Project Canterbury

Some Notes on Copes.

By Leonard Spiller.

London: The Warham Guild, 1939.

The cope, like the chasuble, was originally an ordinary part of everyday dress, a light-weight overcoat worn over the toga for protection in inclement weather. The chasuble, paenula (to give it its older name), was circular, with a hole in the middle for the head. The lacerna, from which the cope was derived, was semi-circular, wrapped round the shoulders and fastened in front with a clasp. Dr. Percy Dearmer, in The Ornaments of the Ministers (Mowbrays), tells us that it was introduced into the Roman army for the use of officers by Lucullus, and that it came from Asia. The byrrus was a similar garment but of warmer and heavier material, used in the winter, whereas the lacerna was a thin dust-coat for summer use. Both names, byrrus and lacerna, were used to describe the outer garment laid aside by S. Cyprian at his martyrdom in A.D. 258.

It does not appear to have become a distinctively ecclesiastical vestment until after the beginning of the seventh century. The transformation from everyday attire was probably a natural one. The paenula, or [3/4] chasuble—or something very like it—was part of the normal dress of the apostolic age, and the dress of our Lord’s time was retained in use for Church services when fashions changed. When it became solely a ceremonial vestment it was only to be expected that it should be made of more valuable materials, and in consequence it became less suitable for use out of doors in all weathers. The cloak was then naturally adopted for protection when taking part in outdoor processions and for similar purposes, and so, in the process of time, it came to be regarded as a processional or ceremonial vestment and was used in church as well as out of doors. Then, like the chasuble, it came to be made of rich materials for indoor use, but the name pluviale (rain-coat) was still used in the Roman books for the silk cope.

From this beginning the lacerna developed into copes of several distinct forms for particular purposes. The ceremonial cope, for use in church on occasions of dignity, and worn by bishops, priests, and in many cases by laymen, was made of rich materials and often decorated with needlework, heavily embroidered and ornamented with jewels. Black cloth copes were used for warmth in days when churches had no efficient heating apparatus, as well as for outdoor use in bad weather. Mantles (copes without hoods) and closed copes came into use for special purposes, to which we shall refer later.

The Liturgical Cope

The cope used as a vestment of splendour generally has a border (called an orphrey) along the straight edge. This is made of a richer or contrasting material, and is often embroidered and decorated with heraldic and other devices. Sometimes the whole cope is embroidered with [4/6] needlework like the famous Syon Cope. [In the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.] From the middle of the straight edge is suspended a hood, which generally matches the orphrey and sometimes is embroidered with a picture or monogram, though this is only possible with hoods which are hoods only in name. When the cope came to be used only in church, or in fine weather out of doors, the hood was turned into a flat, shield-shaped appendage, fringed around the edge. Nowadays the true hood is being revived, and the copes made for the Westminster Abbey clergy for the Coronation of King George VI, like all the copes made for the Abbey during the last quarter of a century, have this very beautiful form of hood.

The introduction of heavy embroidery upon the orphreys led to a widening of the orphrey, and instead of the edge being shaped to fit comfortably around the neck and over the shoulders a perfectly straight edge was used. This was disastrous, because it made the cope stick up and out at the back of the head, upset the set over the shoulders, and made the bottom points overlap in front, thereby making the cope ungainly in appearance and uncomfortable to wear. The best modern copes are made like those seen in brasses and pictures of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with narrow orphreys shaped to fit the wearer’s neck. Another advantage of the shaped cope is that when it is worn with an albe and amice the apparelled amice can be thrown back, as it should be, over the edge of the orphrey, as shown in the brass to Thomas Cod, 1465, in S. Margaret’s Church, Rochester. The hood, whether real or of the later flap type, should be suspended from the top edge of the orphrey, although it is sometimes seen attached [6/8] at the lower edge. According to North European custom generally, and always in England, the hood has been attached to the top edge of the orphrey, while in Italy and the South it has been attached to its lower edge. With the very broad orphrey of the Renaissance period, the large hood hangs half-way down the back of the wearer and has provoked severe criticism on artistic grounds from recent Roman Catholic writers. Although some very rich and costly copes of the Italian Renaissance are made in this way, the ungainliness of the arrangement has led the learned Benedictine, Dom Roulin, to stigmatize it as ‘comic.’

Copes are sometimes fringed all round the bottom edge, but more commonly a braid is used. The twelve Westminster copes made for the Coronation of King Charles II in 1661 are still occasionally worn at the Abbey.

Copes are fastened with a ‘morse,’ which is sometimes an ornamental metal clasp (which may be studded with precious stones) and sometimes a short band of material to match or to harmonize with the orphrey.

The use of the cope is covered by the Ornaments Rubric, which refers us to the First Prayer Book of Edward VI. Here the ‘vestment or cope’ appear as alternatives for use by the celebrant at the Holy Communion. The twenty-fourth Canon of 1604 ordered it to be worn by the celebrant, and also by the gospeller and epistoler, at the Holy Eucharist in cathedrals. But it is not such a convenient garment as the chasuble to wear when celebrating, although it is worn by the celebrant, epistoler, and gospeller at all choral Celebrations at Westminster Abbey, and on ‘High Days’ at S. Paul’s and many other cathedrals also. At Westminster Abbey [8/9] the cope is worn by the celebrant at all Sunday and Saints’ Day Celebrations. It may be assumed that the real intention of the First Prayer Book rubric is that it should be used for the Ante-Communion (‘Table Prayers’) on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Good Friday in particular, and that the chasuble or ‘vestment’ should be worn when the whole Communion Service is said. It is so prescribed in the mediaeval rubrics.

