Napoleonic Heraldry

See also:

General Features

See the discussion of Napoleonic Titles first.

Napoleon did not regulate heraldry or restrict free assumption beyond his titled nobility. Article 14 of the decree of March 1, 1808 stated: "Those of our subjects to whom we shall have granted titles shall not bear arms, nor have livery other than those specified in the letters-patent of creation."

Napoleonic heraldry is not substantially different from traditional heraldry, with the notable exception of the charges used to indicate official functions and positions, and for the toques which replaced coronets. In other respects, the traditional partitions, tinctures, rules, and charges were used. A strong sense of hierarchy permeates it: or is ranked above argent, azure above gules, etc. But, as many grantees were new men, and the arms often alluded to their life or specific actions, many new or unusual charges were introduced. Families which previously had arms were usually granted the same.

Napoleon did not try to introduce marks of cadency. The decree of March 3, 1810 (art. 11) states: "The name, arms and livery shall pass from the father to all sons" although the distinctive marks of title could only pass to the son who inherited it. Again, this applied only to the bearers of Napoleonic titles.

The rigid system of Napoleonic heraldry did not outlast the Empire, and was thus applied only 6 years. The 2nd Empire (1852-1870) made no effort to revive it, although the official arms of France were again those of Napoleon I.

The list of charges representing ranks or functions is rather long. Here are a few examples:

  • Sovereign Princes:on a chief azure an imperial eagle or.
  • Princes Grands Dignitaires: on a chief azure a semy of bees or.
  • Dukes: on a chief gules a semy of stars argent.
  • Counts: a quarter azure in chief dexter, charged with marks of the specific rank or function, or.
  • Countesses: an inescutcheon or in point of honor
  • Barons: a quarter gules in chief sinister, charged with marks of the specific rank or function, argent.
  • Baronesses: an inescutcheon argent in point of honor
  • Knights: an ordinary gules, charged with the emblem of the Legion of Honor argent (if applicable, a ring argent otherwise).

The charges on the quarters were specific to the rank held by the individual. Military counts or barons had a sword per pale on their quarter. Members of the Conseil d'Etat had a chequy, ministers had a lion's head erased, prefects had a wall beneath an oak branch, mayors had a wall, landowners had a wheat stalk, judges had a balance, members of Academies had a palm, etc. Archbishops had a cross patty throughout, bishops a cross humetty.

The toques were surmounted by ostrich feathers: dukes had 7, counts had 5, barons 3, knights 1. The number of lambrequins was also regulated: 3, 2, 1 and none respectively.

Members of the imperial family used a mantle gules with a semy of bees or on the outside, lined with ermine on the inside. High Officers of the Empire (princes grands dignitaires) had a mantle azure with a semy of bees or, fringed or, lined ermine, and a cap (bonnet d'honneur) of ermine and azure over it. Princes were entitled to a mantle azure fringed or, lined ermine, and surmounted by a coronet of acanthus leaves with a velvet cap inside surmounted by a small orb or. The mantle of dukes was azure and lined with vair. The mantle of counts senators was azure lined with ermine. Other counts, barons and knights were not entitled to mantles.

Cities of the Empire fell into three classes. The cities of the first class were called bonnes villes. The mayors of the second class were appointed by the Emperor, those of the third class by the local prefect.

The 36 major cities of the Empire, mentioned in article 52 of the Constitution of 1804, were listed in a decree of 22 June 1804: Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon, Rouen, Turin, Nantes, Bruxelles, Anvers, Gand, Lille, Toulouse, Liége, Strasbourg, Aix-la-Chapelle, Orléans, Amiens, Angers, Montpellier, Metz, Caen, Alexandrie, Clermont, Besançon, Nancy, Versailles, Rennes, Genève, Mayence, Tours, Bourges, Grenoble, La Rochelle, Dijon, Reims, Nice. As the Empire grew, a further 16 cities were added.

  1. Duchess-Cities:on a chief gules three bees or.
  2. Countess-Cities:on a quarter in dexter chief azure the letter N beneath a radiant star or.
  3. Baroness-Cities:on a quarter in sinister chief gules the letter N beneath a radiant star argent.

The Napoleonic system did not make systematic provisions for marks of cadency.

When Napoleon was in Elba, from May 1814 to March 1815, he used as flag Argent, on a bend gules three bees bendwise or.

See the page on Napoleonic titles for the arms of kings, princes and dukes.

As a curiosity, here are the arms conceded to Carlo-Alberto di Savoja-Carignano, Count of the French Empire (who would later become king of Sardinia): Gules a horse salient argent, in chief dexter the quarter of counts-landowners, namely on a quarter azure an ear of wheat on a stock or.

Napoleon and Bees

Why all those bees in Napoleonic heraldry?  The heraldic or decorative function they serve is clear: they replace the Old Regime's fleurs-de-lys, especially as a semy on the chiefs of dukes and major cities, or on the mantles of the imperial family. But why this emblem?

Woodward's Treatise provides the answer: in 1653 in Tournai (now Belgium), the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric was discovered. Among many objects it contained about 300 small objects of gold and grenats, in the stylized form of eagles. This item is quite typical of Merovingian art. Jean-Jacques Chifflet, physician to the governor of the Low Countries at the time, was commissioned to write an account of the discovery, and guessed that the objects had decorated a royal mantle, were bees, and were also the antecedents of the French fleurs-de-lys. This theory was hotly disputed at the time, but it nevertheless led Napoleon to his choice.

See a picture of the famous Merovingian bees on the Bibliothèque nationale's Gallica web site.

Interestingly, Napoleon's choice of the Roman eagle was not immediate. For a long while, he considered other alternatives, among others the lion.


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François Velde

Last modified: Aug 01, 2001