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Kingdom of France: Naval flags

Last modified: 2002-10-26 by ivan sache
Keywords: fleur-de-lys (yellow) | war ensign | civil ensign | white flag | cross (white) | bullock pennant | flamme de boeuf | masthead pennant | commodore | vice admiral |
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Ensigns of the King's vessels

White ensign

[Plain white ensign]by Pierre Gay

This flag is shown on Danckert's flag chart [ca.1700] [dan05], as #82, labelled 'Franse Witte Vlag' - French white flag.

Ivan Sache, 18 June 2001

White ensign with fleurs-de-lys

[White semy de lys ensign]by Pierre Gay

In used from 1638, until 24 October 1790; and from 1814 to 1830.
This ensign, plain white on most ships, could sometimes be found white a semy of fleurs-de-lys 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, 19 October 1999

Civil ensign

Without coat of arms

[The White Cross]by Pierre Gay

The ensign was the white cross on a blue field, later charged with the arms of France in the middle.

Pierre Gay, 29 September 1998

With coat of arms

[The Civil Ensign]by Mario Fabretto

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).

Source: Encyclopaedia Universalis, Thesaurus-Index, pp. 1111-1112.

Ivan Sache, 15 January 1999

Danckert's version

[Danckert's version]by Ivan Sache

This flag is shown on Danckert's flag chart [ca.1700] [dan05], as #81, labelled 'Franse Koopmans Vlag' - French merchant flag. The same chart shows as #82, labelled ' Gemene Franse Vlag' - Common French flag, a red flag with (apparently) a crowned blue shield charged with three (yellow?) fleur-de-lys.

Ivan Sache, 18 June 2001

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 boeuf)

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

FLAMME DE BOEUF (litt. "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

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