The History of the French Flag

French Flag image from Pixabay

In the wake of the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris recently, the massive manhunt for the perpetrators and fears of similar attacks in other cities, there has been a massive outpouring of support and solidarity to the people of Paris and of France from around the world. The United Nations unanimously condemned ISIS, the organization that carried out the terrorist attacks. Social media sites have been flooded with a viral image of the peace sign mixed with a representation of the Eiffel Tower:


Paris Peace Sign by Jean Jullien

What’s more, many landmarks around the world were lit up in the colors of the French flag, from the Sydney Opera House to the Mexican Senate building. Not only that, but many social media users have changed their profile photo to show the colors of the French flag as well.

The blue-white-red tricolor is so closely associated with France, it makes one wonder: where did that flag come from? Who came up with that flag design? Why those colors?

France was America’s first ever ally, helping us win our War of Independence against the British. We Americans are also no strangers to being the victims of a brutal terrorist attack. Therefore, in my little show of solidarity with les citoyens de la France, today I’m going to talk about the history of the French flag.

Sacre de Charlemagne by Jean Fouquet

The first thing to understand about French history is that France is very, very old. It traces its origins to the kingdoms of the Franks, who emerged as a major power in western Europe in the aftermath of the Roman Empire’s collapse. For the first several centuries of French history, there was no such thing as a “flag of France”, as the very concept of a national flag had not been invented yet.

The first banner that sorta-kinda resembles a “flag of France” if you squint really hard was the Oriflamme, a banner that was used by the Basilica of St. Denis, an important and sacred church in Paris. In 1124, the flag was raised in battle by King Louis VI, and for centuries thereafter it was one of the banners carried by the French armies into battle.

Oriflamme by Tomasz Steifer

The Oriflamme was far from the only war flag used by French forces, though; the French would also frequently fight under a red or blue banner with a white cross. St. Joan of Arc had her own flag that she used in battle:

Reconstruction of St Joan of Arc flag by Jean Claude Colrat

In the meantime, the House of Valois rose to the French throne, and their coat of arms soon came to be used as a common symbol of France:

Ancient French coat of arms

Several French flags were created based on this design, including the one ultimately used by France during the reign of Louis XVI:


French Royal Flag from Wikipedia

Enter the French Revolution, which completely changed everything. During the chaotic days of 1789, the revolutionaries of Paris formed a militia, and as part of their uniform the wore a cockade, a circular cloth ribbon badge attached to their hats. Their cockades were blue and red, two colors that have long represented the city because they are the colors of its coat of arms:

Paris coat of arms from Allposters

The story goes that blue was the color of St. Martin and red the color of St. Denis. However, in the context of the revolution, these colors represented the people of Paris taking power for themselves.

Shortly thereafter, these militias were formally organized into a National Guard commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. You might remember Lafayette as one of the heroes who helped save George Washington several times during the American Revolution. After the war, he returned to France, and became one of the leaders of the early phases of the French Revolution, helping to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When he took command of the National Guard, he made them add the color white to their cockades. White was the color of the French monarchy, as it represented the Virgin Mary, but it was also a symbol of the French nation as a whole (as opposed to just the city of Paris). By adding the color, Lafayette hoped to symbolize that the National Guard was a force that would protect the rights of the whole nation, not just the capital city.

In 1790, the revolutionary government of France adopted a flag based on the design of Lafayette’s cockade, with vertical red, white, and blue stripes.

Almost there...

Almost there…

This flag most commonly appeared as part of French naval flags, but otherwise wasn’t widely adopted. In 1792, the French monarchy was overthrown, and the king and queen were guillotined the following year. At this point, most people flew a plain red banner, the symbol of the revolutionary Jacobin faction who had taken over the country and were now rounding up and killing thousands in the infamous “Reign of Terror”; even Lafayette himself had to flee the country. When the French revolutionary government reversed the colors of the official flag in 1794, creating today’s French national flag, few people probably noticed.

Flag of France image from Wikipedia

It wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte took power that the flag gradually came to be used by the French army and people. Then Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the pre-revolutionary French monarchy was ultimately restored. From 1815 to 1830, France went right back to using the pre-revolutionary white royal flag. Then in 1830 another revolution occurred, this one much shorter and less bloody. Louis-Philippe, the so-called “citizen-king”, took the throne and set up a constitutional monarchy. He restored the tricolor flag as France’s national flag. In 1848, Louis-Philippe was deposed in yet another revolution (man, France has had quite a few revolutions!), but the new ruler was Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who decided to keep the tricolor. Then he was overthrown in 1871 after losing the Franco-Prussian war, and the new government initially wanted to invite Henri, Count of Chambord to be France’s king. Henri said he would agree if France returned to the pre-revolutionary royal flag once again, but by now France had used the tricolor for more than four decades and it had become a cherished symbol. The French people told the count “No thanks, we’ll just become a republic again.” France has been a republic flying the tricolor flag ever since.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the history of the French flag. Who would have guessed such a simple flag would have such a complex history? Nevertheless, my prayers are with the people of Paris in their time of mourning.

Vive Paris, vive la Fance, vive la liberté, l’égalité et la fraternité!

Awesome Villain in History: William Walker

William Walker image from Wikipedia

Well, Cat Flaggers, it’s high time I talked about another Awesome Villain in History. Our man today was an imperialist conqueror, much as Caesar or Hernan Cortez or Cecil Rhodes. Except each of those conquerors were acting in the name and with the armies and resources of some great empire. No, our man today is William Walker, an American who conquered and ruled Nicaragua by himself, for himself.

