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I Wonder Why...?

I will be writing about aspects of Spanish history and their traditions. I am a very curious person and have always needed to know "why" they do it, and "how" it came about. So over the years while living in Spain I have made a conscious effort to discover "el porque de las cosas" and I will be sharing them with you. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Why do they wear that hat?
Friday, October 18, 2013 @ 12:07 PM

Ever wondered why the Spanish civil guards wear that funny hat? Well I thought I would give you a little background on Spain’s first police force and why their hat became an icon for law and order.

Spain’s Guardia Civil was founded as a national police force in 1844 during the reign of Queen Isabel II of Spain by the Basque Navarrese aristocrat Francisco Javier Girón y Ezpeleta, 2nd Duque de Ahumada and 5th Marqués de las Amarillas, an 11th generation descendant of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. Formerly, law enforcement had been the responsibility of the “Holy Brotherhood”, an organization of municipal leagues. Corruption was rife in the Brotherhood, where officials were constantly subject to local political influence, and the system was largely ineffective outside the major towns and cities. Criminals would often escape justice by simply moving from one town to another. The first Guardia police academy was established in the town of Valdemoro, south of Madrid, in 1855 and Graduates were given the Guardia's now famous Tricornio or Cavaliers hat as part of their duty dress uniform, a hat that has become an emblem of Spain, especially Spain’s dictatorship years.

The Guardia was initially charged with putting an end to brigandage on the nation's highways, particularly in the province of Andalucía, which had become notorious for endless robberies and holdups of businessmen, peddlers, travellers, and even foreign tourists. Bandits in this region were so frequent that the Guardia found it difficult to completely eradicate the problem. As late as 1884, one traveller of the day reported that the problems still existed in and around the city of Málaga. The favourite and original method of the Malagueño highwayman was to creep up quietly behind his victim, muffle his head and arms in a cloak, and then relieve him of his valuables. Should he resist, he would instantly bring him to the ground with the dexterous thrust of a knife.

The Guardia Civil was also given the political task of restoring and maintaining land ownership and servitude among the peasantry of Spain by the king, who desired to stop the spread of anti-monarchist movements inspired by the French revolution. The end of the First Carlist War had left the Spanish landscape scarred by the destruction and the government was forced to take drastic action to suppress spontaneous revolts by the remaining rebel peasantry. Based on the model of light infantry used by Napoleon in his European campaigns, the Guardia Civil was transformed into a highly mobile paramilitary force that could be deployed irrespective of inhospitable conditions, able to patrol and pacify large areas of the countryside. Its members, called 'guardias', maintain to this day a basic patrol unit formed by two agents, usually called a "pareja" (a pair), in which one of the 'guardias' will initiate the intervention while the second 'guardia' serves as a backup to the first.

Today the Guardia Civil is a police force subject to the checks and supervision expected in a democratic society. Moreover, the guardias' proven effectiveness throughout history, whether in controlling banditry or in addressing the subsequent challenges and tasks given to them, meant that additional tasks have been added regularly to their job description.

Today, they are primarily responsible for policing and/or safety regarding the following areas:

Highway patrol, Protection of the Royal Family and the King of Spain, Military police, Counter drugs operations, Anti-smuggling operations, Customs and ports of entry control, Airport Security, Safety of prisons and safeguarding of prisoners, Weapons licenses and arms control, Security of border areas, Bomb squad and explosives, Security in rural areas, Anti-terrorism, Coast guard, Police deployments abroad (embassies), Intelligence and counter-intelligence gathering, Cyber crime, Hunting permits  and finally Environmental law enforcement (SEPRONA).

In January 2011 the Civil Guard of Spain, La Benemérita, renewed its uniform, unchanged since 1986. The military association inherent to their old attire was replaced by a police force aesthetic: polo shirts and cargo pants substituted button-up shirts and pleated trousers. The colour of the uniform changed too: a dark shade of green replaced the former lighter coloured military green.

The most important modification, however, was the replacement of the tricornio, a three-cornered hat made of black polished leather, in the heritage of the ones worn by Spanish soldiers during the 17th century. The substitution surprised everyone; the tricornio was the quintessential symbol of the Civil Guards. Imagine supplanting the cowboy hat with a baseball cap—no small step for a military institution.

Tidiness and cleanliness were attributes emphasised in La Benemérita’s uniform code since the foundation of the institution back in 1844. The founder, Don Francisco Javier Girón y Ezpeleta, believed that it was important to create a police force that the Spanish population would respect at first sight even fear. The value of the aesthetic was given the highest importance and was carefully managed. The elegance and uniformity of the attire was praised and valued. Blue was chosen as the main colour (replaced by green in the reform of 1943) and the tricornio as the element of uniformity. Don Ramón María de Narváez y Campos, Duque de Valencia and prime minister at the time, chose the three-cornered hat used by the Spanish cavalry for the new police force headwear. The Duque de Ahumada didn’t agree with the idea, however; he favoured the notion of borrowing the Morrión style, a steel helmet used by the Tercios, the famous and feared Spanish infantry formation of the XVI century. The Queen Isabella II had the last word; she backed the prime minister’s opinion, and the three-cornered hat was appointed official Guardia Civil headwear.

