French Fleur De Lis: National flower of France isn’t what you think it is

blue shield with golden fleur de lys and gold crown sitting on shield

The fleur-de-Lis” was the emblem used by French royalty for centuries. But why? What does it mean? What is it, and where did it come from?

King Louis XIV: Fleur de lis

The origin of the national flower of France and how the fleur-de-lys became a symbol of French royalty has been hotly debated for centuries.

There’s plenty of speculation and lots of lore, but sorting fact from fiction from history is difficult considering stories were passed by word of mouth, and there are gaps in written records. 

What is the Fleur de Lis?

the national flower on the fleur de lis is an Iris, not a lily as the name suggests

The Fleur-de-lis symbol or emblem, sometimes spelled Fleur-de-lys or fleur-de-luce, is supposedly a stylized flower design of a real flower where three petals are attached at the base.

For centuries, the fleur-de-Lys has been both a royal and religious symbol in France as well as the national flower of France. 

French kings and the French monarchy used the fleur-de-lis on flags, clothing, crowns, staffs, coat of arms, and decorative elements in architecture and art. 

In the catholic religion, the church has used the three petals of the fleur-de-lis to symbolize the holy trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity). 

The fleur de Lys symbol predates France.

Although most people think of France when they see the fleur de Lys, no one knows for sure where it’s from.

What is known is that it’s been used as a royal or religious symbol by many ancient civilizations and cultures that predate France by thousands of years. It’s even been linked to Mesopotamia and the Sumerian civilization, the oldest civilization known to mankind.

For the ancient Sumerians, the Fleur-de-lis symbolized the Sumerian trinity, similar to the catholic trinity. It was also an ornamental feature for royalty that represented Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz.

It’s also appeared on Greek and Roman coins, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenean potteries of ancient Greece, Sassanid textiles of Iran, Japanese emblems and Dogon totems.

But what is it?

Is it the lily or the Iris?

What is the national flower of France depicted on the French fleur-de-lys emblem?

The national emblem of France: is it the iris or the lily flower?

There always seems to be some confusion about whether the flower represented on the fleur-de-lys symbol is an iris or a lily. 

Fleur-de-lis = “Flower of the lily” aka”Lily Flower, ” but the flower on the fleur-de-lys looks nothing like a lily.

Despite the name, many historians believe the inspiration for the golden flower on the fleur-de-lys is most likely a yellow Iris (species: Iris pseudacorus), also known as marsh iris, yellow flag, flag iris, and the water flag in English.

The confusion might be tied to the name “Lys” or “Lis,” the French word for lily.

As Juliette said in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, “what’s in a name? The name of a thing doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the thing.”

In this case, the physical qualities of the “fleur de lis” emblems three petal design and typical golden colour look more like a golden iris than a lily. 

yellow iris and yellow lily with the fleur de lys

  • The Iris’s three central petals (called standards) stand straight up and meet at the top. The three outer sepals (called falls) droop downward away from the center. If held correctly, only the two outer petals on the left and right can be seen clearly, like the fleur de Lys emblem. 
  • The lily has six petals that curve out symmetrical, and no matter which way you hold it, it looks nothing like the fleur de Lys. 

Why call an iris a lily? 

3 flowers called lilies despite not being true lilies

Historically, the names Iris and lily have been used interchangeably, causing confusion about which flower was the original fleur-de-lis/lys. 

But it’s not just the fleur de lis. 

There are lots of flowers called lilies that are not part of the Liliaceae family, genus Lilium. In other words, not all flowers called lilies are true lilies. 

There are roughly 100 flowers called lilies that are not lilies (see the list.) Here are a few examples.

  • Calla lilies, which are not true lilies, belong to the Arum family of plants and the genus Zantedeschia. 
  • Blackberry lily, also not a true lily, is an ornamental plant in the family Iridaceae, the Iris family. In 2005 scientists renamed the blackberry lily Iris Domestica to reflect what they learned about its DNA. 
  • The fortnight lily is actually an Iris and also known as the African Iris in the Dietes iridoides family. 
  • Red blood lily is in the family Amaryllidaceae.

Regarding the name fleur-de-lis, the reference to the word Lis or Lys is probably in reference to the Lis river that runs through France and Belgium. 

