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Kingdom of France: Regiment flags

Last modified: 2014-05-24 by ivan sache
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Infantry regiments

In France, the infantry was organized at the national level by King Louis XI (reigned 1461-1483). The first duty of the infantry was to defend the northern borders of France against Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold (r. 1467-1477). The infantry troops stationed there were called bandes de Picardie, after the province of Picardy, then the border with the Burgundian states. The troops later sent to Italy during the Italian Wars (1494-1559) were called bandes de Piémont, after the Italian province of Piedmont. During the Italian Wars, the rank of Colonel-General (the commander of the whole infantry), as well as the white flag (enseigne colonelle, see below) associated with this rank, appeared in the French army. The rank was officially recognized by Henri II (r. 1547-1559), and there were once two Colonel-Generals, one for the infantry troops in Italy (infanterie d'au-delà des monts) and one for the infantry troops in France (infanterie d'en-deçà les monts).

The infantry was reorganized under Charles IX (r. 1560-1574). In 1569 in the camp of La Rochefoucauld, Colonel Strozzi, following the model of the Spanish tercios, set up the permanent infantry regiments of Gardes Françaises, Picardie, Champagne and Piémont. Until the end of the 16th century, only these permanent regiments were granted the privilege to use the white flag for their Colonel's company (compagnie colonelle, see below). When crowned King of France, Henry of Navarre (Henry IV, r. 1589-1610) extended the privilege to the regiment of Navarre, which had been his personal guard during the Religious Wars. Later, the regiments of Picardie, Champagne, Navarre and Piémont kept the first rank in the infantry and were nicknamed the grands vieux (great old [regiments]). The French Guards were allocated to the King's House.
In 1616, there were 12 regiments allowed to use the white flag for their Colonel's company; this number was progressively increased to 21. Eventually, all the infantry regiments were granted a white flag. After several reforms, including the suppression of the rank of Colonel-General, the white flag was allocated to the senior company of the regiment but remained the personal emblem of the Colonel.
The Colonel was the owner of the regiment since he or his predecessors had raised, taught and trained it. He owned the first company, called compagnie colonelle. His power was significantly decreased after Charles IX's reform but he kept the moral duty to fund the companies whose captains were too poor to do it. The high-rank nobles maintained this tradition, which was a convenient way to transform feudal duties into voluntary commitments to the service of the King of France.

The true colour of the regiment was not the Colonel's flag but another, coloured flag, called drapeau d'ordonnance, which had for the regiment a status similar to the coat of arms for a family. This flag was the symbol of the honour of the regiment, but had no national value. The ordonnance flag was selected by the Colonel commanding the regiment and could change with him. For a long time, the old regiments and a few other ones named after provinces were the only ones whose flag was not submitted to change. From the end of the 17th century onwards, most regiments did not change any longer their flag. Exceptions were the foreign regiments and the French regiments commanded by princes of high rank [1].
There was originally one flag by regiment. In 1635, the batallions were set up; according to Marquis de Langeron, each battalion was granted three flags, one for the center and armed with pikes, and two for the wings, kept by musketeers. During a battle, the musketeers completely surrounded the peak-bearers and they gave them their flags, to be kept in the center. The paintings representing battles under Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) show three to five flags emerging from a forest of pikes, sometimes associated with the white Colonel's flag. In 1758, the number of flags was reduced to two per battalion. These flags were all the same for a given regiment. The first ensign (enseigne) carried the Colonel's flag. The second ensign carried the first ordonnance flag allocated to the Colonel's company. These two officers were young gentlemen, who were allowed to purchase a company after 2-3 years (and to purchase a regiment another 4-5 year later if rich, with influential relatives and support in the Court). The 14 other flags (when they were three flags per battalion) were carried by second lieutenants (sous-lieutenants), who were always former sergeants (sergents).
The use of a white scarf attached to the flag as the sign of the French nationality was generalized after the battle of Fleurus (1691). Beforehand, the Colonel's flags of the Empire, the Dutch, the English and the Spaniards were all white and their ordonnance flags were fairly similar, which caused errors and friendly fire.

There is little information on the regiment flags used during the reigns of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) and Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) [2]. These flags are indeed shown on several paintings, but without captions.

Most available information on the infantry flags is related to the reigns of Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) and Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792).
In 1721, the Ministry of War ordered the design of colour plates showing the infantry flags (Drapeaux de l'infanterie tant française qu'étrangère, au service de la France, 1721; 1724, by d'Hermand - French National Library) and uniforms of the French army. The retired officer Lemau de la Jaisse used these charts as a source for flag plates added to his Carte générale de la monarchie, released in Paris in 1733. Lemeau published seven supplements (Abrégé de la carte du militaire de la France) until 1741, where he documented the changes in the flags. Sometimes between 1741 and 1757, the Ministry of War published its own plates of flags (Collection des drapeaux de l'infanterie française), which were updated until 1776. Chaligny published in 1771 his famous chart.
In 1740, there were 98 French and 22 foreign regiments. In 1749, d'Argenson kept only 80 of the French regiments. Duke de Choiseul (1719-1785) completely reformed the infantry in 1762, keeping only 65 regiments. In 1776, several regiments were divided in two and the total number of regiments increased to 107.

The ordonnance flags were often designed on the model of the old regiments' flags, that is a white cross on a coloured background. Some flags (in 1771) had a semy of yellow fleurs-de-lis on the cross [3] (Navarre, Le Roi, Royal, La Reine, Royal-Vaisseaux, Royal-Roussillon, Royal-Marine). Champagn had a white saltire [4], whereas Bourgogne and Royal-Comtois had the Burgundian red cross [5]. A few flags had both the white cross and a coloured saltire (Boulonnais, Forez).
The arms of France were used only by La Reine. Le Dauphin showed a shield quartered France and Dauphiné, whereas Navarre, Bretagne and Lorraine kept their own arms on the flag [6].
Penthièvre had anchors [7] and Royal-Vaisseaux had a vessel [8]. A crown was placed in the middle of the cross of La Couronne and Lorraine.
The Swiss regiments had a white cross on a flamed background. Most Irish regiments has a red St. Patrick's cross bordered in white [9].

Like the ordonnance flags, the Colonel's flags were charged with crosses, flames, fesses etc... shown white on white with sewings [10]. Some flags were charged with additional emblems such as (in 1771) yellow fleur-de-lis (Le Roi, Royal, Royal-Roussillon, Bourgogne, Royal-Marine, the artillery regiments, Royal-Italien, Royal-Comtois, Jenner, Royal-Corse and Lochmann), coat of arms (Navarre, Le Dauphin, La Reine, Bretagne, Bouillon, Eptingen) or mottos (Anhalt, La Marck, Royal-Suédois, Royal-Deux-Ponts).


  • G. Desjardins - Recherches sur les drapeaux de France (1874) [djg74]
  • L. Mouillard - Armée française. Les régiments sous Louis XV (1882)
  • P. de Biéville - Les drapeaux dans l'armée française. A series of articles published in the bulletins of Club Français de la Figurine Historique from 1972 to 1974, with additions by M. Mazzoleni
  • Liliane and Fred Funcken - Historische Uniformen, Orbis (1997)

Ivan Sache, 9 March 2006

Notes and additions

[1] This was because there had been a move in the later part of Louis XIV's reign to reduce the number of regiments des gentilhommes, and replace them with, or rename them as, provincial regiments.

[2] There are manuscripts in the Invalides Library which show the colours under Louis XIV, the du Vivier album for example. They remain unpublished, but are included in Charrié (Drapeaux et étendards du roi, Le Léopard d'Or, Paris, 1989 [chrXX]) and in Vexillologie militaire européenne.

[3] The fleurs-de-lis appeared on the crosses of regiments named "Royal..." or with some other close Royal connection.

[4] Only one source, of 1772, gives a saltire for Champagne - all the other sources stick with the ordinary cross, so I suspect it is incorrect.

[5] Bourgogne and Royal-Comtois bore the Burgundian cross because they were named after former Burgundian territories, outside the boundaries of France.

[6] Royal-Lorraine (raised in 1776) bore the eagles from the provincial arms on the cross, not the arms themselves, and then they were in gold not silver (the older regiment, simply called Lorraine, disbanded in 1762, did not bear any extra devices of this kind).

[7] Penthièvre bore anchors because the duke was an Admiral of France (I think).

[8] Royal Vaisseaux bore a ship because it was originally raised to serve with the fleet as marines.

[9] Only one Irish regiment, Fitzjames, bore a red saltire, the others bore a red St. George's cross (even then, Fitzjames also had the St George's cross, giving an Union Jack effect to the flag); the Scottish regiments all carried colours based on St. Andrew's flag.

[10] In general, the devices which appeared on the cross of the ordonnance also appeared on the cross of the colonel's colour.

Ian Sumner, 8 March 2006