Monday, 1 February 2016

French Standards & Liveries 1477 - 82

A colour-enhanced rendition of a tapestry made for Jean de Daillon, Seigneur de Lude, by the women of Tournai in 1482. Despite his rank as an ordonnance company captain and the King's Lieutenant in Artois, Daillon does not use his coat of arms and his pennon is quite unlike renditions of 'company standards' of the time. Presumably it is a personal standard as an alternative to a banner bearing his arms. 

Sadly there is no great repository of French banners and standards, as is the case with the Burgundian ones preserved or documented across a number of Swiss museums. It is almost entirely the case that to study French items, it is necessary to refer to contemporary art and illustrations. While you can presume that these are for the most part accurate renditions, they are not physical evidence like a photograph and it is impossible to know how much artistic licence has been applied in each individual case.

However what is certain is that these items were not present merely for decoration alone and that there was indeed a system and design to who and what would display them. Where there is actual evidence to say with a fair degree of certainty that something was so, I will try to ensure that I make this clear, but otherwise much of this post is merely educated guesswork, or in some cases a leap of faith, based on what was the case in subsequent eras. The point here though is that everything has an origin, so while 15th Century commanders did not wear sashes like 17th Century ones, the fact that for the French these sashes were typically white, goes right back to the 15th Century.

There is an actual rule of thumb that does seem very self-evident across the Late Medieval Period, regardless of what country is being considered. Quite simply the bigger the 'flag', the more important the person or unit that bears it is. The individual banners of nobles got larger the higher up the social scale they rose, despite being the same shape and there is no reason to suppose that 'unit' standards did not follow the same convention. So the standard of a 'grande compagnie' will be larger (and possibly also a different shape) than that of a 'compagnie' or 'escadron'.

This image (early 16th Century) features Gendarmes who apparently bear no form of their company's livery, other than their pennons in red and yellow. These seem to be of identical size and form signifying that they are elements of the same company.


The purpose of coats of arms is to identify an individual and the purpose of the banner is to extend that identification over a wider area. While earlier armies were no doubt a seething mass of banners (amongst the men at arms at least), this was not the case by the Late 15th Century. In an attempt to limit the power of the nobility, successive French kings had slowly stripped them of the right to raise forces except by royal commission. For many this was not unwelcome, as they could now avoid buying increasingly expensive armour and devote themselves to making their estates very profitable.

The outcome of this was that only those nobles with a taste for war pursued captaincies and the bulk of the men at arms became junior sons of noble families and the more impoverished, or more adventurous, of the gentry. Men of any social rank found themselves in command of whole formations and in some cases this also meant that in some cases a company might be led by someone who had no right to bear arms at all.

Ultimately therefore the banner became the signifier of the presence of a commander, as opposed to the presence of a unit standard, which signified the 'headquarters' or rallying point for a formation. While typically the two would be together, this was not always the case. In essence then the banner is saying "here I am" for anyone looking to speak to the commander himself, as opposed to just seeking the headquarters of a formation in a more general sense.

In the Burgundian Army there also seems to have been use made of banners of varying sizes, all bearing the ducal arms. I have no idea whether this was also true of French armies, but it is possible. My own interpretation of their use, is that those leaders who lacked the right to bear a banner, instead bore one (the size determined by their place in the hierarchy) to signify that they held authority from the duke and acted in his name. To the average man the ducal arms would be authority enough, while for others employed by the duke the size of the banner indicated their relative 'rank'.

So in short banners are for commanders and officials and bear their own arms if they have them, or the 'royal arms' in this case, to signify their relative authority and place in the hierarchy. However examination of contemporary illustrations (such as the tapestry of Jean de Daillon above) banners might be replaced by personal standards.

The Croix de France

A 15th Century depiction of the Battle of Auray. The French troops to the left are depicted as displaying the Croix de France. Most illustrations show an eclectic mix of uniform colours, which may be more to show the various liveries of those involved, rather than an accurate depiction of units as they would appear. 

With large numbers of men across national boundaries all wearing similar armour and clothing in similar colours, determining friend from foe became quite difficult. Since the previous century the recognised symbol of French soldiers was the white cross of St. Michel, also known as the Croix de France. This was displayed prominently on personal armour and clothing and increasingly on various standards, although not all of them. Men at arms do not appear to have used it on their armour judging by contemporary illustrations, but the 'gens de trait' or common soldiers display it almost universally; either across the whole jacket, or with a somewhat smaller version on one side of it.

Marks of Rank

English soldier wearing a 'bend' to indicate rank.
Such items are still worn today in some armies. 
(Photo from Celia Hogan's Blog).

