iris-flower, that we are hardly surprised to find the fact accounted for by the tradition that it was brought from heaven itself by an angel to Clovis, King of France, on the occasion of his baptism, as a special mark of favor on the part of the Blessed Virgin, whose peculiar symbol the lily has always been, The tradition has many variations of place and circumstance. It is, however, somewhat surprising to find that the French bishops at the Council of Trent, when disputing for the precedence of their sovereign, fortified their claim by alleging that the King of France had received the fleur-de-lis direct from heaven: Gallorum regem unctum esse et lilia divinitus accepisse!
The most probable explanation of the origin of the fleur-de-lis as a device of the Kings of France is that put forth by M. Rey, which has received the approval of Mr Planche, "that the fleur de lys, or flower de luce was merely a rebus signifying fleur de Louis." Up to the time of Louis VII the kings of that name (identical with Clovis) called themselves, and signed themselves, Loi"s or Loys. Even after the name had settled into its present form, Loys was still the signature of the kings of France up to the time of Louis XIII (1610-43). Loys, or Louis VII received from his father the surname Florus.
The coins of Louis VI and Louis VII are the earliest on which the fleur-de-lys appears. But it also appears at that time on the coins of Florence (a city which wad the mint of many European sovereigns, and whence the name florin is derived). M. Rey, in view of these facts, inquires: "Can we not say then, that the coincidence of the surname Florus with the name of Loys or lis, of that of Florence with that of fleur de lis, of all these names and surnames, gave rise to the formation of the name of our illustrious emblem?"
M. Rey traces the fleur-de-lys as an artistic ornament to very early times; centuries antecedent to its adoption as an armorial design. (It is curious that on a coin of Hadrian, Gaul is personified by a woman bearing in her hand a lily: the legend is restitutori Galliae.) On a medal of Galba the fleur-de-lis forms the head of a sceptre. Montfaucon gives an example from an ancient diptych in which the crown of the empress Placidia (daughter of the emperor Theodosius the Great), who died in 450, is enseigned with a fleur-de-lys. These, and a multitude of other early instances, are given in the plates by M. Rey, to whose work I refer again the curious reader. In France, as in many other countries, the sceptre borne by the prince was, at a very early date, ornamented by a flora lemblem, varying in detail but bearing a general resemblance to the fleur-de-lys of later times.
The seals of the emperors Henry I (d. 1024) and Conrad II (d. 1039) afford early illustrations of the custom (see Glafey, specimen decadem sigillorum, Leipzig 1749; Roemer-Büchner, Die Siegel der deutschen Kaiser, Frankfurt am Main, 1851). In France the germ of the armorial fleur-de-lys can be traced to the fleurons which adorn the sceptres and crowns of Henri I, Philippe I and Louis VI (11-12th c.). A signet of Louis VII bears a fleur-de-lys florencee, but the charge first takes a definite heraldic shape on the seals of Philippe Augustus (d. 1223); whose great seal represents him crowned with an open crown of fleurons and holding in his right hand a fleur-de-lys (several of his successors are similaryl represented), in his left a sceptre surmounted by a lozenge charged with the like emblem. On his counterseal is engraved in an oval a fleur-de-lis entirely of the heraldic shape. (M. Demay, in his book vited in previous pages, points out, pp. 194-196, the analogy which exists between the fleurons, held in the hand, or surmounting the sceptre as well as adorning the crown, to the effigies of the blessed Virgin depicted on the seal of the Chapter of Notre Dame at Paris in 1146, and on that of the abbey of Faremoutiers in 1197, with those born by St.Louis in 1226). On the occasion of the coronation of his son Philip (in his own lifetime) the king, Louis VII, regulated the details of the ceremony, and among other things prescribed that the prince should wear "ses chausses...en soye couleur bleu azure semée en moult endroit de fleurs de lys d'or, puis aussi sa dalmatique de meme couleur et oeuvre" (Gourdon de Genouilhac, l'Art Héraldique, p.224)."
I will mention an amusing legend, according to which Clovis, on his way to fight the king of Aquitania Alaric, and defeat him at Vouille near Poitiers (in 507), was searching in vain for a ford to cross a river, when a doe, frightened by the soldiers, jumped across the river along a ford that it only knew. The whole army then followed. On the banks, wild yellow irises grew in abundance: Clovis came off his horse, picked one and put it on his helmet as a symbol of his future victory. Thereafter did the kings of France use the fleur de lis as their emblem. The story is of course fanciful, but a nice one (somewhat reminiscent of the manner in which Attila found his way to Europe, actually).
from Henry Correvon: Fleur des eaux et des marais; Neuchâtel (Suisse), 1961: Editions Delachaux & Niestle.
"Let us discuss now the iris, of which there are very interesting aquatic species. The marsh plant par excellence, at least in our regions, is the Water iris (iris des eaux), Iris Pseudoacorus, whose bright yellow large flowers bloom from June to September all across Europe, Western Asia and North Africa.... [He goes on to tell the story of Clovis fording the river which I narrated previously and concludes:] the flag of the Kings of France then represented three of these iris flowers. In England this flower is known as 'flagflower'. "
Separated at birth: a fleur-de-lys and an iris, both spotted in Florence, Italy.
