The Oriflamme was the sacred red and gold banner of St Dennis, the patron saint of France, and the Kings of France used to take his banner to battle. The Oriflamme was first taken to battle by King Louis Le Gros in 1124.
This is a long time ago, and in truth we do not know exactly how the Oriflamme appeared at this point. There have been many depictions, and usually it was depicted as a banner without decoration.
In other illustrations, it was shown as a banner with the golden words “S. Denys”, or otherwise a golden sun, depicting the saint. The golden sun stood for the all-penetrating rays of the sun that did not leave anyone untouched, and no one was shown mercy.
Whatever it looked like, the banner of Oriflamme was about as sacred and important a relic as the French had. The banner was held alongside the blue and gold fleur-de-lys Banner of France during battles and on other important occasions.
The History of the Oriflamme
To be chosen as the Bearer of the Oriflamme was an honor, and it was a lifetime duty. The Bearer had a responsibility to guard the Oriflamme with his life during the battles. The Oriflamme stood for the integrity and safety of France as a nation.
The Oriflamme held a lot of significance and value for the French. It showed that the Grace of God was on the French side, most tangibly through helping them win battles. It was a sign of French faith and courage and their ability to advance in battle. As long as the Oriflamme was intact, it meant that the French side would win.
Does it deserve this reputation? The History of the Oriflamme started in the year 1124, and in the centuries since then it has featured prominently in French history.
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Strangely, it would be a century later before the banner was first described completely, in 1225. It is possible that the Oriflamme itself was modified during this time, and it may even not be the original, although French history strongly disputes this.
The Oriflamme as described at this time consisted of two parts: a gilded lance and a silk banner. It had red and green fringes. The floating end of this banner was split into two parts with trailing strips.
The actual name of the Oriflamme was “Aurea Flamma”, a title which became corrupted over time. The name was given due to the gold color of the Lance and the design of the Flag. The Flag is represented as sometimes in a horizontal manner to the Lance and at times in a vertical manner.
It all depended on the occasion to which the banner was carried. The banner was even used in 19th-century France, and at that time, the horizontal orientation of the Flag was more common.
The 1124 text that first talks about the Aurea Flamma say that its origin dates back to the tradition of the counts of Vexin. The Vexin counts were the protector of the abbey in which the Oriflamme was held.
The kings of France became counts of Vexin in 1077. A late 11th-century text also shows that the banner of Charlemagne was also called Orie flambe.
Here we have the first, and principal, myth of this magical banner. It was said that this was the banner that was mounted on the lance of Charlemagne himself, making it a powerful Christian symbol as well. It was believed that the banner was taken from a pagan sanctuary near present-day Saint-Denis.
There is an idea among historians that the original sacred object was the Lance, which was passed down through generations of kings. But, slowly, the cloth that decorated the Lance gained ceremonial importance and was interpreted as the Oriflamme.
The Oriflamme Today
The history of the Oriflamme is not easily traced, however. Modern historians such as the historian Anne Lombard Jourdan theorize that the fleur-de-lys banner of France and the Oriflamme were of the same origin.
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The Fleur-de-lys banner, which its distinctive white and blue pattern, became popular as the standard of France due to its association with Joan of Arc. Her miraculous victories over the English were seen as evidence of divine favor for the French, and the Oriflamme was quietly dropped for this newer symbol of God’s support for France.
There have been many symbolic and language analyses linked with Oriflamme. The banner has been attested as a very old Indo-European symbol that survived through centuries through the sanctuary in Gaul.
The sanctuary of the Lendit plain, which is north of Paris, is said to be the place where the banner was protected. The sanctuary was visited by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the 4th century.
On the second visit to the sanctuary, he was given a copy of the relic, which could have been the banner. This was symbolic of giving him victory. The relic, however, is described as a labarum which was bigger than a lance and had a double edged weapon called the Clava at its end.
The weapon had miraculous properties, which made it a feared and renowned weapon in all of Europe. The Labarum could fly or throw fire at the will of the King. After Constantine’s reign, the Labarum was protected in Gaul and came under the possession of Charlemagne.
Many people have tried to understand what the Oriflamme really believed to be the golden flame. The golden flame is also concurrent with the idea that it could produce fire at will. However, some historians believe that it is more accurately translated into a “slight breeze”: not quite so scary.
The breeze or the wind is seen as the speech of God, and so, the Lance or the banner held the will of God during battle. It is believed that the Oriflamme was lost for some time and then reappeared in the Abbey of Saint Dennis.
The appearance of the Oriflamme this time was Lance and a red banner. It was first used after their reappearance by King Louis VI, and he fought against an invasion with it. The battle was a success, and so the banner gained importance.
The clava that was believed to be a part of the Oriflamme at some time morphed into a holy nail that was also kept at Saint Dennis. There are many stories related to Oriflamme and its origins. However, even today, the actual origin and true power of the Oriflamme have not been decoded by historians.
Top Image: The Battle of Crecy in 1346: the Oriflamme is the large red banner at the top. This battle was a defeat for the French and one of the four times the Oriflamme was almost lost. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri