Heraldry of French Cities
Other Resources on the Web
For more on civic heraldry, see Ralf Hartemink's excellent site.
A typology of French towns
Since 1975 there are 96 départements within "metropolitan France" (that is, excluding overseas départements, but including Corsica). Each département has a capital, the chef-lieu de département, also known as a préfecture because it is the seat of a préfet. Each département is subdivided in several arrondissements, each having its chef-lieu or sous-préfecture: there are 327 arrondissements in all. Below that are the cantons, mainly an electoral district, of which there are 3995, each with its chef-lieu. The lowest level is the commune, or municipality, a total of 36,558 in metropolitan France.
I have limited my collection to chefs-lieux de cantons, but I obviously do not have arms for all of them. The main cities, or chefs-lieux de départements, are highlighted in red.
French cities have been using arms on their seals as early as the late 12th century (case of Pont-l'Évêque). Grants of arms by the French king appear in the 14th century; either the full arms or a chief of France are granted.
Today, cities and towns are free to choose their arms as they please. Since 1980 there is a national commission on heraldry at the ministry of Culture which advises municipalities on their choices. However, a royal ordinance of Sep. 26, 1814 prescribed that the cities of France were to resume the use of their former arms, after verification by the Conseil du sceau; since this ordinance has never been repealed, the Conseil du sceau (or its successor) is technically speaking responsible for approving municipal armory, but it has refused to exercise that power.
See an example of a grant of arms to the city of Alençon by Louis XVIII.
There are three types of arms one can distinguish:
Medals and Decorations
The French give medals to their cities, sometimes several times over. The Legion of Honor was first given in May 1815, during the Hundred Days, to Chalon-sur-Saône, Saint-Jean-de-Losne, and Tournus for their resistance to the invaders of 1814. The original decree grants them the right to include "the eagle of the Legion of Honor" in their arms, presumably a reference to the breast star of grand-cordon which features an eagle in the center. The decree was not immediately applied, as Louis XVIII did not recognize any act of the Hundred Days. Louis-Philippe did apply the decree, by which time it was construed to mean that a star of the Legion of Honor should be included somewhere in the arms. Roanne was to receive it as well for the same reason, but Waterloo prevented it, and it was left to Napoleon III to carry out the grant in 1864. After the Franco-Prussian War, several cities received it for their resistance to the German invasion. World War I and World War II brought their own batches of municipal grants. In all, 68 cities have received it since 1815.
Other medals are also awarded to cities. The most decorated French city is Verdun (26 medals). The Ordre de la Libération (created in 1940 and awarded from 1940 to 1946) was awarded to four cities (Nantes, Grenoble, Paris, Vassieux-en-Vercors) and the island of Sein. Other medals awarded are the Croix de Guerre 1914-18 (a total of 2,952 awarded to cities between 1917 and 1926) and the Croix de Guerre 1939-45 (1,585 awarded; 209 cities were awarded both). Lille, Calais and Boulogne have the Legion of Honor and both Croix de Guerre 1914-18 and 1939-45. Paris has the Legion of Honor, Ordre de la Libération, and Croix de Guerre 1939-45.
Usually, cities display their medals under the shield, as though pinned to the underside of the shield, as do individuals. However, a certain number of cities, have added the Croix proper to their arms, for example Chalon-sur-Saône, the first city recipient of the Legion of Honor, Tournus, Roanne, Belfort, Rambervillers, Lille, Landrecies, Châteaudun, Saint-Quentin (Dijon used to have it in its arms but removed it recently). Valenciennes, Dijon, Paris have opted to hang the cross from the shield.
It may seem strange to add the cross to the arms, but one must recall that, in Napoleonic heraldry, knights of the Empire who were also members of the Legion of Honor displayed the cross argent on an ordinary gules. Tours has the Croix de Guerre 1939-45 displayed on its arms.
Cities Recipients of the Legion of Honor
Les Bonnes Villes
A number of cities were called les bonnes villes, and their mayors had the right to attend the coronation of the king. As of 1825, there were 40: Abbeville, Aix, Amiens, Angers, Antibes, Avignon, Besançon, Bordeaux, Bourges, Caen, Cambrai, Carcassonne, Colmar, Cette, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Metx, Montauban, Montpellier, Nancy, Nantes, Nîmes, Orléans, Paris, Pau, Reims, Rennes, La Rochelle, Rouen, Strasbourg, Toulon, Toulouse, Tours, Troyes, Versailles and Vesoul.
Most of these cities had a chief of France to indicate their status.
Under Napoleon, the list included: (...). Several cities were added later: Parma, Piacenza, Florence, Livorno (24 May 1808), Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck (13 Dec 1810), Rome (17 Feb 1810). .
617 cities are listed.
You can also use this clickable map:
The blazons are my readings of the depictions in the Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse, 1898 edition, corrected with Lartigue's book, which is presently the best reference on French municipal heraldry. The information on seals comes from Bedos (1980). Other sources are listed below:
French Heraldry Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary | Contact
Last modified: Nov 08, 2000