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French Revolution (1789-1799)

Last modified: 2003-07-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: revolution | tricolore | bonaparte | naval ensign | jack | law | red flag |
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Chronological overview

  • 1789: Meeting of the States General (Etats 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)

Design of the national flag

The Tricolore flag was created in 1790 but with the colours the reverse of what they are today, i.e. with red at the hoist, and revised in 1794 to the modern form. The 1790 flag existed only as part of the jack and ensign of the navy.

William Crampton

During the Revolution and the early Bonaparte/Napoléon years, the country was besieged and poor. Standardization of the Tricolore flag took place in 1812 only, and 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 of such real flags.

Ivan Sache, 17 October 2000

Official adoption decree

The National Convention adopted as national flag the three colours blue, white, red on 15 February 1794 - or more exactly, on 27 pluviôse an II in the revolutionary calendar. The decree says (in my own free translation):

    II. The national flag shall be formed of the three national colours, set in three equal bands, 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 jacks and the daily ensign are formed in the same way, observing the size proportions established by custom.
    IV. The commissioning pennant shall be also formed of the three colours, with one-fifth blue, one-fifth white, and three-fifths red.

Armand Noël du Payrat, 4 February 1998

Naval ensign and jack (1790-1794)

[French naval ensign, 1790]by Santiago Dotor

The first official use of the blue-white-red colours in a flag was in the Naval Ensign established on 24 October 1790. This was still white, but had a version of the Tricolour in the first quarter. This version, also used as the Jack, was vertical stripes of red, white and blue, with a white inner border and an outer parti-coloured blue and red. Eventually on 24 May 1794 the first Naval Ensign was abolished, and a uniform Tricolour was prescribed for all purposes.

Source: Barraclough & Crampton (1981) [bcr81]

Santiago Dotor, 5 January 2000

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. Note that the counter-changed border is somewhat thicker than in the above image. The Flag Bulletin [tfb] printed a full listing of the errors in the book.

Dave Martucci, 8 January 2000

The naval jack - the first tricolore - 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 le Departement 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

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 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, hen 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

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 eponymic 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. All the 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 advised 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 Ambassador Bernadotte when he hosted the French Tricolor flag in Vienna, 13 April 1798", kept at the Vienna Historical Museum.

Interestingly, the plate shows a Tricolor flag horizontally divided. This horizontally divided flag might be an erroneous representation by Balzer. The French Tricolor flag 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 Tricolor flag 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