Stephen Townsend

Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to the Holy See

Guest blogger for Nigel Baker

Part of UK in Holy See

17th August 2015

Diplomatic Uniforms at the Holy See

Steve Townsend
Deputy Head of Mission Steve Townsend greets His Holiness Pope Francis (2013)

One of the quirks of being posted to the Holy See is that it is one of the few in the world where Ambassador and Deputy Head of Mission regularly have to wear diplomatic uniforms. It comes as a surprise to many that the Foreign Office has a uniform at all – unless they had considered the very outdated stereotype of pinstripes, rolled umbrella and a bowler hat as a uniform!

In a number of countries Ambassadors wear their uniform for presentation of credentials and perhaps one or two other very formal occasions (and some Governors of our Overseas Territories also wear them). But in the Holy See the diplomatic corps is required to wear either uniform or white tie for Papal Masses and other ceremonial occasions. They get a regular airing, and I probably wear mine 12-15 times a year. We are not the only country to wear uniform as there are about a dozen others, and they provide a colourful spectacle at formal ceremonies.

Diplomatic uniforms were first introduced in 1781, and their use spread during the 19th century. Mine is still based on 19th century court dress. It is a dark blue single-breasted tail coat, lined with black silk, stand collar and gauntlet cuffs with black velvet facings and gilt braiding and gilt buttons. I also carry a bicorn hat (as seen in many a Hornblower series), gloves and a sword. The picture attached gives the full impression. The main difference between my uniform and the Ambassador’s is that he has more braid on the collar and cuffs, and ostrich plumes in his hat.

These uniforms are not made from lightweight material. This is fine when a ceremony is in the Basilica in the autumn or winter, but it makes sitting out in St Peter’s Square under the Roman sun rather warm! But overall the uniform is another fascinating part of the posting here: how many people can say that they walked into St Peter’s Basilica with a sword at their side?

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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