The fleur de lys is an extremely familiar symbol, beloved of interior designers and fashion designers, and is an almost universal motif. It also features on many flags such as that of Quebec. However, there is a much older religious imagery associated with this flower as it triune shape suggests the Trinity. Moreover, it is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary and many depictions of her portray her with a lily or the fleur de lys motif, the most famous of which is probably the Vierge de Paris statue that adorns Notre Dame Cathedral. The white lily, an emblem of purity, is also linked to her spouse, St Joseph, and the Archangel Gabriel who is traditionally depicted holding the flower at the Annunciation, as seen in the painting below by Philippe de Champaigne.
Unfortunately, this is a serious and historically constant case of mistaken identity for the fleur de lys has nothing to do with lilies. Think of Monet’s water lilies; do they really suggest the form of the fleur de lys, other than a close inspection of their stamens? The fleur de lys is, in reality, an iris, the species iris pseudacorus to be precise, a yellow beauty of a flower that favours waterside and wetland conditions and grows alongside rivers, streams, and ponds. The image below amply demonstrates that this flower is the fleur de lys rather than the less glamorous water lily. According to an eighteenth-century naturalist, Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, the confusion arose from the lys actually referring to the river Lis rather than the floral homonym.
The fleur de lys probably evokes France for most people. It is a thoroughly Gallic image and yet there is a paradox here since this French association is grounded in the monarchy. It was the mark of the French Crown being used in coronation regalia, the national flag, and on public buildings. It is perhaps because it was so ubiquitous that it has survived several revolutions ousting several monarchies in France. It is not only French royalty that employed this shape but also many other national dynasties adopted it as part of their coats of arms, dress, or jewels. It adorns all royal crowns in the United Kingdom, as seen on the Imperial State Crown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament in May of this year.
This all begs the question of why the flower is so tied up with the display of royal power and in pageantry. The sacralization of European sovereigns in the Middle Ages does go some way to explain the borrowing of what had hitherto been a flower with sacred connotations, as does perhaps its golden hue. However, there is a problem here: the flower is not especially rare and not particularly uncommon, growing abundantly in the wild. The image below was taken by myself in May of this year on the campus at the University of Kansas and shows some of these irises next to Potter’s Lake (incidentally, the imposing building at the top of the picture is the Spencer Research Library – a purpose-built research library), not far from where I work.
So, why did this common plant find itself elevated to the adornment of crowns? If I were a cynical sort, I would suggest that it is because the iris pseudacorus is an invasive flower. It establishes itself at the expense of other plants and is very difficult to uproot, supplanting other organisms in the process. All royal claims ultimately boil down to usurpation or conquest, so this is, despite appearance and a case of mistaken identity, a very apt royal symbol after all.
The fleur de lys was also the focus of one of the strangest episodes in French history, when a man turned down the French throne over the matter of a flag. After the collapse of the Second Empire, French royalists became a majority in the National Assembly in 1871, for the first time. The problem was that they were deeply divided in the way that only French factions could be, between supporters of the comte de Paris, the Orléaniste claimant who was a descendant of Louis XIV’s cross-dressing brother Philippe and followers of the légitimiste comte de Chambord, who was a direct descendant of Louis XIV. A perfect compromise was found, however, that miraculously united these two inimical groups: the comte de Chambord was aged in his 50s and childless. He would rule as Henri V until he died, then the crown would pass on to the comte de Paris. It seemed like a flawless plan. Except that the comte de Chambord dictated that he would only consider becoming king if the Tricolore flag, an emblem of republican values, was abolished before he was appointed. He wanted the traditional royal flag embellished with the fleur de lys, below, as the sole national French flag. Negotiations attempted to persuade him to accept a concession whereby the royal flag would be the fleur de lys standard and the national one the Tricolore, but Henri would not have it and France’s chance of returning to a monarchy was lost forever, with the exception of a brief prospect of a restoration of the monarchy during the disastrous Fourth Republic of the 1950s, a possibility satirized in the positively brilliant novel by John Steinbeck, The Short Reign of Pippin IV.
He issued a declaration to the French people on 5 July, 1871, ending with the rousing motto: “Henri V ne peut abandonner le drapeau blanc d’Henri IV” – Henri V cannot abandon the white flag of Henri IV. He gave up the throne over a flag. A nineteenth-century historian friend has suggested that there may be more than meets the eye to this story of stubborness and political loss and that Henri had evidence that his mother had had an affair of which he was a product. As a devout Catholic he could not take a throne that he knew did not belong to him by right and he therefore concocted a stance over the flag to avoid becoming monarch. We will most likely never know the truth but it is a powerful example of the draw of the fleur de lys.
Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver and fired blue enamel by Kai Zaunick, a German designer based in Lima, Peru, and they bear his maker’s mark and symbol. The clear blue enamel is beautifully intense, complementing the locally sourced silver in a fetching way, also making for an attractive background to the fleur de lys adorning the faces. The iris is my favourite flower as there is something captivating about its fragile form, so the fact that the fleur de lys refers to the iris rather than the lily is, to me at least, a happy case of mistaken identity.