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French Revolution (1789-1799)

Last modified: 2013-11-25 by ivan sache
Keywords: revolution | tricolore | bonaparte | naval ensign | jack | law | red flag | error |
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Chronological overview

  • 1789: Meeting of the States General (États Généraux) and proclamation of the Constituent Assembly (Assemblée constituante).
  • 1791: Election of the Legislative Assembly (Assemblée législative)
  • 1792: Proclamation of the Republic and election of the National Convention (Convention nationale)
  • 1795: The Directory (Directoire)
  • 1799: Bonaparte's coup and proclamation of the Consulate (Consulat)

Naval ensign and jack (1790-1794)

Official prescription

[French naval ensign, 1790]         [French naval jack, 1790]

Naval ensign (left) and jack (right) - Images by Ivan Sache, 29 April 2010

The naval jack - the first Ticolore - and its attendant flags were established (with the assent of the King) by a Decree of the National Assembly dated 24 October 1790, and exact specifications were prepared by the Royal Printers and issued by Département de la Marine.
These show that the jack had an outer border, blue and the hoist and red at the fly, with a width of 3/60 the flag. This surrounded a narrow white border of 1/60 the flag which in turn surrounded the tricolour proper with a width of 52/60 and stripes in the proportions of red 27, white 28 and blue 27.
The ensign was white with the jack as specified above forming a canton of one-quarter the flag, whilst it also appeared at the head of the both a broad and commissioning pendants (whose tails were, of course, white).
Whether actual flags were prepared according to these specifications in such a time of upheaval is, of course, a matter of debate, however, it is good to know what they should have looked like.

Christopher Southworth, 22 January 2003

Barraclough & Crampton [c2b81] erroneously claim that the naval ensign, correctly described, was "also used as the jack".

Santiago Dotor, 5 January 2000

The castle of Emperi in Salon-de-Provence houses an important army museum. Among the historical flags shown in the museum, one, dated 26 September 1791, is quite similar to the naval ensign and jack described above, but:
- The flag clearly shows a white cross over white, limited by lines and a vegetal circle upon the center of the cross;
- There is a full tricolor total border, blue at the upper left and lower right, red at the upper right and lower left, white in the middle; - In the canton, there is a flag horizontally divided blue-white-red

Philippe Lacroix, 3 November 2003


Erroneous rendition

[French naval ensign, 1790]         [French naval jack, 1790]

Smith's erroneous rendition of the naval ensign (left) and of the jack (right) - Images by Ivan Sache, 29 April 2010

According to the illustrations of the ensign and jack in Smith (p. 135) [smi75c], the outer border was solid red on the flyward half and a blue-outlined white border on the hoist half (blue-outlined only on inner and outer edges, not outlined where it adjoined the red).

Ned Smith, 7 January 2000

This is one of a few documented errors in Smith's opus. The white-outlined-blue shown in this flag is correctly solid blue. The Flag Bulletin [tfb] printed a full listing of the errors in the book.

Dave Martucci, 8 January 2000


National flag (1794)

[French Flag]

Flag of France - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

The National Convention adopted the Tricolore as the national flag on 27 Pluviose of the Year II (15 February 1794). The Decree says:

II. The national flag shall be formed of the three national colours, set in three equal stripes, vertically disposed so that the blue is attached to the staff of the flag, the white in the middle, and the red flying in the air.
III. The jack and the daily ensign shall be formed in the same way, observing the size proportions established by custom.
IV. The commissioning pennant shall also be formed of the three colours, with one-fifth blue, one-fifth white, and three-fifths red.

Armand Noël du Payrat, 4 February 1998

The definitive standardization of the Tricolore was achieved in 1812 only; several geometrical blue-white-red designs were in use before.
Some iconographical sources show a red liberty cap in the white stripe, but there is no evidence that such flags ever existed in the cloth.

Ivan Sache, 17 October 2000


The red flag on the Champ-de-Mars, 1791

In July 1791, King Louis XVI and the Royal family attempted to flee France, dressed as ordinary people. They were arrested in Varennes, on their way to Germany. It is often said that the son of the post house's owner recognized the king after a coin. Other said that the royal princesses were recognized because they were not able to walk correctly without a servant to assist them. Betrayal might be a more rational explanation.
The king was brought back to Paris. A "Republican petition" requiring the overthrowing the king was deposed on Champ-de-Mars, where the Fête de la Fédération had been celebrated on 14 July 1790.
A lot of people gathered to sign the petition. On 17 July, when the meeting turned into a riot, the Mayor of Paris, Bailly, ordered to hoist the red flag, which meant at that time that the mob should disperse. The National Guards shot without warning. More than 50 rioters were killed and immediatly considered as the first martyres of the Revolution. The red flag, "shed with the martyrs' blood" became the symbol of the Revolution by a weird inversion of its initial symbolism.

