External Ornaments in Heraldry

The last post on the arms of the new Territorial Abbot of St. Maurice started an interesting conversation in the comments section. Namely, about the fact that the Abbot’s arms are ensigned with only the crozier that indicates the coat of arms belongs to an abbot. Many dislike it when the arms of a cleric do not employ the use of the distinctive galero, or broad-brimmed hat, which usually replaces both the helm and crest (with their accompanying torse and mantling) found in the heraldic achievements of lay people. This ecclesiastical hat is depicted in varying colors and with varying numbers of tassels to indicate the rank of the armiger. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have developed elaborate systems for the use of the galero. Many other constituent churches of the Anglican Communion employ the system devised for the Church of England and approved by Earl Marshal’s Warrant in the 1960s.

However, while it is true that the galero certainly makes the coat of arms of a clergyman instantly recognizable as such it is not true that the galero is always and everywhere mandatory for clergy. In fact, there are no external ornaments that are mandatory in heraldry. A coat of arms, simply put, may consist of the shield alone. The motto, which many clerics spend way too much time on devising, is not a necessary component to a coat of arms for example.

In the case of a bishop the one single external ornament that marks the coat of arms as that of a bishop is the episcopal cross placed behind the shield. Full stop. There is no other external ornament necessary and quite a few bishops have chosen to display the episcopal cross (which is not to be confused, as it often is, with the liturgical processional cross) alone in their heraldic achievement. The green galero with twelve tassels is not exclusive to them so it is not the necessary element to indicate the arms of a bishop. Similarly, archbishops use the archiepiscopal cross which has two horizontal bars and is sometimes somewhat misleadingly referred to as the patriarchal cross, in their coats of arms. The green galero with twenty tassels is used almost exclusively by archbishops but it, too, is not a necessary or mandatory external ornament.

When it comes to cardinals the situation changes somewhat in that the red galero with its thirty tassels is, pretty much, the only external ornament that indicates the armiger is a member of the College of Cardinals.

For other clergy, again, the situation remains that the galero is usually employed and certainly makes it clear that the coat of arms belongs to a cleric rather than a laic but the privilege of ensigning the shield with various ornaments isn’t always absolutely necessary. In the case of an abbot it is the (usually veiled) crozier that indicates the arms of an abbot or abbess, the latter being easily distinguished by the lozenge or oval shape of the shield. If a coat of arms is ensigned with a veiled crozier then it is indicating the armiger is a cleric with the rank of abbot whether the black galero with twelve tassels is displayed or not. This is so because the black galero with twelve tassels may also be used by Vicars General; Vicars Episcopal; Non-Episcopal Ordinaries, Moderators of the Curia, Titular Abbots, Prelates of Chivalric Orders as well as Superiors General of Religious Orders and Clerical Religious Congregations. However, only an abbot may also employ a veiled crozier*. Thus it is the crozier that indicates the coat of arms belongs to an abbot, not the galero.

Similarly, the green galero with twelve tassels may be used by Territorial Abbots, Permanent Apostolic Administrators and Vicars or Prefects Apostolic who lack the episcopal character. However, only a bishop or archbishop may also ensign the shield with the episcopal or archiepiscopal cross.

It is worth mentioning that in some places bishops and abbots still use the mitre as well as the cross or crozier in ensigning their shields rather than the galero despite the preference as indicated by Papal Instruction for the use of the galero.

As I said jokingly to one of my sympathetic correspondents, “You don’t have to have all the doo-dads on your coat of arms when, frequently, there is only a single ornament that is the true indication of rank”.

*NOTE: Recently, the Church has established Ordinariates for former Anglicans who wish to come into the Roman Catholic Church. These are headed by Ordinaries who, while exercising Ordinary jurisdiction over the churches under their charge, do not possess the episcopal office. In some cases they were formerly bishops in some branch of the Anglican Communion. Of the three existing today they, too, ensign their shields with the proper galero of rank (usually that of a Prothonotary Apostolic, the highest rank of “monsignor” which is a purple hat with twelve red tassels) as well as a purposely UN-veiled crozier to distinguish it from the crozier of an abbot. This is because they exercise Ordinary jurisdiction of which the crozier is a symbol and they are entitled to use the pontificals liturgically so they actually carry a crozier at Mass but the veil on the crozier is particular to monastics which these Ordinaries are not.

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