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French Connection: The Fleur-de-Lis and Who It Stands For

At the recent Uni Watch 25th Anniversary/Farewell party for Paul in NYC, I struck up a conversation with reader/contributor Walter Helfer (pictured on right, with UW stalwart Kary Klismet on the left) who has been featured on UW several times. He’s perhaps most known for his wonderful hand drawn uniform concepts we sometimes lovingly refer to as “refrigerator art.” Walter, perhaps more of a vexillologist than he let on, told me about an idea he had for the ubiquity of the fleur-de-lis on North American flags, and also on the uniforms of some teams located in or near the cities whose flags display that insignia. Here’s a couple quick shots of Walter showing off his work to fellow Uni Watchers.

I’ll now turn this over to Walter, who has done a deep dive into the fleur-de-lis in North American flags and uniforms.

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French Connection: The Fleur-de-Lis and Who It Stands for
by Walter Helfer

The fleur-de-lis is a common heraldic insignia (or “charge”, in knight-speak) in the shape of a lily. In coats of arms, it is depicted as frequently as pieces of armor and rampant lions. It is best known as a symbol of France, French-speaking people, and French history in the governments of England, Canada, and the U.S. (Wikipedia presents a hypothesis where the FDL has less in common with lilies than the yellow irises which grow on the banks of the Lys River in Flanders.)

The fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys; both spellings are accepted) is a popular architectural motif and can be often seen as finials and atop posts of iron fences. For our purposes, we are going to investigate the symbol’s relevance to various cities and places. The FDL is perhaps the earliest-known example of a logo, insofar as it can be rendered in hundreds of different ways, but still be recognized as the same item. (I know the moon, to cite an example, can be rendered as a crescent, a pockmarked white circle, or a jovial man’s face. But the FDL has a head-spinning number of mutations, not just a few.)

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Canada

According to Wikipedia, between 1534 and 1763, what is now Quebec was the French colony of Canada and was the most developed colony in New France. Following the Seven Years’ War, Canada became a British Colony, first as a province of Quebec (1763-1791), then Lower Canada (1763-1791), and lastly part of the Province of Canada (1841-1867).

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Montreal

Perhaps in recognition of its place as an international city, and its importance to Canada, Montreal’s use of the FDL is stealthy. None were seen on the NHL Canadiens’ uniforms, nor at Expo ’67 nor the 1976 Olympics. The baseball Expos only added a small FDL as a diacritical over the “e” in “Montreal” in 1992. A pair of FDL appear on the crest of the MLS Club de Foot.

Quebec City

A separatist movement was growing in Quebec, and the NHL Nordiques realized they could gain some support by making their uniforms resemble provincial flags. Prior to the team’s transfer to Denver, the Nords showed a blue, black and teal uniform they planned to adopt for the 1996-97 season, bearing FDLs on the shoulders.

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Louisiana/Louisiana Purchase

All places named for King Louis IX were colonized by the French, and bear some ownership of the FDL.

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Lafayette

The FDL is an insignia for the University of Louisiana.

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New Orleans

The Saints wear a FDL on their helmets as a symbol of the City of New Orleans. The NFL Saints and Bills use an insignia of the city rather than some representation of the team name.

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St. Louis

According to Wikipedia, in 1764, Pierre Laclede and his stepson Auguste Chouteau founded what was to become the city of St. Louis.

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Louisville

Per Wikipedia, in 1780, the Virginia General Assembly approved the town charter of Louisville. The city was named in honor of King Louis IX of France, whose soldiers were then aiding Americans in the Revolutionary War.

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Detroit

From Wikipedia, in 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and Alphonse de Tonty founded Ft. Ponchartrain du Detroit.

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Nashville

According to Wikipedia, in 1714, a group of French traders under the command of Charles Charleville established a settlement and trading post at the present location of downtown Nashville, which became known as French Lick. In 1779, explorers James Robertson and John Donelson led a party of Overmountain men to the site of French Lick, and built Ft. Nashborough. It was named for Francis Nash, the American Revolutionary War hero.

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New Rochelle, NY

I’m writing this in the Queen City of the Sound (trust me, “Queen Cities” is a similar subject ripe for investigation). New Rochelle takes its name from La Rochelle, France, and was named by Huguenot immigrants escaping persecution from Louis XIV.

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Bosnia & Herzegovina

Adopted a coat of arms with six gold FDL in recognition of the Capetian House of Anjou, who enabled Bosnia’s first king, Tvrtko I, to assume the throne.

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Scouting USA

The FDL was chosen to represent the Boy Scouts owing to its use as the Northern point of the compass rose. The three petals are symbolic of the Scouts’ threefold virtues: Duty to God and Country, Duty to Self, and Duty to Others. Another tripartite heraldic emblem, the trefoil, is the insignia of the Girl Scouts.

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Thanks, Walter! How about it readers? Any North American flags or unis with a fleur-de-lis we may have left out? Which flag is your favorite?

