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Kingdom of France: Flags at sea

Last modified: 2009-12-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: fleur-de-lis (yellow) | naval ensign | civil ensign | white flag | cross (white) | bullock pennant | flamme de boeuf | masthead pennant | commodore | vice admiral | galley |
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Naval ensign

[Plain white ensign]     [White semy de lys ensign]

Naval ensigns of the Kingdom of France - left, the white ensign; right, the fleurdelisé ensign - Images by Pierre Gay, 19 October 1999

The white ensign is shown on Danckert's flag chart (ca.1700) [dan05], #82, labelled Franse Witte Vlag, that is French white flag.
This ensign was used from 1638 to 24 October 1790, and again and from 1814 to 1830.
The ensign, plain white on most ships, could sometimes be found white a semy of fleurs-de-lis or. The ceremonial of salute was very strict - disrespectful salute from a foreign ship would mean battle: any ship encountering a King's vessel at sea had to dip her flag, if hoisted at the main mast, and/or her ensign, lower her foresail and take the lee gage.

Pierre Gay & Ivan Sache, 18 June 2001


Galley ensigns

[Main galley ensign]

Main galley ensign - Image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 5 November 2008

Siegel [sig12] shows (chart #34) the Standarte d. Reale (Main Galley ensign; 1737.1769*) as a swallow-tailed pennent, horizontally divided red-white-red, with a blue oval shield bearing three golden (yellow) fleurs-de-lis placed two and one. The emblem is shifted to the hoist.
The two years mentioned as "1737.1769*" do not represent a period in themselves, but indicate respectively the sources: Kieboom (1737), Recueil de Planches sur les sciences et les arts méchaniques (1769), and Bowles (app. 1801).
It is unlikely that revolutionary France actually still flew this flag, and we donot have any earlier sources, the years may represent a fair approximation of the actual period.

Neubecker [neu39a] shows (p. 79) the same flag as the Hauptgaleerenstander.

[Galley ensign]     [Galley Ensign]

Galley ensign - Images by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 5 November 2008
Left, as shown by Siegel, captioned "1737-1769"
Right, as shown by Neubecker, captioned "18th century"

Siegel [sig12] shows (charts #28 and #34) the galley ensign as red with a semy of golden fleurs-de-lis (seven rows) and the greater arms of the Kingdom of France in the centre.
On chart #28, the flag is called Frankreich - Galeerenflagge (France - Galley Ensign). Sources in this section are indicated as being almost always two Dutch sources: Allard (1695) [ala95] or De Vries (1700). Siegel does not indicate whether that is the case here.
On chart #34, the flag is called Frankreich, Kgl. Galeerenfl. (Royal Galley Ensign). Here, the two years are mentioned, as "1737.1769 *", but these do not represent a period in themselves, but indicate respectively the sources: Kieboom (1737), Recueil de Planches sur les sciences et les arts méchaniques (1769), and Bowles (app. 1801).
It is unlikely that revolutionary France actually still flew this flag, but the sources for the earlier entry indicate it was in use several decades before 1737.

The arms show on a blue shield three golden (yellow) fleurs-de-lis, placed two and one. The shield is topped by a crown and surrounded by the chain of the Order of the Holy Spirit.

Neubecker [neu39a] shows (p. 79) the same flag but with the arms clearly shifted to the hoist.

Klaus-Michael Schneider & Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 6 October 2009


Civil ensign

[Civil ensign]     [Civil Ensign]

French civil ensign
Left, first version - Image by Pierre Gay, 29 September 1998
Right, second version - Image by Mario Fabretto, 29 September 1998

The civil ensign was the white cross on a blue field, later charged with the greater arms of France in the middle.
According to Encyclopaedia Universalis, merchant ships had a blue ensign with a white cross, charged with the crowned shield of France, but they used to hoist the plain white ensign (allowed only for Royal vessels, by Order of 9 October 1661 and Regulation of 12 July 1670) in order to command respect. This usurpation was generalized around 1760 and officialized by the Order of 25 March 1765 (a distinctive emblem of the ship owner was allowed).

Pierre Gay & Ivan Sache, 15 January 1999

[Danckert's version]

French civil ensign as shown by Danckert - Image by Ivan Sache, 18 June 2001

A flag made of seven white and blue horizontal stripes is shown on Danckert's flag chart [ca.1700] [dan05], #81, labelled Franse Koopmans Vlag, that is French merchant flag. The same chart shows #82, labelled Gemene Franse Vlag, that is Common French flag, a red flag with (apparently) a crowned blue shield charged with three (yellow?) fleur-de-lis.

Ivan Sache, 18 June 2001

[Siegel's version]

French merchant ensign as shown by Siegel - Image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 7 November 2008

Siegel [sig12] shows (chart #34) the merchant ensign as red with a semy of golden fleurs-de-lis (five rows) and the lesser arms of the Kingdom of France, topped by a crown, in the centre.
The arms show on a blue shield three golden (yellow) fleurs-de-lis, placed two and one.

Klaus-Michael Schneider, 7 November 2008


Masthead pennants

Timothy Wilson's Flags at Sea [wil86] has the following information about French masthead pennants in the late 17th-18th centuries:

Regulations of 1689:

  • Commodores to fly a white broad pennant (cornette blanche) at the mizzen.
  • Broad pennants in proportions 1:4, split for two-thirds of fly with pointed tails.
  • Vice Admirals and Lieutenant Generals [Rear Admirals?] in command of fewer than 12 warships and Commodores in command of fewer than five warships are to fly an ordinary pennant except by special permission of King.
  • Only Senior Commodore present flies a broad pennant; others fly ordinary pennant.
  • On HM ships, no other flag, pennant, or ensign than white is to be flown (except for signals).
  • Commander of a fleet of merchant vessels may fly a white pennant at the main, but take it down if in sight of HM warships

In 1790, the plain white pennant was replaced by a white pennant with a red-white-blue tricolor within a blue and red border in the hoist.
In 1794, the pennant became a blue-white-red tricolor.

The Mediterranean galley fleet was separate until 1748 and used predominantly red flags and pennants.

Joe McMillan, 10 April 2000


Bullock pennant (flamme de bœuf)

Grand Larousse Illustré du XXe siècle (6 vol., 1928) [aue2X], has the following entry:

FLAMME DE BŒUF (lit., bullock pennant): Red pennant hoisted in the past on the flagship to signal that a bullock had just been slaughtered.

"In the past" (autrefois) refers to an unprecised but definitively bygone past, so I would say Larousse means the Ancien Regime (before 1789).

Ivan Sache, 18 November 2000