The Origin of
Few heraldic emblems have been so controversial as the fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys or flower-de-luce). Its history stretches far back in time, allegedly into the mists of antiquity, and its quasi-mystical origins were seemingly accepted unquestioningly by early churchmen. One scenario identifies it as the lily given at his baptism to Clovis, King of the Franks (from AD 481 to 511), by the Virgin Mary, a tradition presented in evidence by the French bishops at the Council of Trent (AD 1545-63) to support their arguments for the precedence of their king, François I.
The lily was claimed to have sprung from the tears shed by Eve as she left Eden (just as that unrelated flower, the lily of the valley, was said to have grown from the tears of the Virgin at the foot of the Cross). From its earliest records (it was the flower of Hera, the Greek moon goddess) it has been the symbol of purity and was accordingly readily adopted by the Church to associate the Virgin Mary's sanctity with events of special significance. Thus when Pope Leo III in AD 800 crowned Charlemagne as Emperor, he is reported to have presented him with a blue banner covered (semé) with golden fleurs-de-lis (an event which may have given birth to the legend of the Virgin's gift to Clovis, as it undoubtedly formed the basis of Nicolas Upton's reference, around AD 1428, to Charlemagne having received the banner Azure semé of fleurs-de-lis Or from an angel).
Clovis is the same name as Lois, Loys and Louis, and as Loys was the contemporary spelling used by the Kings of France until Louis XIII (AD 1610), ":fleur-de-lys" has been claimed as a corruption of "fleur-de-Loys". Other imaginative explanations include the shape having been developed from the image of a dove descending, which is the symbol of the Holy Ghost, and, as Rouge Croix Pursuivant John Guillim explained in his Display of Heraldrie (1611), of it being a distortion of the outline of a toad.
France Ancient France Modern
"France Modern"
after 1376
"France Ancient"
before 1376
That the French kings long used the fleur-de-lis as an emblem of their sovereignty is irrefutable. On his seal of AD 1060 (before heraldry became formalised) Philip I sits on his throne holding a short staff that terminates in a fleur-de-lis. The same staff appears in the great seal of Louis VII (AD 1137-80), whose signet ring was charged with a single fleur-de-lis. The great seals of Philip II and Louis VIII show them seated, holding in one hand a flower and in the other a sceptre on which is mounted an heraldic fleur-de-lis within a lozenge. But long before this, although it may perhaps be merely coincidence and unrelated to later practice, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) issued a coin which represented Gaul (as France then was) with a woman holding a lily in her hand
Louis VII is believed to have been the first to use Azure semé of fleurs-de-lis Or (now abbreviated to Azure semé-de-lis Or and designated "France Ancient") on his shield, but its use on a banner, and especially on the French royal standard, may have been earlier than this. (The reduction to three fleurs-de-lis, today designated as "France Modern", was commanded by Charles V in 1376, reportedly in honour of the Holy Trinity. This was copied by Henry IV of England who, following Edward III, had symbolised the English claim to France by placing the French lilies in his first quarter.)
England Modern
England Ancient
King Henry IV of England followed Charles V with the change to three lilies.
King Edward III of England quartered the French lilies to claim the French throne.

Alexander Nisbet in 1722, after distinguishing between the natural lily, "the lily of the garden", and the stylised lily, "the lily of the flag", observed of the oriflamme ~

The other lilies, as those of France, so well known ....... having only but three leaves, is by the Latins called flos iridis, and by the French fleur de l'iris; being always called the flower of the rainbow or iridis, which the French call fleur-de-lis, from the river Lis, as some will; and anciently flams or flambs, which signifies the same: Whence the Royal Standard of France was called the oriflam or oriflambe, being a blue banner, charged with golden flower-de-luces, a suitable figure, say some, for the Franks, who come from the marshes of Friezland.

River Lys (Leie) in Flanders Iris (previously lily} in Flanders
Lilies on the banks of the Lys (in Flanders, the Leie) to the west of Ghent
Two points are worth noting here. First, the seeming confusion between the iris and the lily is commonly found throughout all the early writings on this subject, for it was only during the 19th century that the iris ceased to be known as a lily. Second is the reference to the river Lis. Today, in France, this is the River Lys, and its continuation downstream into Flanders is, in Flemish, the River Leie. Here, to the west of Ghent (where it flows through the lands once held by the Gavere family, the first to bear the tressure flory-counterflory featuring the fleur-de-lis), the golden iris may still be found on its banks. The heraldic representation of the flower sweeps the upper pair of its five petals inwards to merge with the centre one, while the lower pair curve downwards. The photograph of the pressed and dried flower below left shows the results.
Iris pressed and dried
So although the legendary origins of the fleur-de-lis have caught imaginations down the centuries, and are still to be found in heraldic textbooks, Nisbet's casual comment is worth more than later writers have allowed it. The lily, now called an iris, still grows along the Lys in lands drained by the Franks. When pressed and dried it reveals clearly the shape of the stylised heraldic charge. This is, on balance, its most probable origin.
A Footnote
The classical shape of the fleur-de-lis, and the shape chosen by most artists today, is similar to that shown at the head of this article. Between the classical period and the modern period its design was modified by the limitations and tastes of the craftsmen and their patrons, so that during those centuries we now call "the decadence" the outlines could be as grotesque as the shields. During this time also there were attempts to distinguish between small variations, so that commentators wrote of fleur-de-lis au pied coupé, and of fleur-de-lis au pied nourri, and of fleur-de-lis remplie. Such variations were introduced at the artist's whim and have no heraldic significance. No allusion to them is made in blazon (the precise verbal description of arms). The one variation that is recognised is that in which two stamens separate the three petals, as in the arms of the city of Florence.
French arms by Mathew Paris
The fleurs-de-lis of Mathew Paris in the mid-13th century illustrate the shape modern artists copy.
Some modern artists give the fleur-de-lis a prominent 3-D effect but, again, this is a matter of licence and is ignored in blazon.

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