Last modified: 2015-04-25 by ivan sache
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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
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 - 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.
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
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
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
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
Timothy Wilson's Flags at Sea [wil86] has the following information about French masthead pennants in the late 17th-18th centuries:
Regulations of 1689:
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
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
The amiral de France was a ceremonial great office of state. The
senior rank for a professional naval officer, formally subordinate to
this official, was vice-amiral. There were three, one for the
Atlantic (Ponant), one for the Mediterranean (Levant), and one for the
galleys. The next rank in the sail navy was in full
lieutenant-général des armées navales, to distinguish it from lieutenant-generals of the land forces, but usually referred to in a navy context as simply lieutenant-général. Below that was the rank of
chef d'escadre. Therefore, working from the lowest general or flag
- chef d'escadre was the equivalent of a British rear-admiral;
- lieutenant-général was the equivalent of a British vice-admiral;
- vice-amiral was the equivalent not of a British vice-admiral but of an admiral, unmodified (sometimes referred to in modern times as a "full admiral").
The French navy did not have a fourth flag rank that could be regarded as equivalent to the British admiral of the fleet. The reference to "commodores" is probably to chefs d'escadre. In the British navy, "commodore" was a temporary appointment, not a rank, for a captain, who had the privileges and authority, but not the pay, of a rear-admiral. In the French navy in the 18th century, a small detachment of a few ships might be commanded by a senior or experienced captain (capitaine de vaisseau), but he was not referred to as a "commodore," a term not used in the French navy.
Michel Vergé-Franceschi, Les Officiers généraux de la marine royale (1715-1775): Origines, conditions, services (7 vols.: Paris: Librairie de l'Inde, 1990) is a study of 18th-century French navy flag officers that includes lists of the French vice-amiraux, lieutenant-généraux, and chefs d'escadre, with references in individual biographies to promotion from capitaine de vaisseau to chef d'escadre, and then, for those who lived long enough, to lieutenant-général and in a few cases to vice-amiral. In studying the mid-century War of the Austrian Succession, I have not found a reference to any French naval officer as a "commodore."
The French use of the term vice-amiral for the highest rank attainable by a professional naval officer, with two general ranks below it, has confused many English-speaking historians.
Albert Parker, 3 April 2014
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