Isca Morris Tradition
The Isca Morris have a great respect for local history and tradition, both with their dances and also with their approach to the costumes that are worn. As part of their standard kit, the side wear green Monmouth Caps based on a sixteenth-century example in Monmouth Museum. This has seamless stocking stitch throughout, with a flat double brim knitted together at the edge, which continues into a loop and it is knitted in coarse, thick, 2-ply wool, felted, thickened and shorn.
These caps were once knitted in the county and are an example of one of the earliest surviving medieval knitted garments. The history of Monmouth Caps and other associated Phrygian and Coptic knitted caps is fascinating. Archaeologists at Caerleon, the Roman fortress of Isca, recently excavated two large tomb finials in the shape of heads. Dating from the third century, both are carved in the local pink sandstone, and both wear typical Phrygian caps.
It is known that in the first century A.D. round Coptic Caps were knitted in the south of England and these caps were almost certainly copied from those worn by the Coptic Christians who lived in North Africa. This Coptic Cap knitting tradition may have been brought over by the first Christians missionaries who founded the early British Church or may even have been brought over by Venetian traders in the first century.
The practice of knitting and felting caps was certainly well established in this country in early Tudor times and it is interesting to note that there were special grades of caps worn by apprentices, marking the number of years they had served as an apprentice to their particular Guild. The knitters, called cappers, were attached to the Weaver's Guild and may have been governed by a Council of Master Craftsmen set up by that body. Right through the latter period of the Middle Ages to the reign of Henry 6th or 7th, knitting was a man's craft
In the north-west corner of our dancing area, tucked under the Black Mountains in a loop of the Monnow, is an area known locally as 'Monmouth Cap'. The only building of any size in the tiny hamlet of Llangua was an old coaching inn called the Monmouth Cap Inn which for centuries was the property of the Kentchurch estate, and adjoined a ruined priory. In the Middle Ages this area formed the third corner, with Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth, of a triangular area known as Archenfield, which is of some interest in considering the local capping industry in Monmouth.
A superior breed of sheep had been developed in the rye-growing area of Archenfield and was mentioned in 1343. The Book of Fees for the County of Hereford of 1278 recorded two Manors of Rye in Archenfield, both as Fees for the Honour of Monmouth The Ryeland breed took its name from this area and the Statutes Merchant of Henry VIII, 1511 'bears testimony to the value of the wool from Archenfield and its high breed of sheep ...'. They were valuable, carefully shepherded and housed. The meat was good, and the small, fine fleeces were unsurpassed by any other breed; each fibre said to be 1/750 inch in diameter, the wool retained exceptional felting qualities.
It was exported in quantity despite the government's preventative measures, and a cottage industry arose to make use of this valuable and very expensive local product, Monmouth caps reaching the height of production and popularity in 1599. Over the years Archenfield wool attracted crowds of dealers, however as its fame spread and the price rose, the cappers of Monmouth began to find themselves priced out of their basic material and the trade eventually went into a downward slide.
The Hundred Court of the Town of Monnouth was established by charter in 1447 and the Court sat weekly, with the Mayor and Bailliffs acting as Affreerors (Justices) dealing with petty debts, apprenticeships, assault, slander, and all the minor scandals that absorb a small town; neighbours continually sued each other in tit-for-tat cases. Textile occupations were represented by the names Tailor, Hosier, Wever, Dier, Clover, Lace, Cardmaker and Capper.
The cappers slowly prospered with the town, and by the reign of Henry VIII they had assumed important positions as bailiffs, burgesses and jurors. Monmouth had close ties with Bristol on account of the river trade, and Bristol was the outlet for the finished article, explaining why it achieved a surprisingly worldwide distribution. There was also a natural extension of the already busy river trade with Bristol with merchants from Bristol establishing depots for their goods in Bewdley with frequent regular trows plying between the two helping to spread the fame of Monmouth's caps nationwide
Throughout the Tudor reigns legislation was passed to protect the capping industry. The Cappers' Act of 1488 fixed the prices of knitted caps and hats and heavy fines were imposed on anyone wearing a foreign-made cap or hat, half for the King, half for the informer, and in 1512 an Act decreed that '...no caps or hats ready wrought should be brought from beyond the seas...'. However, by 1529 Bristol's cappers were already complaining to the Court of the Star Chamber that cappers from London were threatening the livelihood of hundreds of carders, spinners and knitters in Bristol.
The Elizabethan Statute of 1571 was 'An Act for the Continuance of the Making of Caps' and it lists fifteen distinct crafts in their manufacture insisting that ' .. all above the age of six years except some of certain state and condition, shall wear upon the Sabbath and Holydays, one cap of wool knit, thicked and dressed in England, upon the forfeiture of 3s. 4d.... '. Women were similarly restricted, and all Citizens' wives ' ... were constrained to wear white knit caps of woollen yarn, unless their husbands were of good value in the Queen's book, or could prove themselves gentlemen by descent... ' This imposition was however resented and ignored with only the conscientious obeying, and the Statute Cap was frequently ridiculed. It did little to help the declining industry, and the Act was finally repealed in 1597.
