Sandy’s Garden: Fleur-de-lis

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The Queen’s birthday has now passed.

Her Majesty has restored her published age to being twelve years greater than mine – for some months the gap has been a mere eleven years – and my thoughts turned belatedly to matters monarchical.

I was idly looking at the Royal coat of arms for Scotland, the Scottish heraldic device being, of course, somewhat different from its English counterpart. First adopted during the late Middle Ages, the heraldic description of this coat of arms is worth quoting in full, if only to enjoy the wonderfully-archaic language. And here is that description.

“Crest: Upon the Royal helm the crown of Scotland Proper, thereon a lion sejant affronté Gules armed and langued Azure, Royally crowned Proper holding in his dexter paw a sword and in his sinister a sceptre, both Proper. Escutcheon: Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory-counter-flory of the second. Supporters: Unicorns Argent Royally crowned Proper, armed, crined and unguled Or, gorged with a coronet of the second composed of crosses patée and fleurs-de-lis a chain affixed thereto passing between the forelegs and reflexed over the back also of the second. Sinister, holding the standard of Saint Andrew, dexter holding the banner of the Royal arms. Compartment: a compartment underneath from which issue thistles one towards each side of the escutcheon.”

I am sure, gentle reader, that you can immediately conjure up the coat of arms in your mind’s eye from this comprehensive description: but I want to concentrate on just one word – fleurs-de-lis. And I am equally sure that you are aware that the word ‘fleurs’ translates into modern English as ‘flowers’. But a study of your mind’s eye image probably fails to find any observable flowers, raising the obvious question, ‘Are fleurs-de-lis actually flowers?’ And the answer, very helpfully, is yes-and-no – yes, in that the translation of the French term ‘fleur-de-lis’ is ‘ lily flowers’; and no, in that the fleur-de-lis or fleur-de-lys is a highly stylized lily flower which is used in heraldry as a symbol of power, might and right..

The use of fleurs-de-lis in heraldic devices goes back as far as the beginning of recorded history. One explanation of its use is that it represents the lily which supposedly sprang up where Eve’s tears fell to the ground as she was expelled from the Garden of Eden – and you can’t go much further back in human history than that! The ancient Greeks regarded the lily … or iris, for, until relatively recent times, the two names were used for the same flower … as the flower of the moon goddess Hera, and so a symbol of purity. This association led to the early Christians associating the flower with the Virgin Mary. In an apparent confusion of dates, Mary supposedly gave Clovis, King of the Franks, a baptismal gift of fleur-de-lis, despite the king having been born more than 400 years after Mary’s death. Be that as it may, when Pope Leo III crowned the French King Charlemagne in the year 800 AD, he presented Charlemagne with a banner of gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background to mark both his greatness and his goodness.

From that point on, the French kings used the fleur-de-lis as an emblem of their sovereignty; and mediaeval Scottish kings, who were close associates of the French, incorporated the device into their coat of arms, with the English monarchs following suit several centuries later. And that is why the fleur-de-lis features in both the Scottish and English versions of the Royal coat of arms to this very day.