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This page is in response to a number of queries viewers have made to the Société de l'Oriflamme concerning the historic Oriflamme banner associated with the medieval French monarchy. This brief text attempts to describe the status of the society's ongoing research of this famous flag. With certainty, the banner existed from the high medieval era until the late fifteenth century. Its origin is more elusive. Slightly less confusing is its exact appearance. The following is a brief discussion as to the Oriflamme's origin, appearance, meaning, presence in battles, and Montjoie. References to useful web links and printed sources are at the end of the text.

Some suggestions vaguely trace the banner, at least in concept, to Constantine, the Roman Emperor (306-337). More frequently some authors guess that the Oriflamme of the Capetians was derived from the preceding dynasty with Charlemagne's gonfanon, named 'Montjoie' and reportedly presented to him by Pope Leo III in 800. Some early medieval text also refers to Charlemagne's emblem as 'banner orie flambe'. There is also mention of a large saffron-colored banner at the 885 siege of Paris by the Normans. Reportedly the first Capetian king of the French, Hughes Capet (987-996), had a multi-tailed red standard, but no name is associated with it.

Besides scattered and ambiguous textual references of medieval writers, the confusion is created by the imprecision of early medieval imagery. Many of these images show what are considered the distinctive features of the Oriflamme -- a long, mulit-tailed red banner. Such a standard appears to have been popular with military formations in medieval Western European. Numerous early medieval paintings and some mosaics show the red banners. These are seen in many miniature paintings that illustrated fourteenth- and fifteenth- century chroniclers' manuscripts (such as Froissart's) in Western Europe, and now housed in various Euroepan archives.

Many fifteenth-century miniaturists' battle scenes show red banners, exhibited on the long poles, and held up admist the hosts of both sides. Some of the red banners are adorned with yellow/gold lettering. Others show what may be gold stars or the like. We do not have the exact dates such images were painted. Nor can we be certain that they represent eyewitness observations. The accompanying text often does not directly relate to the specific details in the image.

Below is a detail from a 15th-century miniature held by the BNF, of the battle of Crécy. Note that the red banner on the French side [left] is obviously meant to depict the Oriflamme, with the word 'S. DEMIS' [sic, meant to be 'DENIS'?] upon it. There is a red banner on the English side, with faded letters that siggest it may be 'S. GEORGE'.

Evidence indicates that the Oriflamme's association with the Capetians came about during the time of Philippe I (1060-1108), and most definiately with his son, Louis VI (1108-37). Very possibly it was the due to the energetic and ambitious abbot of Saint-Denis, Sugar, who managed to associate his abbey, just north of Paris, closely with the royal house of France. He served Philippe I and became the minister for Louis VI. For a long period, the abbey took over recording the 'history of the royal rulers' as the Grandes Croniques de France. The basilica of St. Denis is also famous as the necropolis for most all of the French monarchs down until their tombs were desecrated during the Revolution in 1793. The church of St. Denis was named after the third-century bishop of Paris, and was established under the reign of the Merovingian king Dagobert I (628-39).
The Oriflamme of St. Denis appears to have assumed a position of primary importance over the previous symbol of St. Martin of Tours that was associated with the Frankish kings since the Merovingian Clovis (481-511). There are references to its presence during the campaigns of Charles Martel (714-741). Saint Martin's symbol was more of a 'vexilloid' -- a blue cloak that hung from a cross bar held aloft on a vertical pole. It appears that St. Martin's vexilloid existed concurrently with the Oriflamme of St. Denis. However, references to it dwindle quickly, suggesting that St. Martin's symbol may have been replaced by a royal standard. It may have inspired the blue background used in the actual banner of the Valois kings. The Valois banner was of blue material, strewn with gold fleur-de-lys, and first used by Louis VI (1108-1137). The fleurs-de-lis were semé until Charles VI (1380-1422) reduced the number to three, in honor of the Holy Trinity. The Royal standard was carried concurrently with the Oriflamme of St. Denis.

Some experts on the subject of French heraldry believe that the initial 'oriflame' [gold flame] referred to the gilded lance to which the red banner was attached. Early descriptions vary as to whether the red banner is attached vertically to the lance, or suspended from a horizontal cross bar to the lance. Both configuratons possibly co-existed if some theories are correct that there was one principal Oriflamme that remained in the Abbey of St. Denis, while replicas may have been carried on campaigns.

