Philip Augustus raising the oriflamme on 24 June 1190, by Pierre-Henri Revoil
...The Maid of Orleans answered, "to act well
Brings with itself an ample recompense.
I have not reared the oriflamme of death —
Now God forbid! The banner of the Lord
Is this; and, come what will, me it behooves,
Mindful of Him whose minister I am,
To spare the fallen foe: that gracious God
Sends me a messenger of mercy forth,
Sends me to save this ravaged realm of France,
To England friendly as to all the world;
Only to those an enemy, whose lust
Of sway makes them the enemies of man."
—Robert Southey, Joan of Arc. Book VIII '
The oriflamme was a sacred banner used by the kings of France in the Middle Ages in times of great danger. It was distinct from the heraldic banner of the French kings (semis of fleur-de-lys on azure, as expected). Its history is fairly continuous from 1124 onward, when it is first mentioned. It is first described in 1225. It consists of two parts: a gilded lance, to which is attached a silk banner, red with green fringes. The floating end of the banner splits into two or more trailing strips. The name, aurea flamma, conflates the banner (flamma) and the color of the lance. The banner is sometimes represented as attached vertically to the lance, and sometimes (especially in the 19th c.) as attached to a horizontal bar, itself suspended from the lance.
It was deposited in the abbey of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where kings of France were buried, next to the relics of Denis who evangelized the area. When going to war, the French king would come to Saint-Denis to "raise the banner". The last time it was raised was in the late 15th c. It was destroyed during the Revolution.
What was its origin? The 1124 text mentions an old tradition of the counts of Vexin, who were protectors of the abbey; the kings of France had become counts of Vexin in 1077. But the text also alludes to a tradition specific to the kings of France. Also, a late 11th-c. text, the Gesta of Roland, calls Charlemagne's emblem or banner orie flambe, but does not describe it. A description of the siege of Paris by the Normans in 885 mentions a large saffron-colored banner with large indentations carried by a double lance. One author tries to link the oriflamme to Charlemagne's lance and through it all the way back to Constantine's labarum, which was taken from a pagan sanctuary located near modern Saint-Denis. (Constantine's lance was part of the regalia of the German emperors, and is now in Vienna). The idea is that the sacred object was the lance itself, decorated with a silk fanion, but later the meaning of the lance was lost and the silk fanion itself came to be seen as the important object.
The Oriflamme was last flown in battle at Agincourt in 1415. When the Oriflamme was displayed on the battlefield it indicated that no quarter was to be given, and hence it was called "the oriflamme of death". In the fifteenth century, the fleur-de-lis on the white flag of Joan of Arc became the new royal standard replacing both the symbol of royalty and the Oriflamme on the battle field. It was most likely carried by the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret, who was killed at Agincourt.