It has been supposed that the original device from which the fleur de lys was borrowed was the head of a javelin, halberd, or lance, formed by a centrepiece, or point of iron strengthened by two cross-pieces, which were tied or bound by a ligature, or key-piece, of the same metal;* and it was evidently the prevailing opinion when Dame Juliana Barnes wrote, that the arms of the King of France "were certainli sende by an Aungell from Heaven, that is to say, iij flowris in maner of swordis in a field of azure, the which certain armys were giuen to the aforesaid King of Fraincee in sygne of euerlasting trowbull, and that he and his successors always with battle and swords should be punished".
* This has been more particularly insisted upon in cases where it is employed, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as an architectural finial; and Planche shews that it was employed for the top of the sceptre, or for the sword hilt, from the earliest period of the French monarchy. It was also adopted in England, and elsewhere in Christendom. Selden mentions an extant MS., written under the instructions of King Edgar, on the reformation of monastic manners, and ornamented with a contemporaneous portrait of that monarch, wearing the crown fleuri; in which, also, Edward the Confessor is represented on some of his coins: that is to say, with the open crown, or bandalet (the cynebcend, or royal fillet, of the Saxons, as their cynehelme was the helmet encircled by the fillet, which is now represented by the modern crown) surmounted with fleurs de lys set at intervals. William the Conqueror, on his great seal, wears a similar crown, with crosses alternating with the fleurs de lys; as does Henry I., both upon his seal and his coins: these monarchs did not - like their successors - adopt their emblem in proof, real or fancied, of their claim to sovereignty in France; and, as is justly remarked by Mr. Leake, in his valuable "Notes on Crowns," Edward the Confessor probably selected it (for though given in the above-named drawing of Edgar, it does not appear on Saxon coins until the time of this saintly monarch) on account of its still earlier application to the kings of the Bible, as seen in almost every early Saxon drawing illustrative of Scripture narrative. (See a MS. in the "Bib. Cottoniana," etc.) The sanctity attached to the flower will easily explain this.
The flower itself was formerly called flos gladioli, whence our botanical tribe of gladiolus, or sword-flower, in allusion to the form of its leaves.
Others, again, incline to the belief that the flower was the original device; and it certainly is difficult to suppose that the name originated in that of the king who adopted it, or that the fleur de Louis, or fleur de St. Louis, as it was sometimes written, was gradually corrupted into fleur de luce, and thence into fleur de lys. Indeed, the love of punning devices,* and of play upon words, common in those days, is more likely to have discovered a resemblance between the name of the flower and that of the king, after it had been employed as a device, than to have led to its adoption. Nor is there any proof of its having been first adopted by a Louis. The device is very unlike the real flower; and it has, therefore, been conjectured that it was derived from some other object, the form of which had obtained for it a particular respect, in consequence of its being considered a proper symbol of the Trinity. At the same time we must admit that the conventional mode of drawing in those days may have so represented the lily.
This plant was considered peculiarly sacred to the Virgin Mary, as shewn in the pleasant and suggestive old tale of the knight, who, as noble and zealous as he was ignorant and untaught, became from conviction, a monk; and being too advanced in age to acquire the "book learning" not imparted to him in his earlier days, could never repeat more than two words of a single prayer. These were Ave Maria, and with these he constantly addressed his prayer to Heaven. Night and day the prayer ceased not until the good knight died, and lay buried in the chapel yard of the convent, when the acceptance of his brief, but earnest, prayer was shewn by a plant of fleur de lys, which springing up on his grave, and blossoming, displayed in every flower the words Ave Maria shining as golden letters. The sight of this induced the monks, who had formerly despised him on account of his ignorance, to open the grave which had produced so great a miracle; when they found that the root of the plant rested on the lips of the pious old soldier who lay mouldering there.*
* See above, "Broom" and "Thistle." In the same spirit is the old representation of the Dominican friars under the form of dogs - Domini canes - which protect the flock and kill the wolves; and they are thus figured by Simone Memmi in the chapter house of S. Maria Novella, at Florence. A dog is sculptured, among the figures in the porch of the Duomo of Verona, habited in a white dress with a cowl, and bearing an open book, in which is written A. B. Porcell. But this, probably, refers to some individual. I believe it to be of the twelfth century.
Some writers again assert that France adopted this device in honour of her noblest son, Bertrand du Guesclin; but the date of this brave Breton at once contradicts it, although the mistake may have arisen from his monarch Charles V., having during his lifetime re-arranged the shield, as before stated.†
Beconsidering, then, the various opinions to which I have referred, the reasonable conclusion is: 1. That the fleur de lys was a conventional symbol used long before it entered into the arms of France;
* "Golden Legend".
† Du Guesclin died in the year 1380. During the reign of Charles V. considerable attention was paid to the subject of compass to symbolise the north by its reputed inventor, Flavio Gioia, of Amalfi, in the year 1302, who thus intended to pay a delicate compliment to the French descent of the then King of Naples.
2. That it was commonly employed in that country as an ornament more than two centuries before the reign of Louis IX.; 3. That already in the year 1125 the banner of France was "semee de fleurs de lys," and that various objects had on them the same emblems of indefinite number; and that these were reduced to three in the reign of Philippe III., or even later.
In confirmation of the two former it will be sufficient to direct attention to the fact of their appearing on the crown of Edward the Confessor, and of their being one of the devices throughout the border of the Bayeux tapestry. The triple leaf also occurs on the crown of Charlemagne, in a Latin MS. of the ninth century; and this was commonly attached to royal crowns at those periods.