French Heraldry and Related Topics

Heraldry in France has been associated, and confused, with nobility. As a result, it is not very lively nowadays. Furthermore, even Old Regime (pre-1789) France had never developed an heraldic authority like Britain. As a result, heraldry, while it has a legal standing, is seen as an antiquarian's hobby.

Institutional History of French Heraldry

The Old Regime (before 1789)

Heraldry started in France more or less at the same time as elsewhere, in the middle of the 12th century. Originally associated with the feudal system, it extended quickly (as elsewhere) to social classes beyond knights and nobility: bourgeois, peasants, moral entities (cities, trade corporations), church (individuals and communities), etc (see the discussion of the origins of heraldry). The basic rule was that anyone could choose a coat of arms as long as it followed the rules of heraldry, and as long as it wasn't anyone else's coat of arms (see the discussion of the right to bear arms).

As in England, the 16th century saw attempts by the king to restrict the usage of heraldry. Letters patent prohibiting all subjects from taking coats of arms without the king's authorization (Feb. 12, 1536) remained ignored. Several attempts to impose legal restrictions (in 1556, 1663) were rejected by the Parlement of Paris, who refused to register them. In 1760, the king tried to pass an ordinance restricting coats of arms to nobles and public officers, but the ordinance, registered in the Court of the Marshals of France (Tribunal des maréchaux de France), was rejected by the Parlement of Paris which suspended its enforcement by an arrêt of Aug 22, 1760.

Other attempts were made to create visible distinctions between arms used by noblemen and other. In 1561 an Ordinance prohibited non-nobles from placing a helm or a coronet on their shields. The prohibition was repeated many times, but seems to have been enforced only in cases where the violators were also usurping noble status.

The only exception to the freedom of assuming arms occurred from 1696 to 1709. An Edict of 1696 declared that, for a coat of arms to be valid, it had to be registered with the King of Arms, for a fee naturally (this was the middle of a European war, and the French government was short of cash). As a consequence, 110 000 coats of arms were registered (of which 80 000 by non-nobles) by d'Hozier, the King of Arms. The registers are still in the National Library. (Click here to see an example of grant of arms under the edict of 1696; see also the confirmation of arms granted to the Royal School of Saint-Cyr in 1697). A number of people who bore arms never registered; conversely, many people were forced to take arms (so they would pay the tax) against their will. The pursuivants often played cruel jokes: unflattering puns, or allusions to the person's trade: a pharmacist was granted "Azure, a syringe and 3 chamber-pots Argent"... By 1709 registration of arms ceased altogether, and the Edict was ignored from then on. France then returned to its traditional regime of free assumption.

The 18th century is characterized by general misuse of coronets and titles (especially that of marquis), as well as adoption of arms by many people, for reasons of snobbery.

Kings of Arms

A king of arms names Robert is known by a seal (showing a shield bearing three crowns) on a document dated 1318 (collection Clairambault 7907). A College of Heralds was organized in 1407, about the same time as in England it seems. As in England, it consisted of pursuivants, heralds and 12 kings of arms, chief among them Montjoye, followed in rank by Anjou. In the 16th century a number of kings of arms (Valois, Champagne, Dauphin, Normandie) and heralds (Guyenne, Angoulême, Lorraine, Orléans) are on the king's payroll and sent for diplomatic missions abroad (Recueil des actes de François Ier). In 1615 the College was made part of the Royal Household under the Grand Écuyer, and a Judge of Arms was appointed, with exclusive competence in heraldic cases; but he never formed a court, and his role remained limited to the approval of grants of arms by the king. The office soon became hereditary in the d'Hozier family.

