Fleur de Lis

The Fleur de lis in the East

The Fleur the lis in Europe

The Fleur de lis in France

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Fleur de lis


Many theories have been formulated about the meaning and origin of the figure called fleur de lis. In this essay I defend the hypothesis that the fleur de lis is in fact a thunderbolt and is a symbol of armed authority. Unlike the single, the double and the four-fold thunderbolt the fleur de lys is a one-and-a-half one, the upper part being larger than the lower part.

Artin Pacha has suggested that the word “lis” actually could be derived from the word “lois” which is a younger version of the name of the first frankish king Clovis. [1] On the other hand the word lois could also mean law(s).

I may add that the word “floris” “florest”and “fleur” may well be a corruption of the latin word “fulguris” or “fulgur” which means thunderbolt or lightning. In this way “fleur de lis” would actually mean “the lightning of law” or (in France) “the lightning of Clovis” and this would provide us with the much longed for proof that a fleur de lis is in fact a version of a thunderbolt and a symbol of armed authority.


This, of course is not enough to make us accept that the fleur de lis is not the picture of a lily but actually the picture of a thunderbolt.

As we know, the fleur the lis was valued in France as the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the fleurs de lis in the arms of France were explained by the legend of Clovis who had received them from the Holy Virgin at his coronation.

This legend, of course,  can not explain the fleur de lis in the hands or on the heads of other European kings.


As sceptres and crowns are symbols of the authority of the European kings, it follows that the lily-sceptre is also a symbol of authority in the European context. On royal seals, but also in the royal images the lily-sceptre is held in the right hand and it replaces the sword or the sceptre with an eagle as a filial. These are clearly symbols of armed authority, the eagle being the symbol of a Roman consul, the successor of the Roman Kings and those who held a similar rank.

For these reasons it seems probable that the fleur de lis also symbolizes armed authority.

As the eagle is closely associated with the Roman supreme commander, the thunderbolt in the context of the Roman Empire is associated with the Praetorian Guard which initially was the bodyguard of the Roman commanding general in the field. This idea may have been adopted by Louis I the Pious as well as by Otto I when they propagated the renaissance of the Roman Empire. Its use can be explained when we accept that the Byzantine Emperor was considered to be the successor of the Roman Emperors and that the rulers in the Western half of this Empire were considered to be the Praetorian Prefects for former Gallia.

This would explain why early lily-sceptres are found in Germany and France, the two halves of the Frankish Empire, in itself a successor of the Praefecture Gallia.

We may be sure that, when the Western Emperor claimed the title of consul, as did Otto III, and the eagle as his emblem of rank, some other kings could consider themselves equal to a praetorian prefect, thus accepting the sovereignty of the Byzantine or Frankish Emperor.

However, there remains some confusion as, after the function of Praetorian Prefect had become an administrative office, the emblems of these office had changed also. We know from the Notitia Dignitatum that the insignia of the Praetorian Prefect consisted of a table covered with a blue cloth, an ivory diptique, four candles and a teca. Also the Praetorian Prefect had the right on a quadriga.

So, in their choice, the rulers of the Western Half of the Empire reverted to the office of the former, pre-constantinian praetorian prefects.


Early pictures of the fleur de lis are scarce. It is said that on a coin of the Emperor Hadrian with the legend Restitutori Galliae there is a female figure holding a fleur de lis in her hand. [2] Somewhat later a fleur de lis in its characteristic form is on this piece of cloth from the end of the 3rd century A.D.:


Fragment of a reliquary cloth. 

Silk twill.  Iranian, 3rd - 4th century AD.  Aachen, Cathedral treasure.


On this cloth pairs of confronting peacocks support a sun, crested with lily-like leaves; between the peacocks, pillars with foliate capitals.


The Fleur de lis in the East


The fleur de lis is certainly not of West European but of Persian or Byzantine origin. An early example of a  thunderbolt/fleur de lis is on the seal of Caliph Abd el Malik. It would explain why the figure is well known in the muslim world.

Other specimina of this specially shaped thunderbolts can be found on buildings in Damascus which was conquered by the Caliphs in 635.


Seal of Abd el Malik (685-705 AD)

Archeological Museum, Istanbul.


Lily on the Bab-al-Hadid gate in Damascus.