Commanders of all ranks, from the grand captains to petite capitaines and dizenier, all looked very much the same once they were fully suited up and their helmets were on. Literally going round them all to find the leader was at the very least inefficient, so some way of distinguishing who was in charge was needed. The Burgundians and I also believe the French too, used banneroles - small pennants fixed to helmets, to indicate leaders and as I suspect, the bannerole was simply a much smaller version of the unit's standard, guidon or cornet. This made it very simple to find the man; you looked for the flag and then you located the man wearing a smaller version of it.

While a company of a hundred men might need a standard and their leader a smaller version on it in the form of a bannerole, his subordinates also needed to be identified. While I imagine individual 'platoons' might not warrant a small pennant, their leader would need to be identified all the same. A plain bannerole is a possibility, but I suspect that a cloth 'bend' was the preferred option. Certainly in the following two centuries the sash appeared in the same role. Even today senior NCOs in the British Army still wear a crimson sash when on parade. It seems likely that French ones were white.  


Opinions that I have seen expressed on the subject of liveries tend to astound me at times. I recall one 'serious history' comment that they were little used outside of England, despite that the word itself comes from the French word for 'something that is given out'; livrée. Far from being the hub of the Medieval world, England tended to adopt practices and customs from its near European neighbours and then corrupt the words for them into English, not the other way round.

Ordinances regarding the issue of liveries to French troops have not survived (if they ever existed), but the broad consensus appears to be that individual captains, or urban municipalities, were wholly responsible for choosing the specific colours of their company's  livery and acquiring the material to make the actual garments. The balance between ostentatious display and economy would have varied from captain to captain, and of course between the status of the troops themselves; nobody was going to deck out Francs-Archers as if they were gens d'armes.

There are of course stylistic differences (the 'skirts' and the very Swiss-looking guy on the left), but this image shows the quite effective combination of red and yellow. The small pennon is not unlike what you would expect a 'dizaine' of men at arms to have. Juan de Salazar (the elder) dressed his men in just such a livery during the fighting in the County of Burgundy in 1477. 

On that theme there seems to be a significant difference between what was worn by the household of a king or noble and what was worn by other troops raised by him. The 'Adoration of the Magi' (see below) shows Charles VII accompanied by what are believed to be his Scots Guard Archers and who wear a green, white and red livery (three colour liveries were unusual to say the least in the 15th Century). The two ordonnance companies detailed to provide a guard du corps for the king wore just red liveries. Louis XI's household apparently wore red, white and blue and his guard ordonnance companies wore red and white.

The colours themselves were also symbolic of certain saints and the frequency of colours in illustrations would seem to show both the favourite colours and the favourite saints. In a rough order of popularity white was the colour associated with St. Michael (signified by the Croix de France and a number of personal household liveries), red was associated with St. Denis, blue with St. Martin, green was perhaps the colour of St. Rémy, St. John was represented by red and green, and possibly St. Petronilla by blue and red.

Besides the companies other bodies had liveries too. The Paris Militia had a traditional livery of red and blue, presumably with their white ship badge. Lille had a red livery with a white fleur-de-lys, while Soissons had the same badge on a blue field. Lyon, Amiens and Saint-Lô, all had red liveries, but with white badges of a lion, a rose bush and a unicorn respectively. As was the case with the cities and towns of the Low Countries however, it may be the case that only permanent municipal bodies (i.e. the militia) actually wore a livery that remained unchanged and additional men raised were clothed in whatever colours were available in sufficient quantity.

The troops raised in Tournai to support the French in 1477, are described as wearing red and white livery, with the white Croix de France front and back (presumably on the red side). Below the cross was an embroidered panel featuring 'the loyal heart', which appears to have been a stylised red heart enclosed within thorns. Usually it is depicted as surmounted with a cross, but the Croix de France would serve in this case instead. The livery of the municipality itself has been described as red with a badge of a white castle tower however, so potentially both could have been found within the force as a whole.

La Adoration des Mages by Jean Fouquet, with Charles VII as one of the Magi. Charles's household guards wear green white and red, with a gold rose bush (Charles's badge). Rene of Anjou had a similar guard who wore grey, white and black. Louis XI apparently had a similar livery, but the green was replaced by blue. IN the background can be seen infantry, with three standards. These look to be between two yards (72") and two 'ells' (90") square.

Etendards, Enseigns & Guidons

Sometimes labelled as the standard of Charles VII, 
this standard may indeed actually belong to one
of the ordonnance companies detailed for his 

It is of a type that would be expected to be that of
company, due to its size and the 'swallow tail'. 
St. Michael is shown slaying a dragon and star-
bursts reminiscent of the Oriflamme are depicted 
too. Similar standards feature white crosses.

