Flags in Old Regime France

This note discusses the flags in use in French history. These are generic flags, similar to our modern concept of a flag, as opposed to any specific, unique banner of special importance, such as the oriflamme.

Prior to 1792 the notion of a French flag is itself fuzzy. The use of national emblems, however, can be traced to the crusades, and specifically to the start of the Third Crusade. The kings of France and England were in a peace conference in a field between Gisors and Trie, in January 1188, when the archbishop of Tyre arrived with the news of the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladdin, and an urgent plea for a new crusade. The event is told by the contemporary chronicler Roger de Hoveden ( Chronica (vol. 2), p. 335; ed. William Stubbs; London, 1869).

Cui colloquio interfuit archiepiscopus Tyri, qui repletus spiritus sapientiae et intellectus, miro modo praedicavit verbum Domini coram regibus et principibus, et convertit corda eorum ad crucem capiendam. Et qui prius hostes erant, illo praedicante et Deo cooperante, facti sunt amici in illa die, et de manu ejus crucem receperunt; et in eadem hora apparuit supra eos signum crucis in coelo. Quo viso miraculo, plures catervatim ruebant ad susceptionem crucis. Praedicti vero reges in susceptione crucis, ad cognoscendam gentem suam, signum evidens sibi et suis providerunt. Rex namque Franciae et gens sua susceperunt cruces rubeas; et rex Angliae cum gente sua suscepit cruces albas; et Philippus comes Flandriae cum gente sua suscepit cruces virides; et sic unusquisque, ad providendum sibi et itineri suo necessaria, reversus est in regionem suam. At this conference came the archbishop of Tyre, who, filled with wisdom and intellect, preached wonderfully the word of God before kings and princes, and moved their hearts to taking the cross. And those who were enemies before, by his predication and God's help, became friends that day, and received the cross from his hand; and in that moment the sign of the cross appeared above them in the sky. On seeing that miracle, many rushed in droves to take the cross. And said kings, when taking the cross, chose a visible sign for themselves and their people to identify their nation. The king of France and his people took red crosses; the king of England with his people took white crosses; and Philip count of Flanders with his people took green crosses; and thus everyone returned home to provide for the needs of his journey.

It is often said that the system was extended to other regions or nations: Brittany's cross was black, Lorraine green, Italy and Sweden yellow, Burgundy a red Saint Andrew's, Gascony a white Saint Andrew's. France (it is alleged) had a red cross and England a white cross. It appears that the English switched to the red cross of Saint George sometime in the late 14th c. (I hope someone else has better info, this is from a French book...). And then, in 1420, the king of France Charles VI disowned his son the Dauphin Charles and chose Henry V of England as his successor, and the English "took over" the the French red cross as their own. I'm not sure how much sense this all makes, but one thing seems clear from the iconography: in 1356 and 1380, the English have white crosses and the French red; in 1415 and after, the colors are inverted.

Anyway, the Dauphin Charles had to find an emblem of his own. In 1422, when Charles VI died, he became Charles VII, adopted a white cross as emblem and a white flag as banner. Joan of Arc's famous banner was white with religious figures embroidered on it. Thereafter the three parties to the civil wars of 1420-36 are distinguished by the cross: white for the French, red for the English and red saltire for the Burgundians.

Charles VII also founded the core of the permanent French army, with the first companies of gendarmes, and Louis XI his son created the first troops of the King's Household. The habit developed of using a white cross as the basis of the design of regimental flags, and by the 18th c. almost every regiment had a white cross (exceptions: two Burgundian regiments have the traditional red saltire, an Irish regiment has a red cross, a German regiment has no cross at all). It seems that this lack of consistency in colors (a white cross being hard to make out on a background of multiple colors) made for some confusion: in 1690 at Fleurus, the French infantry was subjected to some "friendly fire" and thereafter it was decided that all regimental flags would have a white "scarf" hanging from the top of the staff.

See a table of all flags used in the French army in 1771.

