Thursday, 13 July 2017

Who invented the tricolour cockade?

Greetings on Bastille Day!

To celebrate, here is one of the most enduring symbols of the Revolution, the tricolour cockade.

The following is taken from the website of the historian and illustrator, Bernard Coppens.

There are two popular theories for the origins of the cockade. The first dates it to Louis XVI's reception in the capital on 17th July 1789 three days after the fall of the Bastille. The King was presented by Mayor Bailly with a cockade in the red and blue of Paris, and fixed it onto his existing white one thereby creating the tricolour cockade.  In the second version the invention is credited to Lafayette who proposed the adoption of the tricolour as the official symbol of the Revolution to the Hôtel de Ville,  on 16th July or shortly after, in the context of  the creation of a uniformed National Guard.

Reception of Louis XVI by Bailly , Painting  of 1891 by Jean-Paul Laurens in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris. 
Bernard Coppens show that neither explanation is wholly satisfactory.  Red-white-and-blue cockades are clearly documented in accounts of the popular movement before the 17th July.  For instance, the journals of two deputies of the Third Estate, Adrien Duquesnoy and J.-A. Creuzé-Latouche,  both mention its existence on the 15th.  The design of the cockade presented to the King on the 17th is also uncertain.  According to Lafayette's Memoirs it was the plain red and blue of the citizen militia, but the Gazette de Leyde  quotes a letter written on the evening of the 17th which states clearly that  Bailly presented the King with "la cocarde royale et bourgeoise",  which was "blue, white and rose" in colour.  See also Histoire parlementaire de la révolution française, Volume 1, p.415, where it is stated that  the King accepted " a cockade like the one which the citizens had adopted". (At this time the personal colours of the King were already red, white and blue, hence perhaps his willingness to accept a tricolour cockade.)

What is the truth of the matter?

In reality though the idea of cockades spread rapidly, there was at first a great deal of confusion and variation in colours between the different districts.  However, the sources agree that there were three main designs adopted   -  a green cockade, a plain blue and red one and finally the tricolour, which combined the colours of Paris with the white of France.
As Bernard Coppens emphasises, the three did not follow in simple succession.  The green cockade was adopted spontaneously on 12th July by supporters of the Third Estate on the initiative of Desmoulin, who was said to have grabbed a leaf from a tree and placed it in his hat. (On 13th July a noble deputy from Marseille noted that it was necessary to have a green rosette in one's hat to remain untroubled by the new Revolutionary authorities.)

The blue and red cockade, on the other hand, was officially decreed by the electors of the Hôtel de Ville in an arrêté of 13 July, as the official  insignia of the citizen militia, which at this time had no other uniform.  Its use by unauthorised persons was strictly forbidden:
Since it is necessary for the Parisian militia to be distinctive, the General Assembly has adopted the colours of the town; as a result each member will wear a blue and red cockade.  Any man found with the cockade who has not been registered in one of the districts will be referred to the justice of the permanent committee.

At a certain point  green, which was the personal colour of the comte d'Artois, was abandoned for the popular cockade and red-white-and-blue adopted in its stead.

When and why did this happen?

Bernard Coppens has assembled various pieces of  evidence, which establish that the use of the tricolour cockade for ordinary citizens was ordered by Hôtel de Ville late on the 13th July and was the subject of a formal arrêté, probably issued on the 14th or 15th (the text of which is no longer extant):
  •  A letter written by a merchant called Failly, dated  23 July 1789, observes that on 13th July the authorities were arresting anyone found armed on the streets and imprisoning them if  they failed to name their district.  Cockades were given out as passports; at first these were green but by evening, after it was realised that green was the colour of Artois's livery, they were "rose, blue and white".
  • The bookseller Hardy wrote in his Journal on the 14th that, "They are beginning to change the colour of the cockades, substituting the rose, blue and white for the green colour."
  •  The printed chronicle La Quinzaine Mémorable  has an entry dated 14th July at 8am in the morning, in which the author observes that "the great and small, from all ranks of society, are sporting, by order of the town, the blue, red and white cockade."
  • A MS letter to Mayor Bailly from M. de Gouvion, Major-General of the National Guard, dated 28 March 1790, notes that the three colours had been fixed by an order of the Assembly of Electors dated either 14th or 15th July 1789. 
  • An arrêté of the Commune, dated 4th October 1789, confirms previous orders, and repeats the declaration that the red, blue and white cockade is the only one permitted to citizens to wear.
It is possible that the prévôt de marchands  Flesselles, killed on the 14th,  was instrumental in the initiative.  A letter in his hand was said to have been found on the body of the governor of the Bastille, Launay, instructing  him to stay put until evening and await reinforcements, while Flesselles "amused the Parisians with cockades and promises".

Jean-Baptiste Le Sueur, A Citizen is obliged to wear a cockade,  c.1790.  Musée Carnavalet

Why the tricolour?

This is not in fact absolutely explained, though it may be supposed that the Assembly anticipated Lafayette's idea of incorporating white as a symbol of the French nation as a whole, or else sought to assimilate the Revolutionary colours to those of the King.

It may be noted that Lafayette's proposal that the tricolour cockade form part of the National Guard uniform had the incidental consequence of abandoning the distinction between official and popular cockades;  in future there would be a single revolutionary emblem common to both the military, civilian officials and ordinary citizens.


Bernard Coppens, entries on
"Le Mystère de la Cocarde"[original article published in 1989]
"1789 : La cocarde tricolore"

Account from the Memoirs of Lafayette, vol. 2,  p.252-3
When the king had received at the Hotel de Ville, from the mayor, the cockade of the revolution, which was only, at that time, of two colours, he was conducted by the commander-in-chief to the picket of the gardes-du-corps, which had remained outside the gates of the city.

At the end of the deliberation of the assembly of electors of the 16th, a project of organisation was fixed upon by Lafayette, in concert with the military committee, the staff of the provisional guard and General Mathieu Dumas, reporter.  It was from his proposal that, after the new colours had been adopted by the king, the Hotel de Ville added to them the ancient white colour*

In this manner was formed the tricoloured cockade, which had become the national one.  Lafayette, when presenting to the Hotel de Ville the project of organising with that cockade a national uniform, pronounced these words:

I bring you a cockade that will traverse the whole world, and an institution, both civil and military, that must triumph over the ancient tactics of Europe...

Note  *The cockade was at first red and blue; these were not only the colours of the town but, by a singular accident, those of the livery of Orleans.  Lafayette, struck by this circumstance, and wishing to nationalize the ancient French colour by uniting it with the colours of the revolution, proposed to the Hotel de Ville the tricoloured cockade, which was adopted.  (Note of General Lafayette)

Robespierre, Letter to Buissart, 23rd July 1789
Robespierre describes with evident pleasure the popular enthusiasm which greeted the King's entry into  Paris on 17th July.  He noticed cockades on the cassocks of monks and even on the stoles of robed and surpliced clergy.  Sadly he does not specify the colour.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding research! Found your article in follow-up research to update my book on "George Washington's Liberty Key: Mount Vernon's Bastille Key." www.LibertyKey.US