 
  
 
Comments (45)

    For the record, the flag for Quebec City is actually the Quebec (province) flag.

    I was surprised to see the boat on Quebec City’s flag. Not what I was expecting.

    If I’m not mistaken it’s the boat of Samuel De Champlain who founded the city in 1608. It also is bordered by the walls of the old city (or ramparts). The walls of the old part of city is where the Quebec Remoarts junior hockey team takes their name and logo

    Yep.

    The flag of Quebec City doesn’t have the fleur de lis on it either . It looks like it did until a redesign in 1987.

    I’m just commenting to note that the current Louisville flag is a travesty, especially considering the one it replaced.

    link

    My adopted home of Baton Rouge has one on its flag. The Louisiana flag in the article is the one for the Acadiana (Cajun) region, where I’m originally from.

    The flag shown for Louisiana/Louisiana Purchase is actually the flag of Acadiana, not Louisiana. Acadiana is the region in south-central Louisiana associated with Cajun history ad culture. (“Cajun” being a shortened/bastardized form of “Acadian”). That flag was designed in 1965 and adopted by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1974.

    The Louisiana state flag has a white pelican on a blue field.

    From the Montreal flag and its lack of a daffodil it seems that the Welsh are not welcome

    If you grease the right palm, Montreal will happily put any emblem on the flag, apparently.

    The four symbols around the cross represent the four founding peoples of Montreal – French, British, Irish and Scottish. The middle emblem (not sure what kind of tree) was added somewhat recently to represent the First Peoples’ land where the city stands.

    We have nothing against the Welsh! They just weren’t part of the founding nations.

    It’s a white pine, chosen by the First Nations peoples of Montreal. It is apparently a Haudenosaunee and Algonquin symbol.

    Florence, Italy also use the FDL and is very much a symbol of the city. It is/was on coat of arms of the Medici (Florence’s First family if you will)

    link

    Plus the logo of local football (as in soccer) team Fiorentina! Another FDL!

    FDL was also the name of a high-end prostitution service in LA in the 00’s (ostensibly inspired by the film LA Confidential). The FDL logo was used, of course.

    Without any bias, I feel like St. Louis has the third best city flag. Chicago and D.C. definitely deserve the top two slots. Denver and Phoenix typically hold the 3 and the 4, but I truly think St. Louies is better.

    As a Denver resident, can I suggest that we just agree you’ve named the consensus top five and leave it at that? :^)

    In the name of diplomacy? Yes.
    In the name of honesty? No.
    And I promise you, I am not being a “homer”. I actually own Denver’s flag and fly it periodically. It is a great one, but I have Portland in the 4 slot.

    It would be interesting to know more of the details about who was behind the design of these flags. I’ll admit I don’t think cultural appropriation is as big a problem as many others do in this hobby, but nonetheless it would be interesting to know how many of these flags (and their accompanying fleur-des-lis) were designed by actual French people and how many were designed by people of other cultures wanting to honor or otherwise recognize the French.

    Should have looked this up before commenting, but apparently the correct plural form is “fleurs-de-lis”, which does grammatically make more sense than the way I spelled it.

    Great stuff, Walter! I love your dive into this topic! From a flag standpoint, I can think of one current flag that could be added to this list, one that theoretically/aspirationally SHOULD be added, and one retired flag.

    The first is Adams County in southwest Iowa (link). Obviously, Iowa was French territory before the Louisiana Purchase and has some history with French fur traders before then, but I don’t know much about why Adams County would adopt a fleur de lis for its symbol otherwise.

    Sticking with Iowa, the City of Dubuque, on the high bluffs of the Mississippi River where Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois meet, has some deep French history. It’s named after Julien Dubuque the first French settler in Iowa. With so many possibilities for a great flag based on that history, the city instead uses this dud: link. But a group of history and vexillology enthusiasts in Dubuque have proposed a new fleur de lis-adorned flag they refer to as “Julien’s Flag” (link), and I hope to dear heaven that their efforts are successful!

    Finally, Duluth, Minn., used to have a flag that looked like this: link. They retired it in 2019 and replace it with this one: link. They new one is better, vexillologically-speaking. Slapping a government seal on a flag is a major no-no in terms of good flag design. But I do miss the fleurs de lis on the old one and wish they could have figured out a way to incorporate them in the new flag.

    From the sports uniform and sports logo standpoint, I think there’s room for an entire post on this subject! Obviously, Walter’s already mentioned the New Orleans Saints and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns above, but several other teams have used fleurs de lis as well. Obviously, there’s the Quebec Nordiques: link. I also recall that the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have used FDL secondary logos: (link) and (link). Louisville’s men’s and women’s professional soccer teams both use fleurs de lis for their primary logos: (link) and (link). And little Limestone University in South Carolina does, too: link.

    …and I now see that Walter already mentioned the Nordiques above as well. I somehow missed that one on my first read-through.