The flower of the river Lys

Iris Marsh

According to Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, an important French naturalist and lexicographer: (1710-1795), the Franks lived in marshy areas near the Lis river, which runs from Pas de Calais in northern France to Ghent, Belgium. 

The river was called Lis, but today it’s known as Lys or Leie in Flemish / Dutch. The Dutch name for the river, Leie, comes from Old Dutch of Celtic origins meaning to flow or flowing. 

River Lys or Leie: River that runs from France to Belgium

A yellow iris grew along the river wetlands, which the Franks called “Lisbloem.” Pierre-Augustin said that descriptions of the Lisbloem resemble a yellow Iris because of its shape, bright coloured flowers and its marsh habitat. 

In Frankish, the West Germanic language (5th to 9th century) of the Franks, “Bloem” meant flower, and “lis” was the name of the river, i.e. “the flower of the Lis.” As in the flower of the Lis river. 

  • In Dutch, which is a descendent and the closest to the Frankish language today, the word for Iris flower is still “Lisbloem.”
  • In German, it’s Lieschblume, but Liesch was also spelled Lies and Leys in the Middle Ages.

“Bloem” became “fleur” (flower), and “Lis” the name of the river remained the same.

definition of Lisbloem in Dutch

In a world of changing spelling and evolving languages, it’s easy to imagine how Lisbloem or Lieschblum became fleur-de-luce, fleur-de-lis, and fleur-de-lys. 

More evidence that the fleur de Lys is a yellow Iris and not a lily is that both the flag and the emblem of  Brussels (the capital of Belgium) depict the Iris pseudacorus (yellow Iris). 

The yellow Iris is also native to Europe, while the lily is not. 

So how did the Fleur-de-lys symbol become associated with French kings? 

Why did French kings adopt the Fleur-de-lys as their emblem?

Here are two legends that stand out about Clovis (466-511), king of the Franks, and the first king of France, which links the yellow flag with the French coat of arms.

King Clovis adopted the yellow flower as his symbol

1 ) In one legend, the fleur de Lys emblem may have been introduced around the 9th century when Clovis fought and won the battle of Vouillé (507) near Poitiers. 

Per this legend, Clovis and his army were trapped along the banks of the river Lis, but Clovis spotted a group of wild yellow flowers, “Lisbloem.” Because the yellow Iris grew in shallow waters, they knew they could safely cross, which resulted in Clovis’s army defeating the Goths.  

2 ) Another legend says that yellow waterlilies magically formed a path for Clovis and his army on his way to the battle, which allowed them to cross the river safely and win his crusade. 

In both versions of the legend, this is why Clovis adopted the wild yellow flower as his symbol.

From there, this wild golden flower was adopted as the royal emblem of France and all its successors and eventually became the unofficial national flower of France. 

King Louis VII of France loved the emblem and wore a blue robe with gold “fleur de Lis” on his coronation. King Louis, the XIV, also wore a blue robe embroidered with a golden royal fleur de Lys pattern for many portraits.

Joan of Arc carried a white banner that featured the fleur-de-lis when she fought in the war against England. 

And the Québec flag, the “Fleurdelisé,” pays tribute to its French roots with its fleur-de-lys flag. Quebec was once a part of nouveau France (New France), the area colonized by France in North America.

Fleurdelisé Quebec flag with 4 fleur de lis and a white cross

The Fleur de Lis today

Eat king cake in France for the new year: les gallettes des rois

The French monarch and French throne are both long gone, but you can easily find the fleur de Lis symbol in almost every part of the world as a decorative element on clothing,  jewelry, fence posts, tattoo designs and more.

It’s also one of the symbols of Mardi gras, especially in New Orleans. The boy scouts use the fleur-de-lys design for their scouting organization too. 

The national flower of France emblem even adorns the golden paper crown you get when you buy a king cake (galette des rois) for three kings day (Epiphany).

Wrapping up the Fleur de Lis, France’s unofficial national flower!

Where did the mysterious fleur de Lys motif come from, and why has it been so popular in so many cultures for thousands of years? 

We may never know, and scholars will probably never agree.

Some historians think that the fleur de Lys is not a flower at all and could be a trident, an arrowhead, a bee, the head of a lance, a sceptre, and even a frog. 

Whatever “IT” is, the one thing we know for sure is that it’s been used as an ornament, symbol and emblem by almost all civilizations in the old and new world, whether for religion, fashion or nobility. 

And it’s pretty too!

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

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