The white flag itself was the ensign of commanding officers, such as colonel generals, and later colonels. In particular, it was the ensign of the King when he was with the troops. The white flag, usually with a semis of fleurs-de-lis or, was also, since the 17th c. at least, the flag of the French Royal navy (the galleys had a different flag, horizontal striped red-white-red with the French arms in the middle). The merchant navy had a white cross on a blue field, though the white flag was apparently much used, in spite of repeated prohibitions.

French maritime flags, from a 18th c. Dutch engraving.

Another instance of confusion was at the naval battle of Ouessant in 1778: the French Royal navy, like the British navy, had different colors for its different fleets: white, white-and-blue, and blue. Apparently the latter was easily confused with British ships of the blue fleet, as the national flag at the stern was often shrouded in smoke; after the battle, it was decided to add a white cross to the blue ensign.

French regimental flags of the 18th and early 19th centuries

The Tricolor

The blue-white-red of the French revolution comes from the combination of the royal white with the Parisian red and blue (the latter derived from the arms of Paris, and in use since the Middle Ages); the colors were combined for the first time when the King visited Paris on July 17, 1789, a few days after the taking of the Bastille. La Fayette is often credited with the idea. The new cockade symbolized the reconciliation of the king with the city. It quickly became the cockade of the Revolution. The three colors in vertical stripes were first used as a canton on Navy flags in 1790, and extended to the whole field in 1794. It is quite plausible that the adoption of stripes of colors as navy flag was an imitation of the Dutch flag, although the colors themselves owe nothing to the Dutch colors.

Meanwhile in the army, in 1794, crosses disappear and various arrangements of the tricolor come into use; Napoleon standardizes first in 1804 to a white field chape-chausse of red and blue, and in 1812 to the modern French flag. In 1804 took place the distribution of new flags to the regiments, and it is at that time that the near-religious rituals surrounding regimental flags were adopted.

When the Bourbons returned in 1814 they brought back the white flag with the semis as national flag. The Revolution of 1830 ovewrthrew them, and the new, relatively liberal regime of Louis-Philippe hastened to adopt the tricolor again (in fact, the tricolor flag appeared in the arms of the new regime in 1831). It never ceased to be the French flag since that date, through all the regime changes.

In 1870, the disasters of the Franco-Prussian wars led to the fall of Napoleon III's regime. A National Assembly was elected in early 1871 which included a majority of monarchists: the president, elected by the assembly, was also a monarchist. The time seemed ripe for a restoration, and the two branches of the Bourbon family had even reconciled: the childless count of Chambord would reign first, and the throne would then naturally pass to the Orléans branch. But the count of Chambord insisted on restoring the white flag, and this proved fatal to the restoration effort: French monarchists knew that there was no way to impose on the country a flag which by now symbolized the most retrograde and antiquated aspects of monarchism. Furthermore, the count's insistence on the white flag was seen as boding ill for his attitude as a constitutional monarch. Two years passed, the situation lingered on, Republicans rallied, a new parliament was elected with a Republican majority in 1875 and the occasion was lost. Never has France been so close to a restoration of the monarchy since then.

From: (Simon Kershaw)

The Duke of Marlborough pays an annual `rent' to the English Crown for the royal manor of Woodstock and his home Blenheim Palace which were presented to him after his victories over the French, principally the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. This `rent' is a French flag, and each year a new one arrives and is displayed at Windsor Castle. This French flag is indeed Argent three fleurs-de-lys Or.

(The Duke of Wellington pays a similar "rent", but he presents a French tricolor (bleu-blanc-rouge) each year.)


See also the page on the French Flag on the Web site of the President of the French Republic.

A good reference on military flags in 16th-18th c. France is:

  • Charrié, Pierre: Drapeaux et étendards du roi. Paris : Léopard d'or, 1989.
On the history of French national symbols since 1789, see the acerbic but still useful book:
  • Pinoteau, Hervé: Le chaos français et ses signes : étude sur la symbolique de l'Etat français depuis la Révolution de 1789. La Roche-Rigault (Vienne): Presses Sainte-Radegonde, 1998.

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François Velde

Last modified: Apr 22, 2010