Source: M. Pastoureau Les emblèmes de la France [pst98]

Ivan Sache, 21 August 2002



The oldest flag from the Revolution period?

A flag believed to be "the oldest flag from the French Revolution" was found on 25 June 2011 in Quintigny, a small municipality (223 inhabitants) located in the department of Jura, Region Franche-Comté (Le Progrès, 3 July 2011).
The flag was found by Yves Moine, the Mayor of Quintigny, in the attic of the Town Hall, among other flags, drums and old weapons, all embedded in a huge layer of dust (Le Progrès, 10 July 2011; La Croix, 11 July 2011; Le Parisien, 11 July 2011).

The interest for this specific flag was elicited by an article published on 11 February 2010 by André Besson in the local newspaper La Voix du Jura. Besson reported that the local erudite Xavier Clavier (1892-1983) had explained him in the 1950s that the oldest French revolutionary flag originates from Quintigny. The flag would have been designed in the beginning of 1790 for the cantonal militia raised to protect the villages from the bands of rascals that scoured the region, taking advantage of the political unrest.
Clavier described the flag as a "modest flag" of the size of a regimental colour, red on the one side and golden yellow on the other, attached to a black staff and inscribed with the writing "VALEUR ET BONNE FOI, DIEU ET LA PATRIE" (Value and Good Faith, God and Fatherland).
Still according to Clavier, the flag was used for the first time in Paris on 14 July 1790, carried by the militia of Quintigny and Ruffey- sur-Seille during the Fête de la Fédération. Doomed to destruction during the Reign of Terror period because it was not Tricolore, the flag was hidden by a local Republican. It showed up again only in 1813, when the "Marie-Louise" soldiers enrolled for Napoléon's last campaign paraded with the flag in the neighbouring town of Bletterans. Two years later, the flag was used in Lons-le-Saunier during the funeral of General Lecourbe (1759-1815), who commanded the Ruffey-sur- Seille volunteers in 1789. Hidden once again during the Bourbon Restoration, the flag was hoisted on the top of the Tree of Liberty erected on 3 March 1848 to celebrate the proclamation of the Second Republic. The whereabouts of the flag had been lost since then, until the finding by the Mayor.

The flag found by the Mayor matches quite well the description made by Clavier. The flag is, on one side, red with the writing "VALEUR ET BONNE FOI" and, on the other side, white with the writing "DIEU ET LA PATRIE".
The Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) and the General Council of Jura commissioned Jean-François Ryon, Curator of Antiques and Artworks for the department of Jura, for a first expertise of the flag. The shape of the hand-made nails, the style of embroidery and the writing were deemed compatible with a flag made in 1790. Specifically, the mottos reflect the ideals of the time, inspired by both the Enlightenment and the Bible; the religious references were prohibited only during after the establishment of the Reign of Terror.
The issue of the registration of the flag as an historical monument was soon raised. The ad hoc Commission of the Department of Jura decided on 13 July 2011 to postpone the registration, requiring a more comprehensive expertise of the flag. Some members of the Commission argued that the mottos could refer to the Bourbon Restoration, as well. The cost of the expertise being quite high (8,000 €), the involved bodies had not agree yet on the sharing of the cost of the operation one year after the finding. The flag was briefly (30') shown to the public in Quintigny on 14 July 2012 (Le Progrès, 13 July 2012; Le Journal de Saône-et-Loire, 14 July 2012).
It was eventually announced in autumn 2012 that the flag would be expertized and restored in Vesoul (Le Progrès, 11 November 2012).

Ivan Sache, 12 January 2013


An unidentified French flag

[Unidentified French flag]

Unidentified French flag - Image by Ivan Sache, 13 December 2003

A flag labelled le pavillon national (the national flag, or ensign) is shown on the Jeu de la Révolution, a variant of the well-known Jeu de l'Oie, the French version of snakes and ladders. The players shall move along a linear path made of squares, the numbers of squares moved ahead being given by a dice thrown alternatively by each player. The first player to reach the end of the path is the winner. The squares are numbered and illustrated; for instance, if you reach the "jail" square, you must wait until another player reaches the same case and frees you, being himself jailed.
In the Jeu de la Révolution, the end of the path is the National Assembly, with the following legend:
Le Bonheur de la France est signé le 14 7bre 1791 par Louis XVI premier Roi constitutionnel des Français, that is "Good fortune of France was signed on 14 September 1791 by Louis XVI, the first Constitutional King of the French".
Case #38 shows the three fleur-de-lis as the national arms. Therefore, the Jeu de la Révolution game was most probably a propaganda item for the Constitutional monarchy, which lasted until the overthrowning of Louis XVI in 1793.
Case#51 shows the enigmatic "national flag" as a square reddish flag with a canton quartered blue and red by a white cross. The red shade of the main field seems to be lighter than the red shade of the two red quarters of the canton, but this might be a printing effect.