A fifteenth-century miniature painting of the battle of Agincourt, held by Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) shows clearly the word "S-DENIS" on the red banner that waves over the French forces. [The detail of the painting of Crécy shown above, must be a misspelling.] This supports statements describing it as such. However, the images also suggest that the artists were rendering simplified depictions of what was described.

A viewer has reported that the Oriflamme is illustrated on the shield of Jean d' Auvergne, Comte de Boulogne (at the Armorial de Gelre at the Royal Library in Brussels.) There is also an excellent illustration of it in Roaul de Presle's Saint Augustine Reading the City of God (MS 1905), dated 1445, at the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels. Various illustrations reportedly representing the Oriflamme show from 3 to 8 tails, and the words of 'Montjoie, St. Denis', or just 'St. Denis' along with embellishments of gold flames or stars.
The evidence suggests that the appearance of the Oriflamme of St. Denis changed over time as it was either replaced of repaired. The most common features were the red material and the multi-tails on the flying end. Equally, it is very logical that it was displayed differnetly inside the church than when carried outside by an armed host. Further, if there had been a practice of replicas, they most likely would have been of simpler design.
Reportedly, The Chronique de Flandre describes the red silk banner having three tails, with green fringe border and tassels. Various texts mention that it was adorned with gold/yellow disks or flames. This colorful suggestion was selected for the Société de l'Oriflamme's logo.
An interesting image is 'The Benediction of the Oriflammes' found in the Prayer Book of the French king Charles V. Reference: 'La bénédiction des oriflammes' (Livre du sacre de Charles V, 1365, ms. Cotton B VIII, f0 73 r0), held by the British Library, London. This suggests more than one banner. Below in an interpretation of one of the banners in the image.

One frequent error can be dismissed. The oriflamme was not 'the banner of the French kings', though it was closely associated with the capetians-direct and early capetians-valois kings. It was the banner of a particular church. Churches in early medieval France, served as regional administrative institutions in the absence of such from a central government. The bishops had significant authority over village communities not under a lord, and also elicited cooperation among the local, large estate-owning noblitiy. The banner of the regional church -- or bishop's parish -- served to symbolically unite the local congregation in a collective self-defense of their community in times of peril -- raids of abusive and powerful nobles, invading armies, etc. Many such church 'banners' or 'standards' existed. One of St. Martin of Tours [a fourth-century bishop], has already been mentioned.

This part of the research is far from complete. Indeed, it may be impossible to complete. Many modern authors refer to the Oriflamme being carried into and lost, and even captured, in battles. For the most part, these are never supported with a primary reference. The few scholarly works that refer to early documents, transcribe the wording as that the Oriflamme was 'raised', usually in the presence of the French king, at St-Denis. There are references to individual knights being designated to be protectors and bearers of the banner, but the more carefully supported works fall short of describing the banner actually being carried into the battle. The following is a rough summary of incidents which need much further examination to substantiate the reliability of the observations as well as to answer some of the questions proposed.