The fleur the lis of this shape was used in the 12th and 13th century Abbasid caliphate after the temporal sovereignty was regained from the Seljuqs (1157). According to Mayer, fleurs de lis are on coins of:


Al-Adil Abu Bakr (1200-1218), Al-Mansur Qalaun (1279-1290), Al-Nasir Ahmad (1342), Al-Ashraf Shaban II (1363-1377), Al-Mansur Ali II (1377-1381), Al-Muzaffar Hajji II (1389-1390), Al-Zahir Barquq (1390-1399), Al-Ashraf Barsbay (1422-1438), Al-Zahir Khushqadam (1461-1467) and Al-Ashraf Qaitbay (1467-1496). [3]

Copper coin of Sayf al-Din al-Muzaffar Hajji I (1346-‘47)


That is to say that the fleur de lis was an emblem of the Egyptian rulers from about 1175 until the Ottoman conquest.


Fleur de lis in Europe


Going back to the same Byzantine source the same figure occurs in relation with Charlemagne.


Fragment of a marble arch. Early 9th century.

Cortona (Umbria), Academia Etrusca.


In the tympanon is a square cross supported by two peacocks. The inscription on the arch reads: IPORIBVS DN CARVLO IMPERATOR IBO   P & B FI ERI FECIPRO AMORE DIE.

Certainly Charlemagne is meant  with  Carvlo Imperator. The square cross supported by two peacocks is the emblem of his (christian) prefectoral government.

Below the tails of the peacocks we notice two fleurs de lis of a somewhat reduced form. Such fleurs de lis, more resembling the 3rd century fleur de lis mentioned above are on the shield of a Carolingian warrior on this reliquiary from the valley of the Meuse.




17th century drawing of a reliquiary in the shape of a triumphal arch. Detail.

Made by Egingardus, abbot of the St. Servatius in Maastricht, about 820.

Fulda, Landesbibliothek. Domschatz cod Bonif., II. [4]


The lily-topped sceptre apparently is a creation of the 10th century and it replaces a spear as the symbol of armed authority. In England the armed authority was symbolized by a sword which can be seen in the right hand of its rulers on their seals. The more recent sceptres sometimes are topped with a clearly three-dimensional version of a thunderbolt. The french sceptres have a fleur de lis of a flat shape and are alsmost two-dimensional.


Probably the lily-sceptre was invented by king / emperor Otto I. This can be seen on his statue which shows him with orb and sceptre. On his head a crown of Byzantine fashion



Seal of King Robert II of France (996-1031)


Almost at the same time the fleur de lis was made an ornament of the royal crown. This can be seen on the seal of King Robert II the Pious of France on which he is represented crowned with a crown set with fleurs de lis.

From then on the lily-sceptre and the lily-crown was a common emblem of the German and the French kings.



Rudolf of Swabia (1077-’80)



Conrad the Salian (1087-’98)






Henry Raspe (1246-’47)


William II of Holland (1247-’54)



Richard of Cornwall (1257-’72)


Charles IV of Luxemburg




Even when there is an interlude of four or five centuries before the fleur de lis appears on the sceptres of the Roman kings and on the shields of the French bailiff Hugues de Bastons and the french Kings, its meaning as the symbol of the armed power of a warrior protecting the integrity of the ruler was not lost. We only may notice that through the ages the form of the symbol was as corrupted as its name.  


The fleur de lis has been used by many mediaeval rulers as a symbol of their authority. Amongst them are the kings of Bohemia, Denmark, Sicily, Spain and Sweden. It occurs on top of scepters, hold in hand by the king, and also on the crowns, most of the time four of them, worn on their heads.



Sceptre of the Holy Roman Empire, about 1350.


Shields with a fleur de lis are known for example from the Swedish jarl Birger Bengtsson but also from the Italian city of Florence.[5]


The Fleur de Lis in France


It may be clear that the fleur de lis is not a French innovation, nor was it used uniquely by the French kings. The contribution of France in the development of the fleur de lis is the confusion about its meaning where, for need of dynastic legitimacy, it was changed from an emblem of armed authority to an emblem of the Holy Virgin. The fleurs de lis on the seals of some Flemish cities may still be interpreted as emblems of armed authority. The most convincing example of the application of the emblem as such however is the shield of the bailiff Hugues de Bastons, showing a shield strewn with fleurs de lis. No emblems of the Holy Virgin can be expected in such a context.  This shield was later adopted, first by the crown prince and later by the French kings as their coat of arms, thus defining their armed authority mainly as a police service instead of in terms of military rank. For this reason the royal arms could also be used by the royal bailiffs in those districts under direct royal rule.