Ivan Sache & Thierry Gilabert, 13 December 2003


Bonaparte au Pont d'Arcole, a deliberate flag error

Historical representations of the Tricolore flag released after the real events had occurred are often forged. For instance, the famous propaganda/glorification picture by baron Antoine Gros Bonaparte au Pont d'Arcole shows Bonaparte bearing the Tricolore flag when assaulting alone the bridge of Arcole (near Verona, during the eponymous battle hold on 15-17 November 1796 and won over the Austrians).
The picture was painted some ten years after the battle, and Bonaparte had became Emperor Napoléon I. It has been pointed out that Bonaparte in Arcole did not bear the Tricolore flag, which hardly existed on land at that time, but the flag of the 5th infantry demi-brigade. Anyway, since this episode is one of the most characteristic of Napoléon's myth, it was necessary to associate it with the Tricolore flag later accepted by the Emperor.
The picture is reproduced on a French post stamp released in 1972 (YT1730, M 72-33), which therefore propagates a deliberate historical forgery. Bonaparte's uniform was also said to be erroneous in several details. The whole story can be found in the review Armes et Uniformes de l'Histoire (March 1973), and is summarized in the book Le Patrimoine du Timbre-Poste français (Flohic, 1998).

Ivan Sache, 17 October 2000


The Vienna flag riot (1798)

On Bonaparte's proposal, the Directoire appointed in 1798 General Bernadotte Ambassador of France in Vienna (Austria). On 8 February 1798, Bernadotte settled in the embassy, located in Palace Caprara Geymuller in Wallner Street.
On 13 April, around 7 PM, Bernadotte ordered to hoist the French Tricolor flag on the balcony of his residence. A mob rapidly gathered in the street and asked the flag to be removed. Heated exchanges occurred between the mob and the embassy staff gathered on the balcony. The mob was tediously contained by the guards. Bernadotte himself, wearing his uniform and the Tricolore cockade, went down into the street, with sword drawn. The Austrian police arrived and discussion took place in Bernadotte's office. Bernadotte definitively refused to take down the flag. In the street, picket lines of cavalry and infantry attempted to prevent the demonstrators to attack the embassy. Stones were thrown to the windows. The municipal authorities mobilized the garrison and the gate of the embassy were locked.
Bernadotte took refuge in the nunciatura, located Am Hof, in the neighborhood. He sent a protest letter to the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and required the surroundings of the embassy to be cleared. Bernadotte eventually came back to the embassy, where he was rejoined by Baron von Degelmann, recently appointed Ambassador of Austria in Paris.
In the meantime, the situation deteriorated: the French flag was torn down and partially burned. The mob broke down the embassy gate, broke the windows, dragged out coaches in the street and trashed them until the police took them away. The ransacking was stopped by the Austrian army, who settled in the stairs in order to guard Bernadotte's room. A few shots were exchanged but nobody was harmed.
The calm was restored around 2 PM. Bernadotte, however, did not calm down. The next morning, he asked his passports at the Hofburg and refused the mediation of the Court. Instead of leaving Vienna nightly, as advized by the authorities, he decided to leave on 15 April around noon with five state coaches. He left with all the honours due to his diplomatic rank and a military escort ensured his safety on the Austrian territory.
Close to the embassy, the street named Fahnengasse (Flag Street) still commemorates the incident.

The riot is shown on a plate by Johann Balzer (1738-1799) entitled "Description of the riot caused by the French embassador Bernadotte when he hosted the French Tricolor flag in Vienna, 13 April 1798", kept at the Vienna Historical Museum.
Interestingly, the plate shows a Tricolore flag horizontally divided. This horizontally divided flag might be an erroneous representation by Balzer. The French Tricolorz was relatively new in 1798 and Balzer might not have been an ocular witness of the riot and might have reconstructed the flag from a vague oral description. However, it is known that the French Tricolore did not have a fixed design in the first years after his adoption. It is therefore highly possible that Balzer showed the flag actually used by Bernadotte, either seen by himself or correctly reported by a rioter. From the black and white plate, it is not possible to ascertain which colour was used for the upper and lower stripes, respectively.
The story is told in great detail and Balzer's plate is shown on Robert Ouvrard's website.

Ivan Sache, 7 July 2002