Clovis, Clotilde and the Fleur-de-lis

Considered to be the sign of our French identity in North America, the fleur-de-lis stirs up a lot of curiosity on the part of our cousins from the other side of the Atlantic. The French in particular find it funny that American Francophones, living in the land of egalitarian values, have chosen the symbol of an absolute monarchy to declare our ethnic belonging. Indeed, from Quebec to Louisiana, by way of St. Louis, Detroit and elsewhere, the fleur-de-lis is displayed prominently as our mark of distinction. Even the New Orleans Saints, whom no one would accuse of being sissies, does not worry about the fact they have a flower on their helmet. We know that it is the emblem of a certain nobility. Contrary to what you might believe, the fleur-de-lis is not at all a lily, but an iris. So, where do this name and this symbol come from and why are we in the bosom of the American Republic so proud of it?

Hofkirche, the Court Church in Innsbruck, Austria, houses a cenotaph, or empty tomb, of Maximilian 1st, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Surrounding the monument are twenty-eight imposing bronze statues, representing illustrious monarchs, both real and fictional, such as King Arthur, Kunigunde of Austria and Godefry of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem. Almost unnoticed in a corner, a little man stands behind his shield displaying three frogs and three fleurs-de-lis. Long before he was a crawfish, Clovis was a Salian Frank and the first Christian king of what was to become France. His wife Clotilde (I swear to you, that’s her name) was from a noble family whose social rank was far superior to that of this barbarian chief of a pagan tribe. She was the one to convince him to convert by getting baptized, at the same time as 3,000 of his troops, by the Bishop of Reims, Remy, probably on Christmas Day 499. At that time, he changed his insignia from three frogs to three fleurs-de-lis, even if frogs remain strongly identified with the French, but for other reasons. From then on, the fleur-de-lis is indissociable from the French Christian monarchy.

The Salian Franks came from a swampy region between what is today France and Belgium. One of the rivers in their territory was called, and is still called today, the Lys. Irises grew in abundance on the banks of this river. Since Clovis’ conversion to Christianity, the fleur-de-lis has been the symbol of French monarchs and especially the Bourbons, right up to the present most Christian King of Spain, Juan Carlos 1st, a direct descendant of the Sun King himself, Louis XIV. I don’t know if His Majesty approves of everything that happens on Bourbon Street, but he still has the fleur-de-lis on his royal coat of arms.

When our ancestors arrived in North America, it was under the ancient régime. It was with the King’s stamp of approval that we came to establish ourselves here. Having the King’s stamp was not always very pleasant. In Philippe de Broca’s 1975 film, “Let Joy Reign Supreme”, he tells in part the story of the arrival of the French taken out of prison to go populate the new colony of Louisiana. There is one particularly intense scene where several of them are branded with the fleur-de-lis to show they were the King’s property. It was such a common practice that the “Code Noir” of 1685 ordered the same punishment for any runaway or thieving slave. It must be said that these legal texts were not known for their nuance and subtlety.

Nonetheless, the fleur-de-lis, no pun intended, had made an indelible mark on Louisiana.

Luckily, its use and connotation have changed since. On February 5, 1918, to celebrate the bicentennial of its founding, New Orleans adopted its flag which consists of a red stripe on top, a blue stripe on the bottom and three golden fleurs-de-lis on a white field, thirty years before Québec decided to put four fleurs-de-lis on theirs. Thanks in large part to these two, the fleur-de-lis’ presence in the cities and lands of French origin is assured. So if you are asked why, you can answer, “It’s Clovis and Clotide’s fault”.

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