Seals with a fleur de lis from Flanders 1199 [6]


Seal of Hugues de Bastons, Bailiff of the French Domain, 1207


Arms: Six fleurs de lis 3, 2, 1. L.: X SIGILLVM VGO [  ]TVNS. D.: 1207. (Arch. Nat., Sceaux, D 5075.)


For the same reason the royal achievement of France was later on the offices of the local bailiffs like for example this heavily damaged achievement in Amiens:



From Thunderbolt to Lily


The invention of the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, instead as of the armed authority however is clearly a contribution of France. We do not know how the figure was called in french before the 13th century. In written sources describing the arms of the King of France it is referred to as:


1240 Conrad von Mure: Francus Rex in lasurio flores liliorum


1250 Matthew Paris: Scutum regis Francorum: scutum azureum vi gladioli floris aurei.


1273 Walford’s Roll C5: Le roy de France, d’azure semé de florest d’or. (Cl 2, Cd 2)


1280 Camden Roll D.5: Le rey de France ....l’escu de azur floretté de or.


In French, fleur de lis literally means “lily flower”.


We may suppose that, once the name of the figure was corrupted to fleur de lis that is to say lily-flower, the next step could easily be to make the heraldic form of the thunderbolt into a lily, symbol of virginity and of the Holy Virgin. This seems to have been done explicitly at the Council of Trente.


About the French fleur de lis Arthur Fox Davies writes:


It is curious - though possible in this case it may be only a coincidence - that, on a coin of the Emperor Hadrian, Gaul is typified by a female figure holding in the hand a lily, the legend being, “Restutori Galliæ”. The fleur-de-lis as the finial of a sceptre and as an ornament of a crown can be taken back to the fifth century. Fleurs-the-lis upon crowns and coronets  in France are at least as old as the reign of King Robert  (son of Hugh Capet), whose seal represents him crowned in this manner. [7]


We have, moreover, the ancient legendary tradition that at the baptism of Clovis, King of the Franks, the Virgin (whose emblem the lily has always been) sent a lily by an angel as a mark of her special favour. [8]


It is difficult to determine the exact date at which this tradition was invented, but its accepted character may be judged from the fact that it was solemnly advanced by the French bishops at the Council of Trent (1545-’63) in a dispute as to the precedence of their sovereign.


The old legend as to Clovis would naturally identify the flower with him, and it should be noted that the names Clovis, Lois, Loys and Louis are identical. “Loys” was the signature of the kings of France until the times of Louis XIII. It is worth the passing conjecture that what are sometimes termed “Cleves lilies” may be a corrupted form of Clovis lilies. [9] There can be little doubt that the term “fleur-de-lis” is quite as likely to be a corruption of “fleur-de-lois” as flower of the lily. The chief point is that the desire was to represent a flower in allusion to the old legend, without perhaps any very definite certainty of the flower intended to be represented. [10]  Philip I on his seal (a.d. 1060) holds a short staff terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The same object occurs in the great seal of Louis VII.


Seal of Philip I of France (1060-1108)

Seal of Louis VII (1137-’80)


In the seal of his wife, Queen Constance, we find her represented as holding in either hand a similar object, though in these last cases it is by no means certain that figures are not attempts to represent the natural flower. A signet of Louis VII. bears a single fleur-de-lis “florencée” (or flowered), and in his reign the heraldic fleur-de-lis undoubtedly became stereotyped as a symbolical device, for we find that when in the lifetime of Louis VII. his son Philip was crowned, the king prescibed that the prince should wear “ses chausses apelées sandales ou bottines de soye, couleur bleu azuré semée en moult endroits de fleurs-de-lys or, puis aussi sa dalmatique de même couleur et œuvre.” On the oval counterseal of Philip II. (d. 1223) appears a heraldic fleur-de-lis. His great seal, as also that of Louis VIII., shows a seated figure crowned with an open crown of “fleurons,” and holding in his right hand a flower, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by a heraldic fleur-de-lis enclosed within a lozenge-shaped frame. On the seal of Louis VIII. the conjunction of the essentially heraldic fleur-de-lis (within the lozenge-shaped head of the sceptre), and the more natural flower held in the hand, should leave little if any doubt of the intention to represent flowers in the French fleur-de-lis. The figure held in the hand represents a flower of five petals. The upper pair turned inwards to touch the centre one, and the lower pair curved downwards, leave the figure with a marked resemblance both to the iris and to the conventional fleur-de-lis. The counter-seal of Louis VIII. shows a Norman-shaped shield semé of fleurs-de-lis of the conventional heraldic pattern. By then, of course, “Azure, semé-de-lis or” had become the fixed and determined arms of France. By an edict dated 1376, Charles V. reduced the number of fleurs-de-lis in his shield to three: “Pour symboliser la Sainte-Trinité.” [11]


í From the middle of the 14th c, when there was a crisis of succession in France, several works (mostly designed to legitimize the Valois claims on the throne, against Edward III of England), explain that the king of France “bears arms of three fleur-de-lis as sign of the blessed Trinity, sent by God through His angel to Clovis, first Christian king... telling him to erase the three crescents (!) he bore on his arms and replace them with the fleur-de-lis.”