Besides being worn for ‘Table Prayers,’ the cope is customarily worn by the officiant in processions (in processions at Westminster Abbey copes are worn by all the clergy), at weddings and funerals (in some churches a cope is worn at the weddings and funerals of communicants but not at the services for those who only come to church to be married and buried), and for Solemn Evensong. Anglican bishops nowadays generally wear it at Ordinations, Confirmations, the Consecration of Churches, and upon other occasions of importance, such as the Institutions of new Incumbents.

The cope is not necessarily a vestment for those in Holy Orders only, for it is the correct vesture for the ‘rulers of the choir’ or cantors, that is to say, the two principal choirmen, who stand at stalls or lecterns in the midst of the chancel and precent the psalms, canticles, and hymns. At Lincoln Cathedral the four head choirboys, following ancient custom, wear copes of black cloth with white orphreys. At Exeter, Lincoln, Aberdeen, and some other great churches a cope was worn by the cross-bearer.

The Cloth Cope

The ‘cloth cope,’ or cappa nigra, is the black cloth cope already mentioned as having been worn for warmth in. cold churches by chapters of secular canons. It is [9/10] sometimes called by its older name of cappa choralis. It is more practical when made, as it used to be, with a real hood which can be drawn up over the head. Made of warm, heavy-weight serge or cloth, it is invaluable for wear at funerals in bad weather, when taking Communion to the sick, and for general use when going to church in one’s cassock on a rainy day, since it reaches to the bottom of the cassock and affords complete protection. It may also be worn when saying the Daily Offices in churches which cannot afford to keep their heating apparatus going all through the week in winter time. In The Churchman’s Glossary of Ecclesiastical Terms, by Cuthbert Atchley and E. G. P. Wyatt (Mowbrays), we are told ‘The Edwardian Visitors forbade their use in 1547-48, as being a sort of monkery; and they were not restored under Mary. They were not worn from Easter Even till Michaelmas (the exact period varied in different churches) except at Mattins, which being very early in the morning necessitated warmer clothing. At S. Lô, Rouen, till the eighteenth century the canons wore cappae chorales of a violet colour during the winter months. In many places it was gradually decreased in size till it became a camail or cape reaching just below the elbows, with a small hood.’ (It may be remarked that capes with hoods which hang down and give added warmth down the spine are still of real value for indoor use.)

One ought perhaps to add that, strictly speaking, it is doubtful if clergy who are not members of chapters of secular canons are fully entitled to the use of the cappa nigra, but for certain purposes in present-day circumstances, as already indicated, it meets a great need, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it must have saved many clergy from catching pneumonia when officiating at grave-sides in wintry weather.

[11] The Lincoln choristers’ copes already mentioned are descended from the cappa nigra or choir cope.

The Doctors’ Cope

In the Middle Ages the cloth cope took various forms, among them being the closed cope or cappa clausa used as an out-of-doors dress in the thirteenth century for archdeacons, deans, and other dignitaries. Fifteenth-century brasses show them worn by doctors of divinity, and this doctors’ cope is still in use as a University robe, and when so used is still called a cope. It is also worn by bishops in the House of Lords upon State occasions. It is made of scarlet cloth with a large hood or cape of white fur and a fur-bordered opening down the front which leaves the hands comparatively free.


A cope without orphreys, hood, or morse, usually fastened at the throat with a cord, is known as a mantle. The Orders of Chivalry have their distinctive mantles, and the canons’ mantle of the Order of the Garter has been worn at Windsor since the fourteenth century. It is of deep crimson silk with a roundel bearing the cross of S. George on the shoulder. Royal chaplains wear a mantle of scarlet silk, lined with white, on State occasions. In the Order of the Bath, the Dean of Westminster and G.C.B.s wear dark crimson mantles and the Canons of Westminster and the Officers of the Order wear white mantles, with the shield of the order on the shoulder—three Imperial crowns on a blue ground.

Lastly, this little book would not be complete without a reference to the Imperial mantle, which is one of the Coronation vestments put upon the Sovereign at his [12/14] Sacring. This also is in effect a cope. It is fully and interestingly described by Dr. Perkins in his handbook to the Coronation, The Crowning of the Sovereign (Methuen).

For further particulars, including photographs of most of the garments described, the reader may be referred to The Ornaments of the Ministers, by the late Dr. Percy Dearmer, in ‘The Arts of the Church’ series, published by A. R. Mowbray & Co. Limited.

The writer gratefully acknowledges his debt to Dr. Jocelyn Perkins and to Dr. Francis Eeles for some o f the information contained in this leaflet.

Cope with the older form of hood, with orphrey shaped to fit the neck and shoulders.

Black cloth cope (cappa nigra).

Cope made for the Order of the Garter, Chapel Royal, Windsor, showing the use of heraldry for the decoration of the orphreys.

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