The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 1 - June 2001

The Origin of the Fleur-de-Lys:
Universal symbol of the Boy Scouts Movement

by Susanne Blendulf
SA National Museum of Military History

In the late nineteenth century, Lord Baden-Powell, father of the Boy Scouts Movement, was serving with the British Cavalry in India. He was tasked with turning raw recruits into formidable cavalrymen. A strong proponent of the belief that scouting and reconnaissance were essential roles of the cavalry, he devised a special training programme in military scouting. The programme consisted of learning the theory of scouting, followed by practical testing. Those who passed Baden-Powell's tests were entitled to wear a distinguishing skill at arms badge on their arm. This badge was a 'fleur-de-lys', apparently based on the design used to indicate north on a map and on a compass (Hillcourt & Olave, 1964: 149) and thus a most appropriate symbol for the scouting role. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this little badge was later adopted as the official and universal symbol of the Boy Scouts Movement, which Baden-Powell founded in Britain in 1907 and which soon spread to many other parts of the world.

A skill at arms badge
Use of the fleur-de-lys as a skill at arms badge in the British Army was not limited to the cavalry. According to WY Carman, it was worn by the following qualified scouts (May, Carman & Tanner,1974: 185):
* the trained squadron scout in the cavalry
* scout corporals of horse (Household Cavalry) fleur-de-lys with a cross below
* regimental scouts and scout sergeants in the cavalry of the line
* scout sergeant and first-class scout in each battalion of the Foot Cuards and the Infantry
The use of the badge was discontinued after the First World War (1814-1918).

Badge of tbe Boy Scouts
The fleur-de-lys as a badge of the Boy Scouts is as old as the movement itself. During the inaugural camp, held on an island in Britain at the end of July 1907, and presided over by Baden-Powell himself, the boys wore a fleur-de-lys on the front of their hats. This badge was described as a slightly modified version of the badge which Baden-Powell had used for his army scouts (Hillcourt & Olave, 1964: 269). In public, however, Baden-Powell described the symbolism of the fleur-de-lys as a 'lily, the emblem of peace and purity', presumably in an attempt to distance the Boy Scout Movement from any military association. If one reads his autobiography, one gets the impression that this is a tongue-in-cheek reaction by Baden-Powell to criticism of the perceived 'military' character of the Boy Scouts in its early days (Baden-Powell, 1933: 285). A symbol of peace and purity it may indeed be, but quite clearly Baden-Powell continued to view the fleur-de-lys as a representation of the north-point of a compass and thus as a most fitting device for a scouts organisation.


W Hillcourt & Olave, Lady Baden-Powell, Baden-Powell: The two lives of a hero (Heinemann, London, 1964).
W Y Carman FSA, 'The Army', in W F May, W Y Carman and J Tanner, Badges and Insignia of the British Armed Services (Adam & Charles Black, London, 1974).
Lord Baden-Powell, Lessons from the 'varsity of life (Arthur Pearson Ltd, London, 1933).

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