Chances are, you’ve seen a shape with three petals, a crossbar ring, and triple stalk. This stylized flower has been used for ornamental or symbolic purposes for almost one thousand years. This illustrious shape’s name? The fleur-de-lis.
Dig into the history of the fleur-de-lis (French for “flower of lily”), and you’ll find out it’s generally associated with French royalty. But like the best stories about kingdoms and monarchs, the fleur-de-lis’s history is little more complicated. The question of its origin has been the subject of a great deal of speculation.
The earliest examples of the fleur-de-lis come from pre-medieval art, but they are so rare and indistinct that some experts even argue that its appearance is simply coincidental. Sources disagree if King Louis VI or King Louis VII was the first French ruler to use the symbol on the country’s coat of arms, but we do know it happened sometime in the 12th century. After several years of continued use in the royal arms of France, the ornament became so associated with the country, people speculated that its name was “fleur de Louis.”
The fleur-de-lis was certainly not an exclusively French royal emblem—it was found in the heraldry of many unrelated families all over Europe during that period. English kings used the symbol on their own coats of arms to emphasize their claim to the throne of France. In Italy, fleurs-de-lis are still used for some papal crowns and coats of arms. Other countries using the emblem heraldically include Serbia and Spain.
In Christian sacred art, the fleur-de-lis has been identified with the Virgin Mary (the flower) and the Holy Trinity (the tri-parted figure). The French believed the symbol to be a gift from heaven to Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks. Even today the symbol’s resemblance to a spearhead is used in military units, including divisions of the Untied States Army, to identify martial power and strength.
Regardless of its origin or political and religious meaning, there’s no question that the fleur-de-lis has transcended many worlds of design and art. Countless societies have embraced the symbol as part of their own, and the fleur-de-lis has, therefore, stood the test of time. From 18th century French copper milk pail, Louis XV-style settee, or German Biedermeier dining chairs, the fleur-de-lis can adorn on any form and style. The fleur-de-lis is a true style star, immortal to any passing trend.