  • The Oriflamme of St. Denis was reportedly carried at the battle of Brenneville (1119?). This was before or part of when Louis 'the Fat' VI (r.1108–1137) marched against the emperor Henry V in 1121. [Norris]
    Oriflamme was raised at St. Denis in 1124 for the German invasion. [Contamine's War in the Middle Ages, p.42 [126].
    Oriflamme was first mentioned in 1124, and first described in 1225. [Velde]
  • Oriflamme of St. Denis was at the battle of Bouvines (1214). [Contamine's War in the Middle Ages, p.298; further referred to in G. Duby's Le dimanche de Bouvines.]
  • Jean de Joinville, the contemporary biographer of Louis IX (1226-70), mentions that many standards and pennons were embroidered with pious images [Contamine's L'oriflamme de Saint-Denis aux XIVe et XVe (p.458)]. However, Joinville does not mention the Oriflamme being at the battles of Taillebourg and Saintes (July 1242), which is mentioned (without specific support) in some general French histories (e.g., M. Félix Faure's Histoire de Saint Louis).
  • Oriflamme not mentioned at battle of Courtrai (1302), a major defeat of the French.
  • Oriflamme was carried at battle of Mons-en-Pévèle (1304), and reportedly "was torn apart by the Flemings" [Heath, p.114; Funken, p.100]. This is of course possible, even if this were a French victory.
  • Oriflamme mentioned as being at battle of Cassel (1328), carried by Messire Miles de Noyers. [Norris]
  • Reportedly the French knight, Gui, Sieur de la Tremoille, assigned to carry the Oriflamme was killed at Crécy (1346). No mention of standard being captured at this major defeat of French knights.
  • Geoffrey de Charny was cut down and killed still holding the Oriflamme battle of Poitiers [Maupertius] (1356). [Barbara Tuchman, via Jean le Bel (copied by Froissart), Heath]. French king was captured at the battle. One e-mail asserted that the Oriflamme was 'captured' at Poitiers, but could not support it.
  • Oriflamme is not mentioned in battles during reign of Charles V (1364-1380).
  • Oriflamme reportedly was carried at battle of Roosebeke (1382) [Heath].
  • Oriflamme was said to have been at the battle of Agincourt (1415), where its bearer, Guillaume Martel, sire de Bacqueveille, was killed and the flag reported "lost." The sire de Bacqueveille was appointed to bear the banner 28 March 1414. [Source given as Academie de Inscriptions, tome xiii., p.640. -- Not seen.]
  • Oriflamme is not mentioned in battles during the reign of Charles VII (1422-1461).
  • The Oriflamme was reportedly seen again in 1419 and in 1465. These latter appearances were "either the rescued flag or replacements." This latter would be in the era of Louis XI (1461-1483) [Heath, but does not reference where or sources.]
  • Some documents at Saint-Denis describe the l'oriflamme being preserved folded in a reliquary on the alter of that basilica. It reportedly remained there until the French Revolution. The Oriflammme was reported to have been last taken out in public on the occasion of the Fête de la Fédération (14 July 1790), where along with flags of the National Guard that were presented by La Fayette, it was blessed by Talleyrand, then the Bishop of Autun. The event was an attempted reconciliation between the ancient regime and the new republican revolutionaries. However, soon after the execution of Louis XVI (21 January 1793), the Treasury of Saint-Dennis was looted. In October, the royal tombs were opened and the remains scattered. It is believed that the Oriflamme [in its last material realization] was finally destroyed during one of the several acts of vandalism upon the basilica in 1793.

While reportedly the name of the banner of Charlemagne, it is most famous as the war-cry of the medieval French, used in conjunction with 'Saint-Denis'. It is an early term for rock piles that marked the way for pilgrims visiting shrines. It became an expression to mean something like 'Behold!', and later 'Hurrah' or 'Praise Be!', as well as a rallying cry in battle. Some theories expain it as coming from Mont Gaudi (in French Mont Joie) where the Charlemagne received his banner. Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades (vol 1, p.278) mentions that the Crusaders in Palestine reached a summit where there was a Mosque of the Prophet Samuel, and that it was the same hill top the Christian pilgrims called 'Montjoie' as they could see Jerusalem's walls and towers in the distance.

The above text is based upon many sources which should be examined directly. Firstly, to note are some valuable sources found on the web:

1. Medieval Flags and Banners' Oriflamme page. A well organized site that led to discovering many of the references given below. Contains some early images from Ottfried Neubecker's A Guide to Heraldry, McGraw-Hill, UK, 1997. The main Medieval Flags and Banner gateway site is linked from the the Société de l'Oriflamme main page.

2.Flags of the World [FOTW] website's Oriflamme statement. This is part FOTW's page on historical flags of France. Includes explaination of the French use of the white cross.

3. Much of the above has taken its material taken from François Velde's exceptionally fine website on French Heraldry, which is linked from the the Société de l'Oriflamme main page. M. Velde has his own Oriflamme page.

4. Some imagery and interesting text on the Oriflamme is from The Catholic Encyclopedia.

5. Interesting background on the Oriflamme is extracted from Herbert Norris's Costume & Fashion, Volume Two, 1066-1485, Chapter V, Heraldry. However, Norris errors in calling it a 'royal standard'.

6. Published printed works. Those followed by an asterisk are more fully cited in the bibliography for the Hundred Years' War.

  • Contamine, Philippe:
    (a) La guerre au moyen age, Universitaires de France (1980, 4th ed 1994).*
    (b) War in the Middle Ages, English trans. by Michael Jones (1990), pp.42, 273, 298.*
    (c) Oriflamme de Saint Denis aux XIVe et XVe siècles, Université de Nancy, Institute de Researche régional (1975) [not yet seen by this author].
  • Heath, Ian. Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1; The Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses and the Burgundian Wars, 1300-1487, Wargamers Research Group (1982), p.114.*
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror, Alfred A. Knopf (1978), pp. 155, 158, 406.*
  • Funcken, Liliane and Fred. Le costume, l'armure et les armes au temps de la chevalerie, tome 1, Casterman (1977), p.100.*

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This page first posted in August 2000, last updated 10 August 2003.