Jour de Bastille

Today is Quatorze Juillet, or Bastille Day, the national holiday of France. This year marks the 230th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. The Bastille was an armory and prison in the center of Paris, and a symbol of monarchical authority, it was a natural target for the burgeoning French Revolution. Roughly one thousand civilians attacked the fortress, which contained a significant amount of ammunition (and seven prisoners). Obviously, the attackers succeeded in taking the Bastille, and the first major outbreak of violence in the French Revolution eventually convinced Louis XVI to (temporarily) capitulate.

It’s a bit tricky to talk about the “heraldry of the French Revolution,” since it resulted in a mass repudiation of pretty much everything associated with the nobility. However, at the risk of talking about flags again, I do think it’s worth pointing out that the Revolution holds the roots of the current French tricolore – and yes, it does ultimately go back to heraldry.

The arms of Paris are gules a single masted-ship, sails unfurled on a sea in base argent, a chief azure semé de lis or. The chief is derived from the arms of France ancien, and the ship is from the marchands de l’eau¸ a powerful merchant guild operating on the Seine since 1170. The Parisian coat of arms has been pretty much the same since 1358, with some changes (the addition of the sea waves, a brief change to France moderne in the 15th century). The arms are the source for the city colors of Paris – red and blue. I think you probably see where this is going.

Cockades were a popular way of displaying political allegiance in the eighteenth century – sort of like campaign buttons today. It was, therefore, perfectly natural for the Paris militia to wear a cockade of blue and red when they formed on July 13th, 1789. The blue and red design had a run of about two weeks before Lafayette proposed the addition of a white stripe to make it clear that this was a national movement, and not something confined to Paris. His suggestion was implemented on July 27th as part of the uniform of the National Guard.

The rest is, as they say, history. October 24th, 1790 saw the National Assembly adopt a red, white, and blue standard as the national flag, which was changed to blue, white, and red on February 15th, 1794. I’m not sure why this change was made, but it clearly stuck; with the exception of about 15 years during the Bourbon Restoration, when they went with a plain white flag, the tricolore has been the iconic symbol of the French nation ever since.