Monmouth caps were considered suitable presents for an the aristocracy and other important landowners and they were surprisingly expensive. In 1576, Lord Gilbert Talbot of Goodrich Castle sent to his father, the ninth Earl of Shrewsbury: ' a new year's gift: a Monmouth Cappe, which, if .. fit for your Lordship, you may have as many as please you to appoint. '
Fuller called them ' ..the most ancient, general warm and profitable covering of men's heads in the island ... ' and left, in 'The Worthies of England', the nearest and fullest account of capping as he saw it just before his death in 1661 stating: ' The best caps were made at Monmouth, where the Cappers' Chapel doth still remain, being better carved and gilded than any other part of the Church '. However this view was not always universal, 'Twm Shon Cattis (a Wild Wag of Wales born around 1530) merry pranks involved a number of disguises including a 'country booby' dressed in straw and sacking,'...the whole surmounted with a soldier's cast-off Monmouth Cap
Monmouth Caps were ordered for soldiers in 1627 and 1642 and appear in the slop clothing lists for the navy throughout the seventeenth century with contractors' prices rising to 3s. 6d. for 'Best Monmouth Caps', regulated by Instructions issued by the Duke of York, as Lord High Admiral. In the exchequer accounts for the last, fatal voyage of Drake and Hawkins to the West Indies in 1596, fifteen hundred sailors, and one thousand soldiers took with them thirty-six dozen Monmouth caps in two qualities, costing over £40. In general cap prices were high, from 1s.8d. to 3s.6d. each, and averaging about 2s.6d., well above the cost of imported felt hats, or red or leather caps, in spite of frequent legislation to stabilize the price.
In 1637 Lord Conway's steward paid eleven shillings 'for a Monmouth Cap for my Lord'. By today's values the best rate of exchange was fifteen pounds of tobacco each, in an American inventory of 1673. Cottagers were paid a few pence to knit them which probably included the spinning. In spite of inflated prices they thrived, and appear in songs, satires, and inventories throughout the seventeenth century, attached to soldiers, sailors, Welshmen, and 'the lower orders'.
As an example consider the following extractd from D'Urfey, The Ballad of the Caps, an Elizabethan ballad which was reproduced in 'Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, an odd collection of songs' :-
The Monmouth Cap, the Saylors' Thrum,|
And that wherein the Tradesmen come;
The Physick lawe, the Cap divine,
And that which crowns the muses nine;
The Cap that fools do countenance,
The goodly Cap of Maintenance.
Any Cap, whate'er it be,
Is still the sign of some degree.
The Souldiers that the Monmovth wear
On castle tops their Enseignes rear:
The Saylors with their Thrums do stand
On higher place than all the land.
Any Cap, whate'er it be,
Is still the sign of some degree.
Daniel Defoe, in his 'Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain' made in 1712, describes 'Monmouth Caps, sold chiefly to the Dutch seamen. Peter the Great worked in the Dutch shipyards of the East India Company in 1697 and returned to St Petersburg wearing a 'Monmouth', bought in Amsterdam which is now in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. Their fame was legendary and a hypochondriac soldier serving in the Netherlands wrote for one in 1632 (...to lie in my hut in the night, that I may preserve my health ...)'. In 1607 they arrived in the New World with the first shipload of settlers to Jamestown.
The newly chartered Virginia Company advised each emigrant to take a list of practical clothing, headed by a Monmouth Cap, and followed by what they considered suitable raiment for clearing virgin forest. When Captain Smith made an official visit to Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas, they exchanged the usual diplomatic gifts. The Englishmen were given corn, women, and a village, all useful commodities in their circumstances; while Powhatan, the powerful Indian chief, known as 'The Emperor', received in exchange '.:.A sute of red cloath, a white greyhound, and a Hatte, as jewels he esteemed them...' That hat was described as 'conical and rounded at the top' like those bought by Peter I in Amsterdam and was a Monmouth Cappe.
In America, the caps continued to be worn throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by planters and 'the lower orders', in this case, negro slaves. Orders for large quantities were sent to London, up to fourteen dozen at a time and the Massachusetts Bay Company ordered two each for plantation labourers in 1629, together with one hat and five red knit caps. George Washington ordered four dozen from Liverpool in his own handwriting, among 'Coarse Goods for the Estates Use'. When by Act of Common Council in 1665, all caps had to be taken to Blackwell Hall, only Monmouth and Bewdley caps were exempted. As late as 1768, the Virginia Gazette records: 'Fredericksburg, August 29, 1768 - Run away from the subscribers... The Mulatto fellow named Jack carried with him a Monmouth cap, a brown linen shirt and trowsers...
By the eighteenth century, the woollen cap worn by the ordinary sailors in the British Navy had changed to the Welsh Wig which was described as a round knitted cap which may have originally been the "Monmouth cap". It was often knitted of thruns, where the multiple broken ends were left outside the cap and may have helped to make the cap warmer and at the same time given it a hairy appearance, probably giving rise to the nick-name "Welsh wig". These caps seem to have been used in military and naval hospitals even up to the present century. The name that survived to be used again on a cap that was developed for the rigorous climate of the Crimea and which was only slightly different from the "Balaclava" cap, which was developed at that period.
As a final note of local interest, in May 1927, Mrs Lucia Rosher, formerly of Trewyn, died, aged 96, in her cottage in the Black Mountains. She left instructions that her Monmouth Cap should be buried with her in Oldcastle churchyard, and that the Pandy village choir should sing 'Rule Britannia' over her grave, for which they were promised five shillings. The cap and coffin descended the mountain by horse-drawn hearse; despite the inducement the choir refused to sing, but the cap, which appeared to be flat and dark, reached its resting place and lies in a neglected, weed-covered tomb on the north-east side of the mountain scarp - isolated and gloomy even in bright sunshine. Mrs Rosher, true to her family's motto - 'Consider the End' - shared d'Urfey's earlier quoted opinion that '...Any Cap, whate'er it be, Is still the sign of some Degree'.
Acknowledgements - For the more diligent researcher, much more extensive information can be found in a variety of sources including the Costume (Volume 13, 1979) publication, and notes by Mrs. Christine Buckland of Monmouth, Dr.Ilid Anthony of the Welsh Folk Museum and a Mr James Norbury, all of which were used with other information to produce the notes above.