    I’ll fess up to whiffing on NOLA’s basketball teams. Oddly, the Jazz had no interest in the FDL. The Nawlins Hawnits famously utilized the “Fleur De Bee” as a secondary logo, but the Pelicans have leaned in heavily on all aspects of the Crescent City, not the least of which are uniforms that look like flags.

    The minor league Louisville Redbirds included a yellow FDL in their logo, but St. Louis ultimately has just as much right to the symbol.

    Texas had a flag with many fleur de lis when they were briefly under French rule. It’s one of the Six Flags over Texas

    “[T]rust me, ‘Queen Cities’ is a similar subject ripe for investigation

    Ooh! You should totally do that bit, Walter! As a resident of a city (Denver) that has used several different “Queen City” nicknames over the years and is in a long-running, low-key feud with Helena, Mt., over another, I think that would be a fascinating topic for exploration!

    Yeah I recently moved from the “Queen City” of Cincinnati to near another “Queen City” of Manchester, NH

    Curious and ignorant – outside of North America, how does the French and francophone world view the flour de lis? I imagine in Haiti, Africa and Vietnam the French linguistic heritage is probably not viewed as positively as in USA/Canada. But for the French in Europe view the fleur de lis as something of a national symbol, or do they view it negatively because it’s wrapped up with royalists?

    I wondered if someone was gonna mention that. In fact, am I mistaken in what I’ve heard about the symbol being used in this country during slavery days? Just wondering because I know in this day and age when something is found to have a problematic history people try to make it go away. However this symbol seems to be embraced by a lot of people in a part of the world (here) where not everyone is going to necessarily have a real reason to. Anyone have any information on that? I hope if this symbol is really not good we aren’t just gonna pretend there isn’t a problem.

    The note about the Bills and Saints both using an insignia related to their city is interesting and appreciated; I had never put it together that the Bills use Buffalo imagery throughout their team identity despite being named after Buffalo Bill.

    link

    Good timing. Two-time defending Tour de France winning Team Visma | Lease-A-Bike just announced their special tour kits, which prominently feature the Fleur-de-Lys.

    link

    Note that the Nashville flag specifically uses the FDL as the north point of the compass rose, as per the origin of the Scouting use of the FDL.

    This actually hits a bit of an overlap for me — the only uniform I wear is the Scout uniform; I’m a local leader and I’m a longtime collector of Scout patches and insignia. Post-1976, there was a requirement that all patches include either an FDL or the corporate abbreviation “BSA” on them–that hasn’t been enforced 100%, but it’s pretty much universal, and “pre-FDL” is used to refer to patches issued prior to this requirement and without the identifying logo or initials.

    Are Rock Revival Jeans still a thing? I know they have an upside-down fleur de lis on their back pockets.

    I’m surprised that the Saints use this on their helmet and as the symbol of the team. There is no way for them to patent this, so it’s easy to produce and sell gear without the team or the NFL getting compensated. Just take a gold shirt or hat and put a black fleur-de-lis on it, or black shirt or hat with a gold fleur-de-lis, and there’s nothing the NFL can do about it.

    Interestingly enough, the Saints do have federally registered trademarks on several of their logos, including this one:

    link

    I suspect you’re right, though, Rick, that the Saints might have trouble enforcing their mark against any number of knockoffs that are *just* different enough in the style of the fleur de lis to not be exact copies.

    Interesting. I guess it’s the lines in it, but put out a fleur-de-lis that’s solid and slightly different shape, and they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. I was on Bourbon Street and a bunch of stores were selling this on black or gold shirts and hats.

    Detroit City FC uses it in their logo, behind a rendering of the Spirit of Detroit statue.
    link

    I’ve always wondered about this symbol.
    Seems like it is a controversial symbol.

    Not a North American team, but the FDL has always been a prominent part of the ACF Fiorentina badge.

    As a graphic artist I think flags and uniform interests are cut from the same cloth (pun intended, sorry) One of my favorite heraldic/flag devices is the Ermine, which is present on the Flag of Brittany. I love the BW and the similarity to the US flag. link

    The St. Louis Browns wore the FDL on their caps from 1908-10, and later adopted the silhouette of the statue of King Louis IX as a logo — both overt references to the French origins of their city:

    link

    I have lived in Detroit/the Metro-Detroit area my entire life. With all the leagues jumping on the trend of “city” focused uniforms, I’ve always felt not embracing the deep French influence on the city and the fleur de lis in an alternate has been a huge miss.

    A few Dutch flags:
    Town of Hooghalen: 4 de lis link
    Ald Beets: quite garish link
    Bornwird: interesting color swapping in the diagonal link
    Boornbergum: link
    Britswert: part of a sideways anchor link

    Florissant, Missouri, a suburb in north St Louis County, uses FDL in its city flag. The town has roots back to Spanish and French territorial eras. The street signs in Old Town still have French names. St Denis Street shows as “Rue St Denis,” etc.

    link

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