The Cross of Lorraine: the fascinating story of a symbol

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This symbol of hope and faith in victory is without doubt one of the most popular French emblems. Although the origin of the cross of Lorraine seems to date back to the 4th century, its history is fascinating. From Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Anjou to Lorraine, follow me on a 2,000-year historical adventure! And as a conclusion, I will explain an amusing anecdote: the scandal of the Lorraine cross in Metz!

👉 Read this page in French on our blog Mon Grand-Est! 🇫🇷

A cross of Lorraine not so Lorraine!

In 1901, a historian dared to write: “There is no such thing as a Cross of Lorraine”!

In fact, if you do some research into History, you will soon realise that the Cross of Lorraine has very little in common with Lorraine.

You only have to look around you at some European coats of arms to realise this:

The first kings of Hungary (from the 12th century):

Coat of arms of Hungary

Slovakia:

Coat of arms of Slovakia

Lithuania:

Coat of arms of Lithuania

And, closer to home, in France, the coat of arms of the Maine-et-Loire département, part of the former duchy of Anjou:

Coat of arms of Maine-et-Loire

So what is this mystery?

That’s what we’re going to see by going back a long way in time.

At the time of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ!

Everyone knows the Latin cross, or Christic cross.

From the 4th century onwards, it became the main symbol of Christianity, common to all denominations (from Catholics to Protestants to Orthodox).

It represents the crucifixion of Jesus, which took place around 30 AD.

The cross of torture was shaped like a T. The Romans used to attach a sign to the top of the beam to which the reason for the sentence was written. The Bible tells us that the sign displayed INRI, the acronym for the Latin phrase Iesvs Nazarenvs, Rex Ivdæorvm (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews).

It was not until the 4th to 6th centuries that the cross as we know it took on its recognisable form:

The Patriarchal Cross

Around the year 326, Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, undertook a journey to the Holy Land.

Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano 1495

Helena of Constantinople (painted by Cima da Conegliano – 1495)

There, according to tradition, she discovered the holy relics of the Passion of Christ, including the True Cross. That is the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

This was then cut into several pieces to be stored in reliquaries in the form of a cross with two bars.

Why a cross with two bars?

Tradition has it that the upper bar refers to the inscription INRI added by the Romans above the beam of the Crucified One.

Once the double-cross reliquaries were completed, they were entrusted to the rich Byzantine patriarchs.

Thus, until the 13th century, the (alleged) relics of the True Cross were located in Constantinople.

The relics: from Constantinople to Anjou

However, during the 6th Crusade, the relics passed from hand to hand and ended up in France!

At the beginning of the 13th century, Gervais, the Latin patriarch of Constantinople who died in 1219, passed them on to Thomas, bishop of Gerapetra in Crete.

In 1241, he sold them to the lord Jean d’Alluye. In 1244, the Angevin knight brought them back to Anjou to give them to the abbey of La Boissière (Dénezé-sous-Le-Lude) in exchange for 550 livres tournois.

From 1359 to 1388, during the Hundred Years’ War, they were kept in the safety of the Jacobins of Angers.

It was at this time that the shape of the relics – the patriarchal cross – took on the name of the cross of Anjou

Louis I of Naples (1339-1384), Duke of Anjou, was so devoted to the cross that it was included in his coat of arms.

The dukes of Anjou gave the patriarchal cross a special symbolic meaning by decorating it with gold, rubies and sapphires.

Where are the relics of the Holy Cross today?

Since 1790, the relics have been kept in the chapel of the Incurables at the hospice in Baugé (Maine-et-Loire).

Today, there are a large number of shrines that claim to possess relics of the Holy Cross:

Crosses with crossbars

  • In the Middle Ages, the double-cross was also the insignia of the archbishops: it is the archepiscopal cross. Synonymous with the patriarchal cross, the cross of Anjou, the cross of Lorraine.
  • The cross with three crossbars was the Pope’s: it is the papal cross.
  • Finally, the cross with a single crossbar, the Latin cross, was reserved for religious events.

