Anglican heraldry a rich, artistic expression of church identity

Bruce Patterson, deputy chief herald of Canada, shows the diocese of Brandon’s coat of arms. Photo: Chloé Johnson
Published February 4, 2020

About a year ago, Barry Hill was rummaging through old files at the historic Mohawk Chapel in Brantford, Ont., “just to see what was in the musty manuscripts,” when he made an exciting discovery: a letter postmarked by Buckingham Palace.

Dated June 7, 2005, the letter was sent from the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace and addressed to Hill’s predecessor as chair of the Mohawk Chapel Committee—a position Hill has held since 2013. The letter confirmed that as a result of petitions made in March 2005 by the chief of Six Nations and Tyendinaga, a grant had been made for a coat of arms to represent “Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks.”

Hill enlisted the advice of the Rev. Canon David Bowyer, a member of the Heraldry Society of Canada, to sketch up some designs for a coat of arms, which the chapel sent to Ottawa. After some correspondence and suggestions, the coat of arms for Mohawk Chapel now has a finalized design and has been sent to England for review and royal assent.

While Mohawk Chapel has a special status among Canadian Anglican churches—being the first Anglican church in Upper Canada, the oldest surviving church in Ontario and one of only three Chapels Royal in Canada—its grant for a coat of arms is by no means unique. Anglican heraldry boasts a rich and long tradition in Canada. The national church, as well as many Anglican dioceses, parishes, congregations, bishops and the Anglican Military Ordinariate all possess their own coats of arms.

“If you go to any Anglican church, you’ll probably find heraldry of some form in the churches,” says Ralph Spence, Albion Herald Extraordinary for the Canadian Heraldic Authority and former bishop of the Anglican diocese of Niagara, who has designed many coats of arms for churches as well as communities and organizations across Ontario.

The Anglican Military Ordinariate’s coat of arms—an example of Anglican heraldry. Image: Courtesy of the Anglican Foundation

“Whether it’s the royal arms on the wall, which has happened in old historic churches, or a diocesan arms over the bishop’s chair…there’s a lot like that, and people will see it and ask about it or talk about it,” Spence adds.

Heraldry is a system of creating symbols for the purpose of identification that has existed for many hundreds of years. Bruce Patterson, deputy chief herald of Canada and a parishioner at St. Barnabas, Apostle and Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa, says that heraldry “seeks to provide simple and meaningful and beautiful emblems that can identify a person or a corporate body” such as a municipality, university, military unit or church organization.

The main element of heraldry is a coat of arms. Patterson says that heraldry, as a heritable system following certain design principles, began in the late 12th century in England, France and Germany and gradually spread to other parts of the world.

In Canada, heraldry in this form arrived with the first European explorers, and there are many examples of coats of arms in New France or the early British colonies. Anglicans played a prominent role in the development of Canadian heraldry.

One of the first official grants of a coat of arms to a corporate body in Canada was to the Anglican diocese of Quebec in 1793—the first diocese outside the British Isles to receive a grant of arms by royal assent. Other early examples include Newfoundland and Toronto, which both received formal grants of arms in 1839.

“Christian iconography has always been an important aspect of decoration of churches and how we express aspects of the faith through visual means,” Patterson says.

“You’ll see in stained-glass windows symbols of saints, for example, and in some cases those symbols are actually on coats of arms. The medieval heralds actually created coats of arms for saints…who lived in the apostolic period, but centuries before heraldry as we know it began…. There was this kind of retrospective giving of heraldic emblems to figures in the church.”

Until 1988, Canadians had to apply for grants of arms in England. With the establishment of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, which exercises the power to grant arms in the name of the Queen by the Governor General, receiving approval for a coat of arms became considerably easier for Canadians.

Spence describes heraldry as an “exciting, expanding” practice in Canada, one of the new developments of which is an increasing focus on Indigenous symbolism.

Coat of arms of the Anglican Church of Canada. Photo: Contributed

“More and more, the Canadian Heraldic Authority, we’re using Indigenous symbols of the Indigenous people[s] in the arms—so not just the usual lions and fleurs-de-lys, etc., but wonderful First Nations symbols,” he says. “Many of the First Nations themselves have applied and got grants of arms for their groups, which is pretty exciting.”

The process for designing a coat of arms typically takes around a year. Heralds first sit down with an individual or representative of an organization, discuss symbols for a coat of arms and draw up some ideas.

Upon the completion of a design, applicants send their coat of arms to the Canadian Heraldic Authority, which has a staff of professional artists skilled in heraldic artwork. In an average year, the Canadian Heraldic Authority will work on 80 to 100 new coats of arms. It approves between 50 and 60 new creations.

When it comes to Anglican heraldry, certain symbols are common due to the church’s shared heritage. The cross of St. George, for example, is a prominent element in Anglican coats of arms due to its associations with the origin of the Church of England. Along with general Christian symbols, many Anglican dioceses incorporate symbols of episcopal authority such as a mitre placed above the shield.

The elements that distinguish coats of arms are those with specific relevance to an individual or a corporate organization. Spence points to his recent work in helping design the coat of arms for Bishop Susan Bell, which was approved at the last diocesan synod in Niagara.

“When I worked on the arms of Bishop Bell, she loved cats, so I said to her, ‘Well, listen, if you’re in Hamilton, there’s only one cat you can have, and that’s a tiger cat.’ And that’s part of her arms,” Spence says.

Bishop Susan Bell’s coat of arms. Photo: Contributed

“There’s a phrase in heraldry called canting, which means, if your name is Green or Greenwood, you’re going to have green trees in your coat of arms. So with a name like Bell, we gave the tiger a sanctus bell, which was kind of fun. If you look at her arms, she’s very much in favour of the Anglican Communion, so you’ll see two Canterbury crosses, and [a] book in the arms which refers to her favourite [poet and author], which is George Herbert.”

At Mohawk Chapel, Hill described the design for their new coat of arms at an October service marking the 100th anniversary of a visit to the chapel by then-Prince of Wales and future king Edward VIII. Archbishop and Primate Linda Nicholls attended the service.

The design includes swords, a Bible, a crown and a green “tree of peace,” with “four white roots of peace in the four directions,” Hill says. As reported by Brantford newspaper The Expositor, the design also features the colour red, representing royalty, and yellow, representing the east. A scroll beneath the shield displays the words “Faith, Hope and Charity.”

Hill notes that the chapel still has a strong bond to the monarchy. Its status as a Chapel Royal denotes it as an establishment officially serving the spiritual needs of the Crown.

“It’s part of our heritage in terms of our support of the British crown in the pre-revolutionary times…. We basically brought Anglicanism to this part of the country over 235 years ago,” Hill says.

The connection to the monarchy also bears relevance to discussions on treaties with Indigenous peoples, he adds, which were negotiated on behalf of the Crown.

“The chapel is somewhat of an icon in this area…. It continues to reinforce what many of the leadership still adhere to, and that is our particular relationship as allies of the Crown and our role in history.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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