I suppose you might need a little context. In the early 19th century, the United States had caught Manifest Destiny fever. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to believe that destiny had given them the mission to spread across the continent, possibly even the world. While this idea was far from universally accepted, many Americans truly bought into the idea and acted upon it. American settlers in Texas helped that region break away from Mexico and then got it annexed to the United States, and then the United States conquered the northern half of Mexico and made it into the American Southwest. Millions of Americans pushed west into the heart of North America, pushing out the Indian tribes who lived there.

Even still, some Americans felt America wasn’t expanding fast enough. In particular, there were white southerners who wanted to annex as much land as possible south of the Mason-Dixon line and bring as many new slave states into the Union as possible, to outnumber the northern free states. Naturally, this idea was flatly rejected by northerners, and the official United States policy shifted to one of consolidating existing gains and not antagonizing our nation’s southern nations.

This didn’t stop some people from organizing, funding, supplying, and launching their own military expeditions into Latin America all by themselves. These “filibusters”, as they were called, were declared to be criminals by the U.S. government, yet they were popular in the press and celebrated as heroes by many Americans. As you might imagine, the people in these Latin American countries that found themselves under attack from these renegades weren’t nearly so supportive.

Who doesn't love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

Who doesn’t love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

The most successful of these filibusters was Nashville-born William Walker, a highly intelligent young man who got a doctorate before his 20th birthday, and who became a journalist in New Orleans. In 1853, he asked for Mexico’s permission to start an American colony in Guaymas, a city on the Sea of Cortez known for its pearls. Having just lost most of its territory to Americans just five years earlier, Mexico gave Walker an emphatic “NO!” Undeterred, Walker began recruiting people for a military expedition to take over northwestern Mexico and create an independent “Republic of Sonora”, with the eventual goal of getting annexed to the United States, Texas-style. Walker got 45 takers.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 45 people is enough to successfully conquer much of anything. Nevertheless, Walker tried, and managed to gain control of the city of La Paz, capital of Baja California. After boldly declaring Baja California’s independence (with himself as president, of course), he wound up moving his base of operations twice to stay ahead of the Mexican forces that were quickly dispatched to stop him. After three months, he lay claim to the entire region around the Sea of Cortez, but this was nothing but a hollow boast as by then he had retreated almost to the U.S. border. Eventually thrown out of Mexico, he was arrested upon his return to the United States for conducting an illegal war.

In spite of the fact that Walker was clearly guilty, he was regarded as a hero by many Americans, and the jury that tried his case found him not guilty after a mere eight minutes. Now a free man, Walker began dreaming of even bigger exploits, certain that with better planning his next campaign would be more successful.

In 1854, Walker got his chance. Nicaragua was in the middle of a civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and the Liberals invited Walker to lead an army of mercenaries to help them out.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1855, Walker arrived with 60 Americans, ans was soon joined by 270 more men who were willing to join this, um, “adventure”. After a few battles, Walker’s forces successfully captured the Conservative capital. Nominally, the Nicaraguan Liberal leader Patricio Rivas was president of the country, but Walker quickly made sure that he was the actual man in charge.

Now in control of his own country, Walker surely did the responsible thing and worked hard to help the Nicaraguan people with his policies, right? Of course not. Instead, he made backroom deals with some American businessmen to seize control of the company that transported people and goods across Nicaragua to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and turn it over to them. He also boasted to anyone who would listen that he planned to conquer all of Central America.

These decisions made him some powerful enemies. One of those enemies was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous cutthroat businessman and robber baron who happened to be the owner of that transportation company Walker had seized. Vanderbilt allied with Costa Rica, a country that quite reasonably feared it would be next on Walker’s list; from 1856 to 1857 Costa Rica and Nicaragua fought a war against each other, with Vanderbilt supplying the Costa Rican forces while also preventing Nicaragua from getting any supplies for its army. Before long, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador also decided to join in the fight against Walker, invading from the north.

The fact that all of the countries around him and one of America’s most powerful businessmen had all ganged up against him didn’t deter Walker in the slightest. Shoving Rivas aside, Walker rigged an election to have himself proclaimed Nicaragua’s president. He legalized slavery, declared English an official language of the country, and launched a policy of trying to encourage Americans to settle there.

Soon, though, Walker woke up to the fact that his forces were losing badly (in large part because of a cholera outbreak among his ranks). With Granada, his capital city, surrounded by 4,000 enemy troops, Walker and his men decided to flee for their lives. After burning the city to the ground first.

Was that really necessary, guys?

Was that really necessary, guys?

Eventually, Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy, who took him back to the United States. Once again, Walker was greeted as a hero by many Americans, so after writing his memoirs of his conquest and loss of Nicaragua, he decided to try again. This time, his goal was Honduras, but this time, he was captured before he got there by the British Royal Navy, who happily turned him over to the Honduran authorities. Walker was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

Today, Central American countries celebrate the war to stop Walker as one of their greatest triumphs of history, and celebrate heroes of that struggle in the same way Americans celebrate heroes of our Revolutionary War. Here in the United States, though, he is largely forgotten, as shortly after his death the Civil War broke out and quickly overshadowed all of the exploits of the filibusters. Plus, the whole “trying to expand slavery” thing was far less popular after the war was over.

Cat Flag would like to take a moment to thank the veterans who served in the United States military and honor their countless contributions and sacrifices for our nation.