Types of crosses

The cross of Anjou became the cross of Lorraine

In 1473, the great-grandson of Louis I took control of the Duchy of Lorraine. 

Duke René II made it the rallying sign for his troops in his fight against the powerful Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (whose attribute was the Cross of St Andrew).

The cross of Anjou was used to invoke God’s protection over the Lorraine armies.

We know the rest of the story (if not, I’ll explain it here!). Charles the Bold was defeated in 1477 at the battle of Nancy.

On the very spot where the Duke of Burgundy fell, René II had a double-cross erected.

Etang Saint-Jean, Nancy and Cross of Lorraine

A Lorraine cross marks the site where Charles the Bold was found dead

Thus, the cross of Anjou became the sign of the resistance of the Lorraine people during the occupation of the duchy by the Burgundians.

Over time, it even became a symbol of Lorraine’s nationality. (It should be remembered that the Duchy of Lorraine only became French in 1766).

Porte de la Craffe and Grande Rue, Nancy © French Moments

Porte de la Craffe and Grande Rue, Nancy © French Moments

The cross set aside in Lorraine

The dukes of Lorraine Charles V and Leopold continued to include the cross of Lorraine in their banners.

However, with the accession of Stanislas, it was put aside (it did not evoke anything to the former king of Poland).

When the kingdom of France finally got its hands on the duchy of Lorraine in 1766, it was careful not to display a badge that evoked Lorraine patriotism.

However, it reappeared timidly in 1866, during the ceremonies of the first centenary of the attachment of Lorraine to France.

But things were to take a new turn four years later, in 1870.

The Franco-Prussian War

At the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, the Lorraine cross became the symbol of resistance and hope for the lost province.

“Thus, since the battle of Nancy in 1477, the double-cross has never ceased to be in the eyes of the people of Lorraine and the French a symbol of hope in misfortune. (Cahiers du “Pays lorrain”, 1948)

Lorraine girl wearing the Cross of Lorraine

Lorraine girl wearing the Cross of Lorraine around her neck

The Nancy artist, Emile Gallé, showed his attachment to the return of Alsace-Moselle by using the Cross of Lorraine in his creations. It can be seen in particular on the famous Rhine table, an allegorical work on display in the Musée de l’École de Nancy.

Table Rhin by Emile Gallé - photo by French Moments

The Rhine Table by Emile Gallé – photo by French Moments

On the eve of the Great War

That said, the provinces annexed by Germany were determined to have their French affiliation recalled.

The unofficial flag of the Reichsland of Alsace-Lorraine, adopted on 25 June 1912 by the Alsace-Lorraine parliament, consisted of the Alsatian flag (red and white horizontal stripes) and a yellow cross of Lorraine on the top left!

The Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland flag

The unofficial Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland flag adopted by 1912

A nice mockery launched to Germany two years before the beginning of the First World War…


The double-cross, a symbol of Free France

But the symbolism of the double-cross was to change greatly during the Second World War. 

It became the emblem chosen by the Free French and the French Forces of the Interior. And, thereafter, it remained as a symbol of Gaullism and the French armed forces.

Cross of Lorraine vs. Swastika!

To understand, let’s go back to 1940.

On 1 July of that year, Vice-Admiral Emile Muselier proposed the Lorraine Cross to Charles de Gaulle as an emblem.

The idea was to have an emblem “in opposition to the swastika”.

Charles de Gaulle speaking at the BBC in London (1940)

Charles de Gaulle speaking at the BBC in London (1940). He wears the cross of Lorraine badge on his jacket.

Why did he choose a cross of Lorraine?

Two reasons are given:

  • Admiral Muselier was of Lorraine origin,
  • the arms of the 507th tank regiment commanded by Colonel de Gaulle in 1937-39 had a cross with two bars.

“The French officers who, in 1940, raised it against the swastika, if they were unaware of the details of glorious history, knew that they were following an ancient and moving tradition. (Cahiers du “Pays lorrain”, 1948)

The emblem of Free France

In occupied France, the Lorraine cross became the emblem of Free France as early as 1940, thanks to BBC broadcasts and parachuted leaflets.

