The fleur-de-lis, a stylized flower with French origins, has been used for centuries because of its design and symbolism. Whether used as a royal coat of arms, a religious symbol, or a simple decoration, it has a long and rich history.
What Does the Fleur-de-lis Mean?
The fleur-de-lis, sometimes spelled fleur-de-lys, is a stylized lily or iris commonly used for decoration. In fact, translated from French, fleur-de-lis means “lily flower.” Fleur means “flower,” while lis means “lily.”
You’ll likely recognize the symbol, which typically has three petals attached at the base. It’s often presented plainly, but ornate or intricate variations are common as well.
Where Does the Fleur-de-lis Come From?
The fleur-de-lis has been around for centuries—it even appears in relics from ancient civilizations. One of the earliest surviving examples is on a gold helmet from the Scythians, a European nomadic people from the 7th to 3rd centuries BC. Other ancient examples occur worldwide. For example, a statue of the Indian emperor Kanishka (AD 127 to 150) sported the symbol.
With such a long history, it’s difficult to know the symbol’s exact origins. It’s even debated whether the symbol is actually a lily, the flower the emblem is named after, or an iris, which more closely resembles the design and typical yellow color. One 18th-century historian even speculated that the name instead comes from the river Leie, where yellow irises are common and the Franks once lived. Another theory connecting the fleur-de-lis with an iris comes from the German word for a yellow iris in the Middle Ages—either “liesch” or “lies.”
Whether the flower is in fact a lily or an iris, the fleur-de-lis is commonly associated with French history because French monarchs adopted the symbol. France is historically a Catholic country, and the emblem also became closely connected with French Catholicism.
What Is the Symbolism of the Fleur-de-lis?
The fleur-de-lis is an iconic symbol that permeates modern culture. You can find the design at the top of fence posts, on the north point of a compass, on the pattern of fabrics, and in the details of countless designs. With each use, the fleur-de-lis holds unique symbolism. In a religious context, it may denote purity. French monarchs used the symbol to denote the divine right to rule. Ancient Egyptians used it to represent the snake that bit and killed Cleopatra.
The following uses are well-established and notable instances of the emblem.
The Fleur-de-lis Meaning in Scouting
Many Scouting organizations use the fleur-de-lis as their symbol. One famous example is the Boy Scouts of America. Their emblem is a red or gold fleur-de-lis with an eagle flying in front of it.
The reason it’s used in Scouting comes from the origin of Scouting itself. In one of the first Scouting camps, Scouts were awarded a fleur-de-lis badge. Lord Baden-Powell, the leader of the camp, claimed he took inspiration for the use of the fleur-de-lis from the north point of a compass. To him, it symbolized that Scouts are reliable and, like a compass, lead the way.
The three petals also came to symbolize the three aspects of the Scout Promise. These include duty to God, responsibility for self, and service to others.
The Fleur-de-lis Meaning in Religion
In Christianity, lilies symbolize purity and chastity, which may be why the fleur-de-lis historically represents the Virgin Mary. Coins from the 11th century, noble seals, statues, and stained-glass windows depict Mary holding the flower.
While Mary has the strongest connection with the flower, it has also been used to represent Christ or the Holy Trinity. The three petals established a clear connection with the three persons of the Trinity. Alternatively, the three petals have also been associated with faith, wisdom, and chivalry.
The Fleur-de-lis and French Royalty
The fleur-de-lis has been used by French royalty ever since the Franks united under a single ruler, King Clovis I. When Clovis was crowned, an ampulla with a fleur-de-lis insignia was used to anoint him as king. As time went on, the symbol came to represent the French monarch’s divine right to rule.
Since then, the fleur-de-lis has appeared on the French coat of arms, past versions of the French flag, and the ruling monarch’s shield. While it’s no longer used on the flag, it’s still used on the French coat of arms.
The Fleur-de-lis in Heraldry
The fleur-de-lis is commonly found in heraldry, particularly French heraldry. As a heraldic symbol, it has been interpreted as an element that is religious and political in nature as well as symbolic.
Many official European entities include the symbol in their coats of arms. For example, the coat of arms for the Kingdom of France has multiple golden fleur-de-lis symbols on a royal blue background. Many European cities also have it on their coats of arms. Among them are Florence, Italy; Lincoln, England; Wiesbaden, Germany; and Skierniewice, Poland. Some cities even use it because the name of the city sounds like or derives from the word “lily,” including Liljendal, Finland, and Lelystad, Netherlands.
Has the fleur-de-lis appeared in your family’s heraldry? If your family has a coat of arms, it’s possible that you’ll find the symbol in it. Find out if your family has a coat of arms.
Perhaps your family has used the flower in other ways? Share in FamilySearch Memories where you’ve found the fleur-de-lis in your family’s history, or search your family’s memories to see if you can find it.
Source: Family Search