The oriflamme was a sacred banner used by the kings of France in the Middle Ages in times of great danger. It was distinct from the heraldic banner of the French kings (semis of fleur-de-lys on azure, as expected). Its history is fairly continuous from 1124 onward, when it is first mentioned. It is first described in 1225. It consists of two parts: a gilded lance, to which is attached a silk banner, red with green fringes. The floating end of the banner splits into two or more trailing strips. The name, aurea flamma, conflates the banner (flamma) and the color of the lance. The banner is sometimes represented as attached vertically to the lance, and sometimes (especially in the 19th c.) as attached to a horizontal bar, itself suspended from the lance.

It was deposited in the abbey of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where kings of France were buried, next to the relics of Denis who evangelized the area. When going to war, the French king would come to Saint-Denis to "raise the banner". The last time it was raised was in the late 15th c. It was destroyed during the Revolution.

Philip Augustus raising the oriflamme on 24 June 1190, by Pierre-Henri Revoil. (Source: base de données Joconde.)

What was its origin? The 1124 text mentions an old tradition of the counts of Vexin, who were protectors of the abbey; the kings of France had become counts of Vexin in 1077. But the text also alludes to a tradition specific to the kings of France. Also, a late 11th-c. text, the Gesta of Roland, calls Charlemagne's emblem or banner orie flambe, but does not describe it. A description of the siege of Paris by the Normans in 885 mentions a large saffron-colored banner with large indentations carried by a double lance. One author tries to link the oriflamme to Charlemagne's lance and through it all the way back to Constantine's labarum, which was taken from a pagan sanctuary located near modern Saint-Denis. (Constantine's lance was part of the regalia of the German emperors, and is now in Vienna). The idea is that the sacred object was the lance itself, decorated with a silk fanion, but later the meaning of the lance was lost and the silk fanion itself came to be seen as the important object.

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François Velde

Last modified: Last modified: Apr 22, 2010