Yellow Flag and the Fleur-de-lys

The stylish Iris pseudacorus, Yellow Flag, stands proud in lakeside margins. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Iris pseudacorus has just come into flower locally. I have always called it Yellow Flag. It also goes by the following common names:

  • Yellow Iris
  • Daggers
  • Flagon
  • Jacob’s Sword
  • Water Flag
  • Water Skegs
  • Yellow Fleur-de-lis

The last name is particularly intriguing as it alludes to the possibility that Iris pseudacorus is the historical inspiration for the heraldic Fleur-de-lis or Fleur-de-lys. There is certainly a passing resemblance to the flower’s 3 standards and 3 falls (allowing for some artistic licence). The Fleur-de-lys’ historical usage is not confined to a single country. Its strongest associations are undoubtedly with France and French royalty through the ages. It traditionally appeared as a yellow symbol on a blue background in France.

History and Myth

Sorting fact from fiction and myth from history is nigh well impossible after centuries. Stories pass by word of mouth. There are gaps in written records and accounts. There are rival claims, most notably from Florence’s Iris florentina. That particular Iris is white. It seems impossible to go near Iridaceae and the Iris genus without getting into an historic, taxonomic muddle (see previous Bearded Irises blog). The origins of the Fleur-de-lys seem even more complicated.

Madonna Lily

The obvious starting point is to seek out French sources in French. A gardening article in Le Monde proposed the Lily as the origin of the Fleur-de-lys, ‘Flower of Lily’. It is not even in the same plant family. Is the white Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum, the true inspiration for the Fleur-de-lys?

Symbolism

The Fleur-de-lys also had strong significance for the Catholic Church. It symbolised virginity and purity. There are multiple layers of symbolism and history intermingled. The plant’s medicinal properties, beauty and fragrance were prized in Medieval times. The symbolism of monarchy and religion were interwoven. A woman’s white complexion was valued in Medieval times. The flower came to symbolise a combination of Medieval aspirational heights in both male knightly qualities and feminine virginal purity and beauty. The plant’s physical characteristics were almost forgotten. The focus was on the qualities that the flower evoked through the multiple strands of its symbolism.

Which Flower?

We should not be surprised perhaps, that the flower’s symbolism evolved away from the Yellow Flag to the white Madonna Lily over time. Today, an article about Lilies is most likely to be illustrated with photographs of colourful Asiatic and Oriental Lilies. They come first to mind.

Heraldic Decoration

Sir George Bellow pours some cold water on lofty, floral associations. He writes for the UK’s Heraldry Society that the Fleur de Lys was originally ‘considered to be no more than a distinctive, decorative, and pleasing heraldic pattern‘. The weighty symbolism was added later. The heraldic Fleur de Lys was not an exclusively French design. It predated French usage and evolved over centuries. There are non-floral suggestions for design inspiration such as a spear-head, a bee or a frog. The heraldic Fleur de Lys can be found across Europe with unrelated usage, where it survives while French revolutionaries abandoned it.

Languedoc Link

So, where did the Yellow Flag tale originate? The cited source is Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages (1710-1795). He was a learned man: a naturalist, botanist, linguist and lexicographer. Although he studied theology, he was ordained as a priest only in his sixties at the insistence of his bishop. His life was devoted to erudition. His ecclesiastical background may have given him access to primary, trusted sources in Medieval French and Latin. His published works included a major Languedoc-French dictionary, as well as books on silkworms, mulberry tree cultivation and the origins of honey. Lexicography is a painstaking profession with careful referencing and fact-checking. This lends some credence to the Yellow Flag tale.

Origin?

According to Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, the Franks lived around the river Leie or Lys in Flanders before moving into Gaul. They referred to a yellow Iris as the Fleur-de-lys, i.e. the flower of the River Lys. The flower was said to resemble a yellow Iris because of its shape and colour, rather than a Lily. This description evokes Iris pseudacorus with its yellow colour, shape and riverside habitat.

We note that the Fleur-de-lys is an emblem of the north-eastern French city of Lille. It is a native European flower, whereas Lilium candidum is a naturalised plant in France with origins from North Macedonia to south-west Turkey, from Lebanon to Israel. Furthermore, Iris pseudacorus is recognised as a symbol for the Brussels region of Belgium.  The flower reputedly helped the Duke of Brabant’s forces. Local knowledge meant that they rode their horses where the Yellow Flags grew in shallow marshes. The enemy got stuck in the marshes as they did not know the flooded plains and its vegetation as well.

Shallow Marginal Plant

Iris pseudacorus can form dense stands of vegetation in the shallow water of rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes. It has gained an unfortunate, invasive reputation in some areas. The plant appears to offer other saving graces beyond ensuring an historic military victory. It can tolerate poor quality, marshy conditions. It is chosen to help purify water. Researchers note an ability to tolerate the salinity of brackish water, although it cannot adjust to sea water.

The Yellow Flag’s role in heraldic history has become obscured and largely forgotten. It may potentially have a new role to play in increasingly flooded plains due to climate change. We may never be able to separate myth, symbolism and history satisfactorily. The Yellow Flag’s tale is nonetheless a fascinating demonstration of the importance of plants in both the past and current times.

Iris pseudacorus, Yellow Flag, forms dense stands as a shallow, marginal plant. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References, Further Reading and Viewing

Bécuwe, François (1998-2010): Le Lys héraldique. Last accessed 9 May 2020.

Bellow, Sir George (2018): The Fleur de Lys. The Heraldry Society. Last accessed 9 May 2020.

Dominguez, Audrey (2016): Le lis au Moyen Âge. Littératures. 2016. HAL id: Dumas-01622816. Last accessed 10 May 2020.

Huilin Zhao, Fen Wang & Min Ji (2015): Brackish Eutrophic Water Treatment by Iris pseudacorus L.-Planted Microcosms: Physiological Responses of Iris pseudacorus L. to Salinity. International Journal of Phytoremediation,17:9, 814-821

Kloess, J. P. (2018): An Anecdotal History of the ‘Fleur de Lis’. YouTube. 10 June 2018. Last accessed 9 May 2020

Le Monde (2018?): Fleur de lys : signification, symbole et histoire. Jardiner avec Binette & Jardin. Last accessed 9 May 2020.

Les Récoltes sauvages de Virginie (2017): Fleur de lis. Blog 1 December 2017. Last accessed 9 May 2020.

Maxwell, Mandy (2011): The Most Popular Iris in the World – Flag Iris. Flowershopnetwork. Blog 18 May 2011 Last accessed 9 May 2020.

Occitanica (?): Lo Diccionari lengadocian-francés de Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages. Last accessed 9 May 2020

RHS (2020): Iris pseudacorus. Yellow Iris. RHS Gardening. Last accessed 10 May 2020.

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