The fleur-de-lys, a symbol of the French presence in North America, has featured on the Québec flag since 1948 and appears on the flags of a number of other French-speaking communities in Canada and the United States.
From Symbol of War to Symbol of Faith
It is unclear where the fleur-de-lys originated. Among the Egyptians, Persians, Arabs and Greeks, this arabesque evoked warrior-like power. It may be a crista (a sun symbol associated with the power of pagan warriors) or even a stylized phallus suggesting fertility. Brought back from the Crusades, the symbol became tied to the history of French kings after Louis IX’s canonization as Saint Louis on 11 August 1297. In depictions of the king’s life, a crista shines above his head by God’s will. This “tongue of fire” — a Biblical symbol — meant that the kings of France were chosen, crowned, and granted their power by God.
Scattered across North America in the wake of explorer Jacques Cartier, the fleur-de-lys represented the figure and supremacy of Francis I. Assigned by his sovereign to “discover certain islands and countries where there are said to be great quantities of gold,” Cartier sailed to Newfoundland and then Gaspé. He raised one cross at Saint-Servan harbour on 12 June 1534 to show that the country where he had landed belonged to the kingdom of France. A second was assembled and raised at Gaspé on 24 July. A coat of arms with three fleurs-de-lys in relief was fixed on the cross-piece and above it a wooden sign engraved in large Gothic letters with Vive le Roi de France.
The Fleur-de-lys and Ownership
Some 60 years after Cartier’s voyages and the bid by Jean-François de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval to colonize the St. Lawrence Valley, Samuel de Champlain spent time in Acadia, from which he explored the St. Lawrence Valley and the Atlantic coast. He did not display the fleur-de-lys, then embodied by Henry IV, anywhere he went, not even when he founded Québec City in 1608. He did not invoke it when his city surrendered in 1629 or when he returned to the city after the Treaty of Saint-Germain was signed on 29 March 1632. However, the expression retour des lys (return of the fleurs-de-lys) was used to describe his last voyage to Québec City in 1633 and renewed efforts to colonize New France. The fleur-de-lys continued to symbolize France’s dominion over Canada when Louis XIV came to power on 9 March 1661. That autumn, GovernorPierre Dubois Davaugour, upon seeing the St. Lawrence River for the first time, found it to be a favourable place for the “fleurs-de-lys” to settle. In 1673, Governor Louis de Buade de Frontenac endowed Québec City with “liveries and arms” depicting the fleur-de-lys, a beaver and two moose.
The symbol traveled far beyond the St. Lawrence Valley as explorers advanced and took possession of North America with instructions to display the king’s coat of arms. In 1670, IntendantJean Talon reminded them that they should “draw up memoranda to serve as titles.” The following year, at Sainte-Marie-du-Sault, the French raised a cross bearing the arms of the French king, taking possession of the territory from the Mer du Nord (Northern Sea) and Mer de l’Ouest (Western Sea) to the Mer du Sud (Southern Sea), including both discovered and as-yet-undiscovered lands — in other words, all of North America. A stone marked with the fleur-de-lys and the date of possession was generally buried in the ground at the base of the cross as evidence in the event the sovereign’s rights were disputed.
Uses of the Fleur-de-lys
In 1683, a fleur-de-lys was applied to the piaster circulating in Canada to guarantee its value and weight (see Money). This administrative decision was reminiscent of an initiative by Louis XIII, who was the first French king to strike a coin whose value he backed with his own coffers. The louis d’or (gold Louis) was recognized by the cross and fleur-de-lys engraved on it. In New France, the fleur-de-lys appeared on one of the cornerstones of Notre-Dame church in Montréal. It was sculpted over the Dauphin Gate of the Fortress of Louisbourg. Gold and silver threads were used to embroider the fleur-de-lys onto the opulent church vestments of François-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval, who became the first bishop of Québec City in 1674. A fleur-de-lys seen on an average person was a sign of punishment, used to mark out anyone found guilty of a minor crime, such as servants who had left their master’s employ. Known as a “prisoner’s brand,” in 1681 it was the penalty inflicted on coureurs des bois who engaged in the fur trade without permission. Thieves, rapists and murderers were branded with a fleur-de-lys before being hanged.
The Fleur-de-lys and Survival
The fleur-de-lys was tacitly abandoned after France finally ceded Canada to England in 1764, but Canadians — unlike French citizens after the French Revolution — were not required to remove the fleur-de-lys from churches, bells or decorations. Friendlier relations between France and Canada grew out of the Crimean War, during which the two countries fought side by side. The victory at Sebastopol cemented ties that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between France and Canada. The docking of the light frigate La Capricieuse at Québec City on 13 July 1855 reflected this reconciliation, which was called the “return of the fleurs-de-lys,” harking back to 1632.
The Fleur-de-lys and Identity
In the late 19th century, French Canadians from Québec and those who had spread out across Canada and the United States began proclaiming their heritage, especially during large gatherings for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations. The fleur-de-lys was on display, alongside the French flag, which had been adopted as a national standard in response to the British flag flown by English Canadians (see Royal Union Flag). In the early 20th century, the fleur-de-lys was inscribed on the military insignia of volunteers and soldiers who belonged to battalions that left to defend France. Invoking their distinct origin, the words Je me souviens (I remember) clearly set them apart from other Canadian battalions (see Québec's Motto). The 1915 establishment of the first entirely French Canadian battalion, the Royal 22e Régiment — which uses the same motto and insignia — reaffirmed the French presence on the battlefields of Europe.
Once a symbol of the French monarchy in North America, the fleur-de-lys now denotes the French presence on the continent. It has been respectfully carved or painted on furniture and objects created by humble artisans and sculpted into the stone of churches and public buildings, including Québec’s Parliament Building. The fleur-de-lys was chosen to symbolize the French presence on the flag Québec adopted on 21 January 1948.
Hélène-Andrée Bizier and Claude Paulette, Fleur de lys. D’hier à aujourd’hui (Montréal: Art global, 1997).
Luc Bouvier, "Québec's Flag, the Fleurdelisé," Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America.