The Guardia Civil was a tool for repression and civil order. Their constant excesses and lack of responsibility for their actions made them extremely unpopular in the beginning. They were feared, and so was their uniform. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca portrayed the brutality of the Guardia Civil in many of his poems. Furthermore, nothing signified repression more than their tricornio, and even to this day there are popular jokes that relate the “magical” power of the hat, that it transferred violence to whoever wore it. During the dictatorship of Franco, it was the tricornio that symbolised the merciless will of the “Caudillo”.

Fortunately those days are gone. The Guardia Civil has evolved as did society and Spain’s democracy, it was the first European police force to admit a same-sex couple in a military installation, which was no small step for such a right-winged organisation.

The tricornio, however, won’t disappear just yet. Its use will be reserved for ceremonies and parades, and the gorra teresiana, the everyday hat will be replaced by a “more comfortable and modern” baseball cap. So there you have it, the inherent attributes of authority, power, and law are put aside to bring in airs of casualness and practicality.

Like 2


alant said:
Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 9:49 AM

This article reminds me of the first Spanish joke I really understood.
Two gypsies in the countryside are going about their lawful business (no comments please) when they are both taken short, they dive under a bridge and quickly trousers down and squatting. One nudges the other and points to the shadow of a tricornio.
“Are you frightened my friend?
Me frightened, why do you ask?
Because you are wiping my arse.

Chris Gamble said:
Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 9:52 AM

When I first visited Spain in 1978 as a backpacking, pot smoking, student tha absenses of any high rise where Orepesa was a fishing village and trains ran sometime during the day containing the time they were due; the Guardia Civil put the fear of God into me and my fellow travellers. Being awaken on the beach at 07:00 with a rifle poking in my back is a memory that will stay. We were all made to stand without our sleeping bags, naked, in full view of the morning's hippie ladies beach yoga get together. They didn't seem to mind.
Having told us to get dressed and move on, the soldiers escorted us in their Santana Land Rover copy to our favourite local bar for breakfast. They accepted our invite for coffee and brandies , showed us their Spanish made guns and batons, politely saluted us and went off back towards the beach.
Why was I so nervous? Those tricornio hats of course! Why do we have to become Americanised in Europe? British bobbies and guardia civil command less respect wearing a baseball cap than traditional hats that define them.

Thomas Oliver said:
Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 10:07 AM

I have to admit it Chris, the tricornio does command respect, they got that right. I bet you were worried though in 1978 by the Guardia Civil, post-Franco years, but still a very "Franco mind-set" within the Guardia Civil in those days. It is a shame that traditions are put aside for comfort, its the little changes like this, that all add up to a loss of identity for the country and make travelling from one country to another a little bit less interesting if everyone follows the same lines. I don't just mean in police dress but this change from tradition to practicality can be seen in many areas. However we do have to move with the times.

Funny joke alant, I've heard that one before! :-)

wally1313 said:
Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 3:02 PM

Just a footnote on Spotify you can listen to Viejo Tricornico on CD Homenaje A La Guardia Civil Marchas. Love Spotify as it is free.

shak said:
Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 3:37 PM

Corruption, banditry, lack of respect for the law etc is still there. The mode has changed. The bandits are now sitting in Mayor's office, suited lawyers/Bankers, politicians top to bottom.

While I agree the Americanisation aspect. No respect can be earned until the above is eradicated. It seems that Spain is not willing to do this a case in point is the recent terms given out to one of the biggest corruption cases in Spain. The activities of these people has damaged Spain in an immeasurable manner. This kind of activity would have been treated as treason in those days.

William Kinghorn said:
Thursday, December 11, 2014 @ 1:11 AM

In 1963 is saw a Guardia Civil tell an adolescent to stop combing his hair on a sidewalk of downtown Las Palmas G.C. There seemed to be no hard feelings on either side. They also confronted bare-chested Spaniards in beach bars full of bare-chested tourists. Again with no apparent hostilities.

Benjamin Seeley said:
Thursday, March 28, 2019 @ 3:18 AM

My dad went backpacking in Spain in the early 60's - before he married my mum. He bought a bottle of red wine and a French stick and fell asleep on the beach! He was awoken by 2 police officers who prodded him with a stick, and asked him what he was doing there! They told him to move on, They were wearing the Tricornio hat!

iknobest said:
Sunday, September 13, 2020 @ 11:17 PM


Sarah Lloyd said:
Monday, August 30, 2021 @ 7:00 AM

Hi, Just wanting to find out a little more about the design of the Guardia Civil hat. I always thought it was flat at the back because they were up against the wall OR so they could creep around flat to the wall and no one could creep up behind them? Sarah

Sarah Lloyd said:
Monday, August 30, 2021 @ 7:02 AM

Hi, Just wanting to find out a little more about the design of the Guardia Civil hat. I always thought it was flat at the back because they were up against the wall OR so they could creep around flat to the wall and no one could creep up behind them? Sarah

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