The History of the Fleur-de-Lis

The fleur-de-Lis is a timeless iconic image that not only transcends millennia but also transcends continents, as seen in ancient Mayan pottery, and in very familiar imagery from New Orleans, Montreal, and Quebec, as well as European royalty.

In ancient Mayan pottery, the fleur-de-lis reflects a beautiful perfumed lily. In New Orleans, the fleur-de-lis represents all your heart's desires. So, there is a tremendous spectrum for the meaning and beauty of the fleur-de-lis, and it's loved iconically and timelessly.

Fleur-de-Lis: Lily or Iris?

This iconic symbol takes its name from the French word “fleur,” meaning flower and “lis,” meaning lily, which translates to flower of lily in English. It can also be called “fleur-de-lys” or “flower-de-luce.”

This flower-inspired emblem is popularly theorized to be a stylized depiction of a lily. However, the exact origins of the fleur-de-lis are unknown, to the point that even the flower it's based on is unclear.

One historian from the 18th century theorized that it was derived from the yellow iris flowers that grew near the River Leie where the Franks once lived. Some say that it was from a German word in the Middle Ages, “liesch,” which meant yellow iris. Others still connected it to a type of wild iris called “iris pseudacorus.”

Just as the originating flower is debated upon, the exact origin of the fleur-de-lis is unverified. The symbol is commonly associated with French royalty and French Catholicism, but there is evidence of the fleur-de-lis in other cultures predating the time of European exploration and conquest.

Fleur de Lis in French Monarchy

The strong linkage of the fleur-de-lis to the French royalty dates to the reign of Clovis, the Merovingian King of the Franks. According to legend, upon his conversion to Christianity, he was presented a golden lily (or iris) by an angel to symbolize his purification. Some sources claim it was given to him by the Virgin Mary, and that the flower came from the tears of Eve when she left Eden.

Other theories are less religious, stating that it was adopted by Clovis, inspired by the waterlilies that allowed him to safely cross a river and eventually succeed in battle.

The symbol was prominent at the coronation of Charlemagne, who was presented by Pope Leo III a blue banner with a golden fleur-de-lis pattern in 800 AD.

It continued to be prominent ornamentation amongst French royalty, appearing in the seal of King Philip I in 1060 AD, which showed him on his thrown holding a short staff ending in a fleur-de-lis, and in the Great Seal of King Louis VII in the 12th Century via a signet ring with a fleur-de-lis. King Louis VII is believed to be the first to use the pattern on his shield. 

In 1483, King Edmund IV had established the Heralds’ College to supervise the issuance of armor insignia. The initial objective was to make it easier to identify soldiers in battle. The fleur-de-lis was typically incorporated into a family’s emblem and sewn on the knight’s surcoat, which was worn over their coat of mail, thus the term "coat of arms."

Later, the symbol was used by English kings who intended to stake their claim on the French throne.

Leo Reynolds, Flickr

Fleur de Lis in Catholicism

According to Michel Pastoureau, a French expert on medieval history and Western symbology, the fleur-de-lis was used in depictions of Jesus until 1300 AD but eventually became more associated with Marian imagery via the lily flower. The lily, and by association the fleur-de-lis, is used to symbolize purity and chastity, establishing it as a visual attribute of the Virgin Mary.

The emblem is additionally linked to Joan of Arc, who was known to carry into battle a white banner showing God blessing the French royal insignia bearing the fleur-de-lis. She supported the Dauphin, Charles VII, in his campaign for the throne and led the army to victory against English troops.

Because of the design’s three petals, it's linked to the Holy Trinity, signifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as recognized in 1376 by Charles V.

Fleur-de-Lis in Mayan, Aztec, and Other Cultures

While most of the recorded history of fleur-de-lis is linked to the royalty and Catholicism in France, there is also evidence of its usage in other cultures, some even predating its French roots.

One of the oldest surviving examples bearing this symbol is a statue of Kanishka, an Indian Emperor, dated between 127 AD and 150 AD. It was used as symbolism by the Ancient Egyptians to represent the snake that killed Queen Cleopatra.

One source cites that the fleur-de-lis may have first appeared in artworks by the ancient Sumerians. The gods in Assyro-Babylonian myths were all crowned with the fleur-de-lis, and the Tree of Life was adorned with the emblem at its base.

In Mesopotamia, the fleur-de-lis was used as an ornamental feature for royalty and represented Nimrod, Tammuz, and Simerimas, collectively considered the Sumerian-Babylonian Trinity.

The fleur-de-lis plays a prominent role in Aztec mythology as a symbol of their god-king, Quetzalcoatl. In the records of the Codex Borgia, the Aztec Toltec deity is shown wearing a headdress topped off with a fleur-de-lis. According to the legend told by Aztec priests, the god was said to have departed their land with a promise to return on his birthday anniversary, which was the year 1519, based on the European calendar.

The legend said that Quetzalcoatl would return with the appearance of white skin, a black beard, and black attire. In a unique coincidence, these beliefs aligned with the arrival of Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, and his troops. As they entered Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, they carried with them a banner of the crowned Virgin Mary, adorned with the symbols of fleur-de-lis.

The Library of Congress holds the record of a Mayan vase dated between 600 and 900 AD that dons the black and white fleur-de-lis. It was used as a drinking vessel but had no name of an owner, so it's hypothesized to have been used as a gift or tribute.


Leo Reynolds, Flickr

Fleur-de-Lis Today

Today, the fleur-de-lis is a popular design element that is diversely used. It's used in various logos such as the Boy Scouts of America and sports teams like the New Orleans Saints and Quebec Nordiques. It's featured in the coat of arms of different cities, like Florence, Italy; Lincoln, England; and Wiesbaden, Germany.

Because of its sophisticated form and strong roots in royalty, the fleur-de-lis is also frequently used in jewelry. Perfect for the modern warrior, it exudes the power and confidence of the gods and kings who donned it before.

For beautifully designed jewelry rich in history, check out Tribal Son’s collections today.

Main image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr