Fleur de Lys: The Iris of Kings

fleur de lys

The fleur de lys is a stylized flower that has a long association with the kings of France. There are two spellings for this floral emblem – fleur de lis and fleur de lys. Both can be used to refer to the botanical lily flower or the symbol.

“Fleur de lys” literally means flower of the lily. This might lead you to think that the symbol represents a stylized lily. The only problem is that it doesn’t look like a lily flower… And that’s because it’s not. It’s really an iris: specifically a yellow iris that grows at the water’s edge.

It’s an Iris

So why call an iris a lily? The confusion seems to lie with the word lys or lis. There’s a river that runs from Pas de Calais in northern France to Ghent, Belgium. This river is called the Leie or Lys. And it has lots of yellow iris along its banks. Since the early Frankish kings were from that area, it seems likely that the fleur de lys represents the flower that grows on the Lys River. The fleurs de lys on the old French flags are gold (like the yellow iris) and the background is blue (like the Lys River).

yellow iris fleur de lys

The first historical evidence we have of the fleur de lys on the shield or coat of arms of the French Kings dates to the twelfth century and Louis VI. His blue shield was strewn with golden fleurs de lys. This scattering of the symbols was used until the late fourteenth century when Charles V changed it to a group of three. It’s also in the twelfth century that we begin to find writings explaining the fifth-century origin of the link between the fleur de lys symbol and the French kings.

Clovis and His Iris

One story links the fleur de lys with King Clovis’ conversion to Christianity. Clovis was facing a battle with a much stronger army. But he wasn’t worried because he had faith in his ancestral shield. Then just before the battle began, the symbols on his shield changed to golden fleurs de lys on a blue background. Clovis threw it down and quickly grabbed a new shield. The same thing happened three times, and Clovis was running out of time. He had to go into battle with the fleurs de lys. He fought fiercely and was victorious.

Confused but happy, the King told his wife the tale about the golden flowers appearing on his shield. The Queen assured him that God had helped him win the battle. She said the three flowers represented the holy trinity and would bring him a long life. The gold color meant he would reign over a golden age, and the blue background represented the heaven that he was promised if he believed in the true God. That was enough to convince Clovis and he became a Christian like his wife. He kept the fleur de lys as his symbol.

Fleur de Lys flags

Another legends tells us that Clovis and his army were in battle and were pushed back into the marsh lands. They were trapped and would surely have been slaughtered had they not spotted a group of yellow water iris. Knowing that these flowers grew in shallow water, they saw just where they could cross the waters to safety. According to this legend, this is the reason Clovis adopted the yellow flower as his symbol.

In some of these stories, an angel comes down from heaven with a holy flask shaped like a fleur de lys and pours out holy oil to anoint Clovis. These legends that surfaced around the twelfth century might have been invented to show that Louis VI’s symbol indicated his divine right to rule and to link him to the early Frankish kings. Of course, that doesn’t mean that King Clovis didn’t really use the fleur de lys on his shield. We just haven’t come across any proof of it as yet.

Even though the fleur de lys has a strong association with French royalty, it has also been used by other countries, cities, and organizations throughout the years.

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Fleur de Lys_The Iris of Kings

Margo Lestz

I am a perpetual student who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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20 comments

  1. The old fued of Germans and French. Back in 490’s Clovis of the Franks were to fight matheus of the alemannic near the Rhine river. Clovis asked his wife Clothile a visigoth and Christian to teach to pray for victory to the Christian God if he won he will make Christianity the religion of his kingdom so he went to win baptised in Reims 496 and the kingdom of france began…cheers

  2. So interesting Margo. I really love the fascinating results of your research. I knew the story of Clovis’ conversion to Christianity your reader above has detailed, but not the legends relating to the fleur de lys. And so interesting that it is a yellow iris. Wonderful.
    Best wishes, Paula

    1. Thanks Paula. Before my research, I never really thought about it not looking like a lily, but it clearly doesn’t. I used to have some of these yellow water iris planted by a little pond when we lived in the US. Little did I know they were fleurs de lys. 🙂

  3. Thanks! Very interesting!!! BTW, before you publish your next book, be sure to check out “About the Baguette” by Jim Chevallier. He also edited a book about the Bastille and helped me with my “George Washington’s Liberty (Bastille) Key” book. Good luck!

  4. Here in the province of Quebec, the fleur de lys is the national flower and is prominent on the provincial flag.

  5. Also interesting is the symbology of the respective flowers. As I report in my GWLK book, the lily [on the French King’s coat of arms; the dolphin is another story] is the symbol of purity and perfection. Looking up the symbology of the iris, I found Wikipedia’s rendition: “The iris’s mythology dates back to Ancient Greece, when the goddess Iris, who personified the rainbow (the Greek word for iris), acted as the link between heaven and earth. It’s said that purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the goddess Iris to guide them in their journey to heaven.” So, with the iris, we have a link between heaven and earth, a hint of the King’s “divine right rule”? Looks like a win for the French king either way! 🙂

    1. I think because of the name ‘fleur de lys’ the symbol is often associated with the botanical lily flower – which is often white and a symbol of purity. But as you say, the symbolism of both flowers works out well for the kings.

      1. So, unless I’ve missed it and need a reread, please let us know what the French government’s official position on this is, presuming they have one. Is their symbol a lily or an iris? Thanks again!!!

  6. Wow, thanks to your other correspondents Margo, I know a lot more about irises and lillies! Great.
    Paula

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