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Béarn (Traditional province, France)

Last modified: 2024-05-11 by olivier touzeau
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Flag of Béarn - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 17 December 2002

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History of Béarn

Béarn is the ancient pagus bearnensis or benehornum.

In 820, King Louis the Pious made of Béarn an hereditary Viscounty granted to one of the Duke of Gascogne's sons. In 841, Morlaàs replaced the former capital Lescar, which had been looted by the Sarracens. In the 11th century, Viscount Gaston IV the Crusader promulgated the For (right) de Morlaàs, a kind of chart that restricted the seignieurial powers and established an equitable tallage. Every new viscount should "swear the For". In 1194, the capital of Béarn was transferred to Orthez.

In 1290, the house of Foix received Béarn by marriage. The most famous Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn was Gaston III (1331-1391) Fébus (the Brilliant or the Hunter), whose motto was toque-y si gauses (touch it if you dare). Fébus exerted an absolute power and did not care of the Fors. He convened in Orthez a rich court with poets and troubadours, but was also involved in more violent acts. He ordered the assassination of his brother and murdered himself his son during an argument. Fond of hunting, Fébus wrote a venery treaty and maintained a pack of 600 dogs. Aged 60, he died near Sauveterre from a cerebral hemorragy when returning from bear hunting.

In 1464, the new ruling house of Albret transfered the capital of Béarn to Pau. The Albret were small Aquitan lords, who eventually owned the County of Foix, Béarn and Lower-Navarre thanks to the protection of the King of France and wise marriages.
In 1527, Viscount Henri of Albret married François I's sister, the brilliant Marguerite of Angoulême Marguerite was described as follows: "a woman's body, a man's heart, and an angel's head". Her daughter Joan of Albret, however, was said "to be a woman by her sex only". She married Anton of Bourbon, a descendant of Louis IX (St. Louis), thus explaining why their son Henry IV claimed the throne of France after the death of the last Valois king, Henry III. Joan became Queen of Navarre, since the Salic law was not in use in Béarn, and abjured catholicism for the reformed religion. King of France Charles IX sent an army that seized Pau and forced Joan to flee to La Rochelle. Montgomery captured Pau and the queen came back five months later. Joan married his son to Marguerite of Valois (la Reine Margot), the daughter of King of France Henry II and Catherine de Médicis.
In 1572, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre took place six days after Henry's wedding. Forced to abjure protestantism, Henry did it solemnely only short before being crowned King of France in 1589. He is said to have said then Paris vaut bien une messe ("Paris deserves at least a mass"). Béarn was incorporated to the kingdom but kept its autonomy status. Henry said: "I give France to Béarn and not Béarn to France" and bore the title of "King of France and Navarre". Béarn was eventually annexated in 1620 under Louis XIII, but the province kept its Parliament and States, called Cour de Béarn (Court of Béarn) in Pau until 1789.

In the south of Béarn, the mountain valleys of Ossau, Aspe and Barétous kept until the Revolution a system of political autonomy, often called "pastoral democracy", which was based on the aforementioned fors. Feudal taxes, serfdom and gabelle (salt tax) did not exist there. The pastures were a collective property, divided into three parts rotated each year between the shepherds. The pastures of Pont-Long, located north of Pau, are still divided between the herds from the three valleys according to medieval acts.

Ivan Sache, 17 December 2002

Flag of Béarn

The flag of Béarn is a banner of the arms D'or aux deux vaches de gueules, accornées, colletées et clarinées d'azur, passant l'une sur l'autre (Or two cows gules horned and belled azure).

In his Notice historique sur les blasons des anciennes provinces de France (Historical note on the coats of arms of the ancient French provinces, 1941), Jacques Meurgey says that the arms, ercalling the local pastures, are very old; the Béarn cows showed up on coins and seals as early as the 13th century.
Insisting on the blue elements and the unusual heraldic words required to describe them, Meurgey uses accolées instead of colletées to describe the collar.

The cows (vaches) are often believed to recall the ancient Iberic tribe of Vacceans, who were subjugated by the Romans in 100 BP, and are said to be the ancestors of the Béarnais.

Ivan Sache, 14 June 2009

The arms of Béarn are shown on the coat of arms and flag of Andorra

Santiago Dotor, 18 December 2002