A Bit of a Yarn

Letter from Robert Knight

Letter from Robert Knight to his brother, March 5 1642 (MS 1098/115)

A little bit of palaeography practice in the archives has inspired this blog. During a lunchtime session of deciphering letters relating to the Smalbroke family of Blakesley Hall in Yardley, we were intrigued to come across a mention of a Monmouth Cap. Further investigation revealed that the cap had an interesting history.

If you were a soldiering or seafaring type in the 15th to 18th centuries you probably would not go anywhere without your Monmouth cap. This woollen headgear was fashionable for centuries and hailed, as you would probably guess, from an area immediately north of Monmouth, famed for its high quality wool produced from Ryeland sheep. In those long Winter evenings the ‘cappers’ or knitters (traditionally men) were knitting the woollen hats from sturdy, coarse 2 ply wool, with the hem of the cap created by turning up the outer edge and knitting it in. The crown of the cap, where today we would have a bobble, was finished with a button and a handy loop was added at the brim edge for attaching when not worn.

The cap went everywhere and was apparently worn by a large proportion of the population of England and Wales. It made it into Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ with Welshmen wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps and across the Atlantic with the Pilgrim Fathers as part of the essential kit for a settler. Indeed, it was passed into legislation with rules and regulations to protect the capping industry. The Cappers’ Act of 1488 fixed the price of knitted caps, the Elizabethan Statute of 1571 insisted that all above the age of six years, with certain exceptions, must wear a cap of wool knit made in England, on the Sabbath and Holydays. Failure to do so incurred a fine.

The cap is mentioned in a series of letters written between the various members of the Knight family, related to the Smalbrokes by marriage. The letters give a fascinating account of a middle-class family during the English Civil War and mainly concern the efforts of various siblings and parents to extract gifts, loans presents and favours from long suffering William Knight junior, a modestly successful lawyer of Clements Inn, London.

Letter from Robert Knight

This letter from his brother Robert Knight, serving in the Parliamentary forces, touches on a few subjects including the extract above ‘victory obtayned by our Contryman the Lord Brooke against the blood Thirstie cavaleers’, but victory short-lived as soon after ‘a wicked divelish papist did pistole him and he is dead’.

Monmouth cap

Reproduction of a Monmouth Cap

 However, uppermost in Richard’s mind is the receiving of a cap and feather from William, a plea for William to send him another one for his special friend Nicholas Smith and an order for ‘two pocket handkerchers and ablacke sattaine cap to ware under my monmouth cap’. Not sure if the satin cap is a fashion statement or purely practical to stop the irritation of the wool.

So, armed with this information and a pattern from the internet, here is the archives version of the Monmouth Cap as modelled here and religiously worn every Sunday and every Bank Holiday.

Judy Dennison


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