The first use of the word "iris" in French is in a 13th c. manuscript, Le Livre des Medecines Simples, where it says: "iris porte roge flor et ireos blanches." The word existed before, to name a prism, or rock through which the light diffracts into a rainbow (here the etymology is clear: Iris, messenger of the Gods). How it came to designate the plant I don't know (ref: Godefroy: Dictionnaire de l'Ancienne Langue Francaise, vol. 10, Kraus reprints, 1969).
The first instance of the word "lis", plural of an unattested "lil" from Latin lilium, is around 1150 for the flower. The word is often found as metonymy for the lily flower, and used in numerous metaphors for whiteness, purity, etc. For example, in Erec et Enéide by Chrestien de Troyes (ca. 1170): "plus ot que n'est la flor de lis, Cler et blanc le front et le vis" (forehead and face pale and white more than the lily flower) (example taken from: Tobler-Lommatzsch: Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch). The word fleur de lis is also used as metaphor for the Virgin Mary (1223). First clear-cut use of the word "fleur de lis" in its heraldic acception is in 1225 in Durmart le Gallois, although Victor Gay (Glossaire Archéologique du Moyen-Âge, vol. 1, Paris, 1887) claims that the word is used in an ordnance of Louis VII (1137-1180), without giving any reference.
What is really strange is that the lily was such a constant metaphor for whiteness, and would become a golden charge. As mentioned before, lilies are usually white, not yellow.
What about the English language? What follows are edited OED entries. It appears that:
What to make of it? The late date for the use of fleur-de-lis in English to designate the flower makes me suspect that, here, the charge came first and the name was applied to the flower because of the formal resemblance.
iris , sb. Pl. irides , irises. [a. Gr. iris, stem irid-. The senses (except 3 and 6) correspond to those of the Gr. word; so also Fr. iris. The pl. irides is chiefly used in sense 4.] 1. Gr. Myth. The goddess who acted as the messenger of the gods, and was held to display as her sign, or appear as, the rainbow; hence, allusively, a messenger. 2. a. A rainbow; a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water. b. transf. A rainbow-like or iridescent appearance; a circle or halo of prismatic colours; a combination or alternation of brilliant colours. c. fig. 3. a. A hexagonal prismatic crystal (mentioned by Pliny Nat. Hist.) 4. a. Anat. b. (transf.) Entom. c. Photogr. = iris-diaphragm; 5. Bot. A genus of plants, the type of the natural order Iridaceae, natives of Europe, N. Africa, and the temperate regions of Asia and America; most of the species have tuberous (less commonly bulbous or fibrous) roots, sword-shaped equitant leaves, and showy flowers; formerly often called Fleur-de-lis or Flower-de-luce. Also, a plant of this genus.blue iris, Iris germanica, the German Flag, a common cultivated species; fetid iris, the Gladden, Iris foetidissima; Florentine iris = white iris; stinking iris = fetid iris; white iris, Iris florentina, from which orrisroot is obtained; yellow iris, the Yellow Flag, Iris Pseudacorus, the common British species. 1562 Turner Herbal. ii. 23 a, Iris is knowen both of the Grecianes and Latines by that name; it is called..in Englishe flour de lyce. 1578 Lyte Dodoens ii. xxxv. 192 There be many kindes of Iris, or floure Deluce. 1578 Lyte Dodoens 193 The Irides or flower Deluces do most commonly flower about May.
fleur-de-lis , flower-de-luce . Forms: &ia.. 4-6 flour(e-de-lys(e, -lice, -lyce, (pl. -lycis), 7 -lis, 5-7 -luce, pl. -luces, 6 floredelise, Sc. 5 flour(e-the-lis, -lys. &ib.. 6-9 flower-, (6 flowre-)de-luce, (pl. -luces), 6-7 -lice, (pl. -lices), 6 -lyce, 8 -lys, 7-9 -lis. &ig.. 8-9 fleur-de-lys, 9 -lis, pl. 7 fleur-de-lysses, -lyzes, 9 fleurs-de-lis, -lys, -luce. [The prevailing form is a. mod.Fr. fleur de lis , formerly lys; but this form is scarcely found in Eng. before the 19th c.; see above. The form flower-de-luce survives as a poetical archaism and in U.S. The Fr. is literally `lily-flower' from lis, formerly lys, in OFr. liz for lils lily, the s of the nom. sing. being retained in the oblique cases; the English spelling de-lice, de-lyce, was in its origin merely graphic (cf. price, mice, syce, etc.), but in the 16th c. was associated with a fanciful etymology flos deliciae, and the form deluce, de luce apparently also leaned upon a fanciful derivation. Occasional English forms were deluce, delyce flowre.] 1. The flower of a plant of the genus Iris (esp. I. pseudacorus); the plant itself. Cf. flag sb.1 1. 13.. E.E. Allit. P. A. 752 &Th.y colour passez &th.e flour-de-lys. A. 1400 Hymn Virg. vi. in Warton Hist. Eng. Poetry x. (1840) II. 110 Heil fairer then the flour de lys. C. 1475 Rauf Coil&ygh.ear 670 Flowris with Flourdelycis formest in feir. 1500-20 Dunbar Thistle & Rose 138 Lat no netill vyle..Hir fallow to the gudly flour delyce. 1590 Spenser F.Q. ii. vi. 16 The lilly, lady of the flowring field, The flowre-deluce, her lovely paramoure. 1699 Bentley Phal. Pref. 104 The Muses are invited to come under the shadow of Flower-de-luces. 1731-37 Miller Gard. Dict. (ed. 3) s.v. Iris, Iris purpurea..Common purple Fleur-de-Lys. 1837 Campbell Lines in La Perouse's Voy. Poet. Wks. 298 When, rapt in fancy..I..plucked the fleur-de-lys by Jesso's streams. 1866 Longf. Flower-de-luce viii, O flower-de-luce, bloom on, and let the river linger to kiss thy feet! b. fig. 1500-20 Dunbar Ballat Our Lady 42 Haile, fair fresche flour-de-lyce! 2. The heraldic lily; a device supposed by some to have originally represented an iris, by others the top of a sceptre, of a battle-axe or other weapon. It is best known from having been borne upon the royal arms of France under the old monarchy. C. 1400 Melayne 94 Wende thy waye..To Charles that beris the flour delyce. 1488 in Ld. Treas. Acc. Scotl. I. 81 Item ane vche of gold like a flourethelis of diamantis. 1529 Rastell Pastyme (1811) 75, .iii. floure delyse in a feld asure was sent to Kyng Clouys from hevyn for his armys. 1622 Malynes Anc. Law-Merch. 189 The French Kings Tent with the three Flowerdeluces. 1709 Addison Tatler No. 161 &page.9 A bloody Flag, embroidered with Flower-de Luces. 1843 Lytton Last Bar. ii. ii, A lofty head-gear, embroidered with fleur-de-lis. 1851 Layard Pop. Acc. Discov. Nineveh vii. 163 The first god wears the square horned cap, surmounted by a point, or fleur-de-lys. b. The royal arms of France; hence also the French royal family, the French flag (before 1789), the French nation or government.
flag , sb.1 Also 4-7 flagg(e, (5 flegge). [Of obscure origin; cf. Dutch flag, occurring in Bible 1637, Job viii. 11 margin (the Eng. Bible has the same word in this passage), also mod.Da. flaeg (in Dansk Ordb. 1802, but not found in MDa., which has flae, flaede in the same sense).] 1. a. One of various endogenous plants, with a bladed or ensiform leaf, mostly growing in moist places. Now regarded as properly denoting a member of the genus Iris (esp. I. pseudacorus) but sometimes (as in early use) applied to any reed or rush. [cited 1387 Trevisa Higden (Rolls) IV. 157] b. With words indicating the species, as garden flag (Iris germanica); sweet smelling flag, spicewort (Acorus Calamus); water flag, yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus). Also corn-flag. 1580 Baret Alv. F 639 The water Flagge, or the yellowe wild Iris.
In his dictionary (s.v. fleur-de-lis) Furetière mentions a hypothesis put forth by Godefridus Henschenius, a Flemish Jesuit priest (1601-81): he claims that the fleur-de-lis represents the yellow flag (Iris Pseudacorus) and mentions that the name of that flower in German is "Lieskblume": that's how Furetière writes it.
It took me a while to figure out that he meant Lieschblume. As it turns out, according to the Brockhaus Encyclopedia, the word Liesch (also found as Leesch and Lees) designates a number of plants of the reed family, and also reed-shaped plants, like (among others) the gelbe Schwertlilie. Now Lilie is lilly, Schwertlilie is iris, and gelbe Schwertlilie (yellow iris literally) is the Iris Pseudacorus, the native wild iris of Europe. In Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch (Leipzig, 1885, vol. 7), liesch is said to have appeared in many forms in the Middle Ages and in dialects: lisch, lüsch, lies, liesz, liesze, lieyes, leys (the last two in "niederrheinisch", Lower-Rhine dialect I presume). Also, Grimm translate Lieschblume as "flos iridis, flos gladioli".
So Lieschblume is iris flower, and the Liesch is one of the names of the yellow flag, I. pseudacorus. Moerover, Liesch was variously written as Lees, Lies, Liesz, Leys, Lieyes. That's enough to let me believe that, in pre-heraldic times (say 10th-11th c.) a confusion could have arisen in the North of France between Lieschblume, translated as fleur-de-lis and the iris flower.
Other interesting details:
This makes it quite interesting, because the French "flag" or banner of the Middle Ages, the oriflamme, aurea flammula, can become... the golden fleur-de-lis. Nice pun...