Interestingly, France had institutions similar to the Court of the Constable and Earl Marshal of England. The Constable, which was a similar office as in England, was after the Senechal (abolished in 1191) the main officer of the army, and among his duties were the enforcement of discipline. In 1547, the Marshals of France were organized in a tribunal under the Constable; but the office of Constable, vacant since 1527, was abolished in 1627 and the dean of the marshals presided over the tribunal des maréchaux de France, which had jurisdiction over army discipline (such as desertion) as well as affairs of honour between gentlemen (called the point d'honneur). Its main role in the 17th century was to try to prevent duels, but heraldic disputes also came into its jurisdiction, although only as appelate court of the Judge of Arms of 1615. But usurpation of arms, removal and destruction of the arms of others, and other such cases fell to the ordinary royal judges with appeal to the Parlements.

After the Revolution

On June 20, 1790 the National Assembly (with the assent of the king) abolished nobility, orders of knighthood and heraldry in France, and the display of coats of arms became illegal (except for the arms of France until 1792). Napoleon re-established heraldry and titles (but, technically, not nobility in the sense of a legally privileged caste, although in practice it is often called a nobility) in 1808. He did not recognize Old Regime titles or blazons, and instead created his own heraldic system and hierarchy of titles. Most titles were associated with a function, and thus personal (not hereditary); others were made hereditary.

As far as arms were concerned, Napoleon did not restrict free assumption: the decree of March 1, 1808 only specified that recipients of his titles could not use arms other than those specified in the letters patent granting the title.

In 1814 monarchy was restored, the "new nobility" was recognized and the "old nobility" was restored. An ordinance of July 15, 1814 allowed recipients of Napoleonic coats of arms to apply to the sovereign for new arms, and reintroduced traditional coronets (a silver helm in profile for the rank of knight). The taking of arms remained free, and no heraldic authority per se was established.

The Current Status of Heraldry

The legal status of coats of arms is not to be found in the Civil Code or in laws, but in the jurisprudence of French courts since 1870.

Coats of arms are unregulated by the French authorities: anyone is free to assume arms, and there is no mechanism by which arms can be officially granted or registered. However, coats of arms are considered part of the family name, and enjoy the same legal protection against usurpation.

The following quotations illustrate this doctrine:

The patronymic name and the coat of arms represent for the family which owns them a true form of property which no one has the right to usurp under pain of damages and interest. (Civil court of Marseille, June 1, 1888).
Le nom patronymique et les armoiries constituent pour la famille qui les possède une véritable propriété que nul n’a le droit d’usurper sous peine de dommages-intérêts. (Tribunal Civil de Marseille, 1 juin 1888)

Coats of arms are essentially different from titles of nobility because they are simply marks of cognizance, supplementary to the family name to which they are indissolubly linked, whether the family is noble or not. It follows that arms are the attribute of the whole family and enjoy the same protection as the name itself, and that judicial courts which are able to adjudicate disputes over family names are also able to examine contests which can arise over coats of arms. (Paris Appeals Court, Dec 20, 1949)

Les armoiries diffèrent essentiellement des titres de noblesse en ce qu’elles sont simplement des marques de reconnaissance accessoires du nom de famille auquel elles se rattachent indissolublement, que cette famille soit noble ou non. Il s’ensuit que les armoiries sont l’attribut de toute la famille et qu’elles jouissent de la même protection que le nom lui-même, et que les tribunaux judiciaires compétents pour examiner les litiges relatifs aux noms patronymiques sont également compétents pour connaître des contestations qui peuvent être soulevées au sujet des armoiries. (Cour d'Appel de Paris, 20 déc 1949)

Civil courts, in particular, will protect a coat of arms from usurpation by a commercial enterprise and award damages.

As far as municipal heraldry is concerned, 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. Since 1999, the commission nationale d'héraldique advises the director of the French national archives on projects of cats of arms proposed by local governments (cities, regions, etc). 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.

A private organization called the Conseil Français d'Héraldique provides registration services for coats of arms.

See also:


  • Gazette du Palais. various years.
  • Mathieu, Rémi: Le Droit héraldique français . Paris, 1947: La Roue d'Or.
  • Mousnier, Roland: The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy. Chicago, 1974: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pastoureau, Michel: Traité d'Héraldique. Paris, 1993: Picard.

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François Velde

Last modified: Feb 02, 2005