Smaller but similar standards but which still have
a swallow tail are probably the pennants of the 
dizaines forming the company, or those of the 
mounted archers accompanying it.  

Unlike the Burgundians there is no great store of French standards of the 15th Century. Contemporary illustrations do feature them on occasion, but in no way that could be said to provide us with a guide to how they fitted into the system of flags that there no doubt was. As I said above size does matter in that time and generally the bigger the flag, the more important the element it belongs too. More examples survive from the 16th Century, but you do have to be wary as styles did change, even over a small period of time.

Ostensibly standards are defined by their length and type. Unless of the blood royal, the standard should be forked (or so the rules say). Ensigns were supposedly two yards long and two wide, with a further two yards of tails. A guidon was supposed to be two and a half or three yards long (including the tails) and presumably one and a half wide. Pennons were to be two yards in total and probably one wide. A bannerolle was an 'ell' (about 45") long and a yard wide. French sizes would probably vary, but the general idea is probably the same as the English lengths given above.

French standards do however appear different to the ones in use with their contemporaries. Firstly there is apparently no attempt to display the national symbol on cavalry flags and instead a separate royal banner is carried instead. Infantry flags seem to be large square banners featuring the white Croix de France over a contrasting colour. They seemingly have little in common with cavalry flags.

Company Standards

Each captain of an ordonnance company was able to select his own livery colours for his company. Who determined which saint was selected to represent the company is not known and there does seem to be one or two units with the same saint, but in a different design. For obvious reasons St. Michael is the most consistent one chosen. mt   It appears that like later 16th & 17th Century regiments, it was the captains of the bandes and compagnies d'ordonnance, who chose the colours of their formation's livery jackets and standards, its ancillary symbols and also possibly the saint or image that appeared on its ensigns and other flags. It seems likely that these were also paid for by the respective captain and probably changed over time, particularly when a captain was replaced by a new one.

Almost certainly and as was the case with individual gens d'armes, captains would try and outdo each other in terms of the presentation of their men. While those captains who were currently out of favour and posted to backwaters were perhaps freed from such competition, the rest would almost certainly try to present the most impressive company. Whether this would stretch to particularly fine material for liveries and feathers dyed in the company's colours (as was the case in some Burgundian companies) is open to debate, it is certainly possible.

While things changed in the 16th Century and the one and two colour liveries began to give way to three colour styles, or two-colour striped liveries, in each case some thought had to be given to the need for displaying the white Cross of France as a field sign over it. Contemporary illustrations show red (associated with Saint Denis), blue (associated with Saint Martin) and to a lesser extent green, as being popular colours, as well as what appears to be a light lavender (although this may be a faded rendition of another darker colour, perhaps indigo). Some colours were certainly more popular than others and to differentiate between two formations with the same colours, it is possible that other subtle differences were incorporated to set them apart.

Béraud Stuart, seigneur d'Aubigny and men of his company, showing his distinctive yellow and black livery and matching standards. The Scottish Lion also appears to have taken the place of the more usual saint that appears on French unit standards. No 'national' insignia is shown on this illustration, nor does Stuart display his own coat of arms or banner.

The archier are deployed separately and in front of the gens d'armes, and bear a smaller version of the flag borne by the Gens d'Armes. The archier are still depicted as carrying slung bows in this image, which is certainly not dated before 1495. 


  1. Good informative read on a very interesting subject.

  2. Thanks Gents! I'm somewhat frustrated that I wasn't able to dig deeper on the topic. The lack of information on the French in this period is astounding. In comparison the Burgundians have far more; not that we are that much wiser for all that.

  3. Great article Jim, fascinating to read about the French Banners and Standards in the late 15th/early 16th centuries. I have a couple of different "bends" that I wear over my reenacting kit depending on who we are meant to be depicting at events - they are certainly a lot cheaper than livery jackets and really help to add uniformity - I had never thought of them as a symbol of rank but that could certainly have been the case, especially if some carried more elaborate versions of the livery badges.

    1. Thanks Oli... it was a bit of a leap I admit, but the idea of sashes started somewhere!

      Certainly in England when you get the Duke of Buckingham ordering up a few thousand though, they are not for officers. My take is that he didn't have a few thousand direct retainers either, but that they were used over the existing liveries of his supporters and 'well-wishers'.

      But like almost anything else in the era, as nobody back then thought to leave us a Dummy's Guide to the 15th Century or something like it, we have to fill in the gaps as best we can.

  4. Interesting and informative piece,thanks for that I enjoyed it, what is fascinating about this period is the gaps into which can , as you have done , extrapolate using other sources.
    All the best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain... yes indeed part of the fun is trying to fill in the blanks, although by the same token resisting the urge to take it too far.