Counterseal of Louis VII

Archives Nationales de France


The Clovis legend may be true in sofar that, according to Gregory of Tours, Clovis I (482-511), was granted the title of consul by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (491-518), following the Battle of Vouillé (507). Since Clovis's name does not appear in the consular lists, it is likely he was granted a suffect consulship. The insignia of this suffect consulship may have been an eagle as an insignia of rank and of a thunderbolt as an emblem of his armed authority. Such a combination was still on the counterseal of  Louis VII. [12]


In a broader context this meant for the later kings that the kingship of France was legitimized by Byzantium and that the thunderbolt was a symbol of this subordination. This was the more annoying as 14th-15th century Byzantium was slowly liquidated by the Ottoman Sultans who could pretend to be the legitimate successors of the Byzantine Emperors. The interpretation of the fleur de lis as a symbol of the Virgin Mary was to legitimize the French kingship by the Holy Virgin, thus avoiding any idea that it could be of Byzantine origin (let alone of Ottoman origin). To illustrate this, the arms of the Kings of France were first interpreted to be a symbol of the Holy Trinity, implying that the King of France was a reflection of the divine majesty. [13]  They  were, from the beginning of the 15th century, supported by angels, symbolizing a heavenly mandate.


The arms


The arms strewn with fleur de lys are the arms of officials holding a similar office of armed authority as the king of France or his bailiffs (representing royal authority, i.e. administrative, financial and judicial authority). In the first place these were the members of the Royal family (like the heir apparent) who held large fiefs, but also the Grand Feudataires, the prince-archbishops of France:









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© Hubert de Vries 2011-08-10. Updated 2014-06-19




[1]  Artin, Yacoub: Contribution a l'étude du blason en Orient.  Londres, 1902. Ch. IV p. 53

[2] This fleur de lys was probably ‘ínvented’ by french scientists to make it an ancient emblem of France.  In fact on the denarius of Hadrian with the legend RESTITUTORI GALLIÆ on the reverse, there is no trace of any fleur de lys nor is the personification a female but apparently a gaulish warrior.

[3] Mayer, L.A.: Saracenic Heraldry. A survey. Oxford, 1933/­1950. XVI + 302 pp. LXXI pl..

[4]  Blok, D.P.: De Franken, hun optreden in het licht der historie. Bussum, 1968. fig. 24, p. 113.

[5] Fleetwood, Harold.: Svenska medeltida kungasigill. 1936. N° 5 (1180-1202)

[6] Raadt, J. de: Sceaux Armoriés des Pays Bas et des Pays Avoisinants. (Belgique, Royaume des Pays Bas, Luxembourg, Allemagne, France.) Receuil Histori­que et Heraldique. Bruxelles, 1897.

[7] Robert II, the Pious,  996-1031.

[8] The lily was made a symbol of the Holy Virgin when a point was made of her virginity. Early statuettes of  St. Mary show her with a globe in her hand  and a child on her lap. In fact these were no portraits of St. Mary at all but portraits of the queen or empress with the heir apparent on her lap. They were a demonstration that the succession was guaranteed (thus avoiding successional strife). After the time of iconoclasm they could be worshipped  when they were but called St. Mary.  See also my Empress Irene and her Son

[9] This is the so-called Lilienhaspel in the arms of Cleve. Originally this is a carbuncle, a version of the thunderbolt consisting of eight rays ending in fleurs de lis.  This german  Cleve has nothing to do with Clovis of course.

[10] The greek name of the thunderbolt (κεραυνός) is missing even when the emblem originates in Byzantium.  Artin op.cit. suggests that in Byzantium the figure was also called a lily but the word means: tulip.

[11] Fox Davies, A.F.: A Complete Guide to Heraldry

[12] A combination of an eagle and a thunderbolt also on the shield of  Sutton Hoo belonging to the Bretwalda of England, King Rædwald of East Anglia (600-624).

[13] Bulletin du Comité de la Langue, de l’ Histoire et des Arts de la France T. 4, 1857. p. 239-249.