The Flower-de-luce or Fleur-de-lis

Iris pseudacorus, Yellow Iris, Flower-de-luce, Fleur-de-lis in Shakespeare
Yellow Iris by A. Barra  CC BY 3.0

" ... what sayest thou, my fair flower-de-luce"

- Henry V, Act V, Scene 2

"Awake, awake, English nobility! 
Let not sloth dim your horrors new-begot: 
Cropp'd are the flower-de-luces in your arms"

 - Henry VI, Part I, Act I, Scene 1 

"I am prepared: here is my keen-edged sword, 
Deck'd with five flower-de-luces on each side"

- Henry VI , Part I, Act I, Scene 2 

"... have I a soul, 
On which I'll toss the flower-de-luce of France."

- Henry VI, Part II, Act V, Scene 1

"... lilies of all kinds, 
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack, 
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend, 
To strew him o'er and o'er!" 

- The Winter's Tale, Act IV, Scene 4 

The Flower-de-luce, more commonly known as the Fleur-de-lis, is a popular symbol in heraldry. During the medieval period it was particularly associated with the French monarchy. In Henry V, Henry refers to the French princess Katharine as "my fair flower-de-luce." Likewise when Shakespeare mentions the flower in Henry VI Part I and Part II, he is referring to its use as France's heraldic emblem. 

Fleur-de-lis heraldic emblem in Shakespeare
Illustration from Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary (1908)

Other spellings of the flower include Fleur de Lys, Flour de Lis, Fleur de luce, Flour Delyce, Flour Deluce, Flour de Lis, Floure De Luce and Floure Delice. 

There has been much debate among scholars as to what type of flower the Flower-de-luce or Fleur-de-lis is. In French fleur means flower and lis means Lily. Shakespeare himself refers to the flower as a Lily in The Winter's Tale. Likewise a contemporary of Shakespeare, St Francis de Sales (1567-1622) described the "beautiful flower-de-luce" as a flower with "six leaves whiter than snow, and in the middle pretty little golden hammers." (The Mystical Flora of St. Francis de Sales) Chaucer also seems to equate the Fleur-de-lis with the Lily, in The Canterbury Tales he writes "Her nekke was white as the Flour de Lis." 

However other writers of the period distinguish the Fleur-de-lis from other plants. In The Shepheardes Calender (1579) Spenser writes:

Strow mee the grounde with Daffadown-Dillies,
And Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loved Lillies;
The Pretty Pawnce And the Chevisaunce 
Shall match with the fayre Floure Delice. 

In Pan's Anniversary (1620) Ben Jonson writes, "Bring rich Carnations, Flower-de-luces, Lillies." In his Essay of Gardening (1625) Francis Bacon lists "the double white violet; the wallflower; the stock-gilliflower; the cowslip; flower-delices, and lilies of all natures." 

The herbalists William Turner and John Gerard identified the Flower-de-luce as the Iris (Iris pseudacorus), also known as the Yellow Flag. It was also identified, by later botanists, as the Blue Flag (Iris veriscolor). 

Blue Flag (Iris veriscolor) also called the Flower de luce
Blue Flag (Iris veriscolor)

According to Henry N. Ellacombe the confusion between Lily and Iris is not surprising. "Botanical classification was not very accurate in his [Shakespeare's] day, and long after his time two such celebrated men as Redoute and De Candolle did not hesitate to include in the "Liliacae," not only Irises, but Daffodils, Tulips, Fritillaries, and even Orchids." (The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare). It was only during the 19th century that the Iris ceased to be known as a Lily. 

The History of the Name

There are a number of stories as to how the Fleur-de-lis derived its name. Some believe it is a corruption of "Fleur de Louis", named after either King  Louis VI (1081-1137) or King Louis VII (1120-1180) of France, who placed it on their coat of arms. However the Fleur-de-lis had been used by the French monarchy for a number of years and appears on the seal of Philip I in 1066.

One legend says that the Fleur-de-lis was the flower given to the King of the Franks Clovis (466 - 511) by the Virgin Mary at his baptism. Lilies were the flower of the Virgin Mary. A similar legend recalls that when King Clovis was faced with defeat in battle, he prayed to the god of his Christian wife, Clothilde and won. He converted to Christianity and placed the flower on his banner in reverence to the Virgin Mary. Since that time the Fleur-de-lis has been taken to symbolize all the Christian Frankish kings, most notably Charlemagne who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He is reported to have been presented with a blue banner covered with golden Fleur-de-lis by Pope Leo III at his coronation. The French kings traced their heritage back to Clovis who united France under his rule in the 5th century. Interestingly as the heraldist Arthur Charles Fox Davies noted "the names Loys, Lois and Louis are derived from the name Clovis and Loys was the contemporary spelling used by the kings of France until Louis XIII." (A Complete Guide to Heraldry). So it has been claimed that Fleur-de-lis is a corruption of "Fleur-de-Loys."

Another theory for the Fleur-de-lis is that it derives its name from the river Lys, which is situated on the French borders with Flanders (modern day Belgium) and where the flower grows in abundance. The heraldist Fran├žois Velde noted "One species of wild iris, the Iris pseudacorus, yellow flag in English, is yellow and grows in marshes ... Its name in German is Lieschblume ... but Liesch was also spelled Lies and Leys in the Middle Ages. It is easy to imagine that, in Northern France, the Lieschblume would have been called "fleur-de-lis." This would explain the name and the formal origin of the design, as a stylized yellow flag." [Source

Type: Perennial

Height: Up to 5 feet

When to Plant:
Mid-summer to early autumn