French Heraldry: National Characteristics

The heraldry of each country has certain peculiar rules and customs, as well as a certain flavor. This page tries to convey some of these national characteristics.

France is one of the places where heraldry began, and the language of heraldry can be said to be French. In style and habits, French heraldry is close to English or German heraldry. There are some peculiarities, however:

Titles and Coronets

The usual order of precedence in 17th and 18th c. France was roughly as follows:


    Illustrations by Arnaud Bunel
  1. Roi : closed crown of fleurs-de-lis (the crown was open until the early 16th century).
  2. Dauphin, or heir apparent: initially an open crown of fleurs-de-lis; starting with Henri IV's son (1601-10), the crown is closed with dolphins instead of arches.
  3. fils et petit-fils de France: children and grand-children of a sovereign: open coronet of fleurs-de-lis.
  4. Prince du Sang, prince of the royal blood (descended in male line from a sovereign): first a coronet alternating fleurs-de-lis and acanthus leaves (called strawberry leaves in English blazon), e.g., on François de Montpensier's coinage in Dombes, ca. 1575. In the 17th and 18th c. they used a coronet of fleurs-de-lis like the enfants de France. The legitimized princes (descended from legitimized children of sovereigns) ranked immediately after the princes of the blood (from 1694 to 1717 and from 1723 onward), and were given the same coronet.
  5. pair de France (Peer of the Realm): a coronet of the title (usually duke) with a crimson velvet cap, a mantle armoyé (reproducing the arms) fringed with gold and lined with ermine.
  6. duc (duke): a coronet of acanthus leaves.
  7. marquis (marquis): a coronet of alternating acanthus leaves and groups of three pearls in trefoil (or two pearls side by side in some versions).
  8. comte (count): a coronet of pearls.
  9. vicomte (viscounts): 4 large pearls (3 visible) alternating with smaller pearls.
  10. vidame: a peculiar French title, for protectors of the temporal estates of a bishopric; a small coronet with 4 crosses (3 visible).
  11. baron: a circle of gold wreathed with a string of small pearls.
  12. chevalier (knight): no coronet, but a helm.

  13. écuyer (squire): no coronet, but a helm. Helms were reserved for nobles, titled or untitled, by 16th c. regulations that were universally ignored. In principle, a helm without coronet indicated an untitled noble, chevalier or écuyer (on this distinction, see a discussion of the French nobility).

This hierarchy, which is identical for non-royal titles to the British hierarchy of peers, should not be taken as seriously as the latter. In particular, title was not a good indication of actual preeminence or importance. Ancestry, marriages, distinguished service, high office counted for a lot more than the actual title. Some very old families had the title of count, or even baron, but were proud of their ancient origin. As an example, the title of marquis ranks in principle immediately after duke, but was so ridiculed by the late 18th century (cf. the phrase "petit marquis" meaning a presumptuous and vain person) that Napoleon omitted it from his own scale of titles. It should also be noted that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, people assumed and used freely coronets of ranks they did not have; and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, great abuse has been made of "courtesy titles".

The only title that was never usurped under the Old Regime, and rarely without some semi-excuse afterwards, was the title of duc. As a result, the title of duc was clearly at the top of the scale after the royal family and foreign princes, and a cut above all other nobility.

Prince: this was not a title in Old Regime France, but a rank, hence there was no coronet.

Supporters

Supporters ere never strongly associated with any rank or title. They are rather less common than in other countries like Britain or Germany (for example, although the French royal arms have angels as supporters, they are not frequently depicted except in full-page achievements).

Mottoes

French heraldry is fond of mottoes, and some families even have two: the motto (devise) and the "cri d'arme" a war-cry. The motto can be personal or familial. It can be in French, medieval French, Latin or even Greek.

Crests

Crests are rare in modern (i.e., 15th c. and later) French heraldry. The typical ornaments above a shield will be a helm (for nobles), lambrequins, and a coronet when applicable. Family badges are also rare, although personal badges were common among kings and high nobility in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Orders of Knighthood

The main ones under the Old Regime were the Ordre de Saint-Michel (created in the 15th c. by Louis XI) and the Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Holy Ghost), created in 1578 with a limit of 100 on the number of knights: it was the most prestigious order in France, usually forbidden to foreigners (but the Spanish Borbons were often made knights in the 18th c.). Both were abolished in 1789, recreated in 1815 and abolished in 1830. A recipient of the Saint-Esprit always received Saint-Michel at the same time (they were collectively known as les ordres du Roi) though the converse was not true, of course. There was no requirement of nobility for Saint-Michel, but there were stringent ones for Saint-Esprit. The pendant of the Saint-Esprit was a Maltese cross azure, bordered argent, with a dove displayed pointing downward, and fleurs-de-lis between the branches of the cross. The necklace is made of alternating elements all shown surrounded by flames: the letter H surrounded by royal crowns (for Henri III, founder), a fleur-de-lis, and a military trophy. The sash of the Saint-Esprit was blue, and it was called in French le cordon bleu, though how the expression came to mean a first-rate cook I do not know. The pendant of Saint-Michel shows Saint Michael defeating the devil, and the necklace is made of SSS and shells.

A minor order is the Order of Saint-Lazare: created in 1125 in Palestine, it had found refuge in France after the fall of the Latin states and decayed into oblivion, when in 1608 Henri IV decided to commemorate his conversion to Catholicism by uniting it to the Order of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel and giving it new life. It was abolished in 1791. Eight generations of nobility were required.

There are also military orders, the main ones being Saint-Louis, created by Louis XIV in 1693 and abolished in 1830, and the Legion of Honor (created by Napoleon in 1802). The order of Saint-Louis had a red ribbon, several ranks of knights, and was clearly the model for the Legion of Honor. An edict of 1750 prescribed that three consecutive generations of recipients of the order of Saint-Louis brought nobility. The Legion of Honor has the same feature. The military orders are shown hanging below the shield.

Marshalling of Arms

Municipal Heraldry

This is perhaps the only domain where heraldry is still alive in France, though perhaps not as vibrant as in Germany. All major cities and even many villages have coats of arms, oftentimes displayed on street signs and on municipal buildings. A mural crown distinguishes city arms. Medals or insignia of military orders are granted to cities and proudly displayed on coats of arms (Paris has a couple for its fight against the Germans in 1944; the most decorated French city is Verdun). Many French cities have royal augmentations in the form of a chief of France (Paris being an example). The chief with its color azure often violates the rule of tincture, though French heraldry gets around this by saying that it is cousu.


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François Velde

Last modified: Feb 06, 2003