Flag of Free France 1940-1944

Flag of Free France 1940-1944

In 1941, the BBC more explicitly encouraged the use of this symbol on the occasion of patriotic events such as 11 November or 14 July.

Then, more generally, the Cross of Lorraine appeared as the symbol of national unification under the aegis of De Gaulle. 

Thus, the de Gaulle Foundation evokes in its website:

“What more evocative name for a resistant France than that of Lorraine, the land of Joan of Arc, which has fought so hard throughout its history for its independence! This sign, which is so easy to memorise and to draw clandestinely, is also opposed to the swastika of the Nazi occupiers. The choice of this symbol was the right one: it will unite the whole of the Resistance from outside as well as from within.”

The double-cross after the war

After the war, the Lorraine cross can be found on many :

  • French war memorials of the Second World War and
  • commemorative coins in honour of the French Resistance.

For example, an 18-metre long cross can be found on one of the Normandy landing beaches. Dating from 1990, it was placed on the spot where General de Gaulle landed on 14 June 1944, between Courseulles-sur-Mer and Graye-sur-Mer. On that day he crossed the English Channel in the French ship La Combattante.

Cross of Lorraine by French Moments

Cross of Lorraine in Normandy – by French Moments


The Cross of Lorraine and Gaullism

Today, when we see the cross with two crossbars, we associate it with Gaullism.

Especially if you are not from Lorraine.

Logically, the political recovery of the cross of Lorraine was seen in all the major political movements that emerged from Gaullism. They took the famous cross as their logo. Thus, from 1947 to 2002, the RPF, the UNR, the UDR and the RPR followed one another. Finally, the UMP, which brought together the Gaullists of the RPR in a great union of the right and the centre, did not take the Cross of Lorraine as its symbol.

Much more recently, in September 2018, President Emmanuel Macron added a Lorraine cross to the emblem of the Élysée Palace, in the centre of the lictor beams. The right-wing gnashed its teeth! 😬

The cross of Lorraine in the lictor’s fasces, coat of arms of the French Republic.

The cross of Lorraine in the lictor’s fasces, coat of arms of the French Republic.

The Charles de Gaulle Memorial

One cannot talk about the Cross of Lorraine without mentioning the Charles de Gaulle Memorial in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. This small village in the Haute-Marne département, where the former president lived, has been dominated since 1972 by a monumental double-cross.

Several million people contributed to its financing. 

67 foreign countries joined in the undertaking, in particular, Lebanon (with a donation of 1,000 Lebanese cedars that were planted on the hill). 

Cross of Lorraine - Memorial Charles-de-Gaulle © French Moments

Memorial Charles-de-Gaulle © French Moments

The cross is the work of architects Marc Nebinger and Michel Mosser. It takes the form of a cross made of reinforced concrete. Covered with a pink granite facing from Perros-Guirec in Britanny, it is dressed with bronze surfaces.

It is 44.30 metres high and weighs 950 tonnes (without foundations).


The scandal of the Cross of Lorraine in Metz

Finally, here is a little Lorraine anecdote!

In 1521, the bishop of Metz was none other than Jean de Lorraine, son of Duke René II.

The people of Metz were not very happy about this appointment. It naturally provoked some discontent. Indeed, the people of Metz were proud and jealous of their independence.

But now the bishop had a Lorraine cross affixed to a stained glass window in Saint-Etienne’s cathedral.

Metz Cathedral © French Moments

Metz Cathedral © French Moments

Sacrilege protested the people of Metz!

The presence of the emblem of the Duke of Lorraine in the heart of the city gave rise to violent protests, “great noise and tumult“, to use the expression of a local chronicler of the time.

The people of Metz saw this as an intolerable encroachment by Nancy on Metz.

Times have changed, and today it is the Football Club de Metz that proudly displays the cross with two crossbars on its logo, to the right of the Graoully!

FC Metz


What do you associate the cross of Lorraine with? Tell me all about it in the comments below!

👉 Read this page in French on our blog Mon Grand-Est! 🇫🇷

A pin for Pinterest

Cross of Lorraine Pinterest © French Moments


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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