Fleur de lis: Meaning & history of the ancient symbol

Find out the meaning of the fleur de lis and its history. From its history and roots in France, to its use in the U.S. and other countries around the world.
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Ah, the fleur de lis, that mystical and majestic emblem that has adorned royal robes, heraldic shields, and French pastries for centuries. It’s like the Mona Lisa of symbols: enigmatic, timeless, and with a hint of that certain je ne sais quoi. But what does it all mean, this three-petaled, pointy wonder?

Spelt in French as “fleur de lys“, it was basically the ancient symbol of the French monarchy. While the fleur-de-lis means “lily flower” or “flower of the iris”, it was meant to signify the power of the King and his purity of rule.

It had been used since ancient times in Egypt, where it was believed to symbolize life and resurrection. The French, ever the trendsetters, picked it up in the medieval era and slapped it on everything from castles to chalices.

Even Joan of Arc had it embroidered on her coat of arms. Because nothing says “I’m here to liberate France” like a floral accessory. When traveling around France, you may notice this symbol everywhere.

Joan of Arc receiving a blessing

It was also used to denote French saints. In churches across France, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph are also often depicted with a lily.

With French influence extending across Europe through intermarriages and wars, the fleur de lis went everywhere. From medieval castles to grand palaces, the fleur de lis was used liberally to adorn luxurious interiors all across Europe.

And I mean they stuck it on everything from window panes to tapestries, and ceiling moulding to floor tiles, the fleur de lis can be seen in the buildings and monuments all over the continent. So let’s see how it all started, shall we?

The History

The original fleur-de-lis traces its origin back to the hieroglyphs for “plant” meaning “Tree of Life”. In ancient Egypt, this was meant to represent Life and Resurrection. It was denoted by 2 stems curving to the left and right, and one in the center. On top of each stem a lotus flower.

It is believed to be Clovis, the first King of the Franks who made the fleur de lys a symbol of the French monarchy. One legend is that the baptismal jug used in the crowning of King Clovis I may have featured the flower.

fleur de lys symbol of france
fleur de lys

Another legend attributes the fleur de lis to Clovis’s wife, the future Saint Clotilde, having a vision. Yet another story talks about Clovis traversing a field of lilies and tucking it into his helmet before victory.

Whatever the legend, the fleur de lis was adopted quickly on the royal coat of arms as a symbol of purity and to commemorate the conversion of Clovis I to Christianity in the 6th century. At the same time that Celtic paganism was being systematically wiped out to get people to convert to the new religion.

Throne at Château de Blois
Throne at Château de Blois, with fleur de lis

In time, the fleur de lys was adopted by several Frankish Christian Kings including Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century. It was during the reign of Louis VII in the Middle ages that the expression “fleur de lis” appeared.

Soon the golden yellow fleur-de-lis on a field of azure blue became the arms of France and the emblem of the kings of France. During the crusades, Saint King Louis IX and his soldiers would carry the symbol overseas.

Eventually in 1376, King Charles V reduced the number of fleur-de-lys to three on his flag and coat of arms, in honor of the Holy Trinity. The monarchy would continue to use the fleur de lis however, to show their link of continuity with Saint King Louis and Clovis.

Statue of Saint Louis in Sainte Chapelle in Paris
Statue of Saint King Louis IX in Sainte Chapelle in Paris, surrounded by blue pillars with fleur de lis motif

In 1789, the French revolution took hold, and the monarchy was abolished. It was later restored, and more revolutions took place. Each time, the fleur de lis was used as a symbol of those who supported the crown versus those who supported the democratic republic.

Symbolism in France

These days France is a republic, and the current Constitution of France does mention a national emblem or coat of arms. The symbol of the country is the figure of Marianne and le Coq (a rooster).

However, the fleur de lis still remains prominent. Today the former official symbol of the monarchy and continues to adorn monuments and châteaux all over the country.

golden gate at Palace of Versailles with fleur de lis
Gate at Palace of Versailles with fleur de lis

During the French Revolution, attempts were made by the revolutionaries to degrade all the symbols of the monarchy, however the symbol was so prominent, it was quite difficult to get them all off.

It is particularly prominent in the grand châteaux around Paris and the Loire Valley. In addition, the Fleur de lis is still widely used in city emblems, flags, and in the coat of arms of cities.

Displaying some form of the fleur de lis symbol are cities like Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Reims, Le Havre, Angers, Le Mans, Aix-en-Provence, Tours, Limoges, Amiens, Orléans, Rouen, Argenteuil, Poitiers, Chartres, Laon, Lille, Saint-Denis, Brest, Clermont-Ferrand, Boulogne-Billancourt, Soissons and Calais.

It also appears on the coat of arms and flags of several overseas departments and territories of France, such as Guadeloupe, Ile de Réunion, Saint Barthélemy, and French Guiana.

U.K. and other monarchies

With the French Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror making his way across the English channel to defeat the Anglo-saxon King Harold, the royal fleur de lys symbol went with him.

Due to intermarriages historically between the French royals amongst the other monarchies of Europe, the fleur de lis continues to appear in the symbols of the British monarchy like the historic King Edward’s crown.

It also features in the arms of the king of Spain (from the French House of Bourbon), the grand duke of Luxembourg, and other members of the House of Bourbon.

Fleur de lis in the United States

The fleur de lis is also quite prominent in in the United States and Canada. Given France’s long history, these former colonies continue to use the fleur de lis in certain parts of the continent where French was prominent.

The symbol is particularly prominent near the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, around the former colony of Louisiana. Some of the places that display the fleur de lys in their flag or seal are:

  • Baton Rouge
  • Detroit, Lafayette
  • Louisville
  • Mobile
  • New Orleans
  • St. Louis

In addition, the state of Louisiana uses the fleur de lis as its official symbol. Both the state of Louisiana and city of St. Louis are named after Saint King Louis IX who used the fleur de lis prominently in his personal branding.

Window at Château de Fontainbleau with fleur de lis

The fleur de lis has also become the symbol for the identity of the Cajuns and Louisiana Creole people in New Orleans, and their French heritage.

While the Louisiana Purchase may have ended France’s involvement in the United States, the fleur de lis remains a strong link of the history and connection of the two countries.

Other countries

In the former French colony of Canada, the flag of Quebec features 4 fleur de lis on a blue background with a white cross in the middle. It is also featured on the personal flag used by the Monarch of Canada, and the Coat of arms.

Quebecois flags in Saint-Malo, France
Quebecois flags with fleur de lys in Saint-Malo, the hometown of Jacques Cartier

In Italy, the fleur de lis is called giglio bottonato and is mainly seen on the crest of the city of Florence. Here it is red however, not the blue and yellow that was traditionally used in France.

The fleur de lis also appear in the flags and arms of many cantons, municipalities, cities and towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is still used as official insignia of the Bosniak Regiment of the Armed Forces.

In Brazil, the city of Joinville has three fleurs-de-lis on its flag and coat of arms. The city is named after François d’Orléans, Prince of Joinville, son of King Louis-Philippe I of France, who married Princess Francisca of Brazil in 1843.

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If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about the regional flags of France. A bientôt!

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