Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Treasonous Hat: Interpreting Gesture in the Treason Trial of the Earl of Strafford

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Treasonous Hat: Interpreting Gesture in the Treason Trial of the Earl of Strafford

Article excerpt

I.

On 27 March 1641 the treason trial of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, entered its sixth day. Thus far the proceedings had concerned Strafford's actions as Lord Deputy of Ireland, and whether he had abused the power King Charles gave him in that position. Before a Westminster Hall overcrowded with both Houses and a gallery of London observers, Strafford was accused of appointing unfit men to important positions, venturing outside the law to attack his enemies, and using his formidable power to threaten political rivals. Now the trial turned to a court martial Strafford had called at Dublin in 1635. Accused of using his power to intimidate the court martial into sentencing Lord Mountnorris, a personal enemy, to death, Strafford defended himself by claiming he had removed his hat while the decision was reached, thus removing himself from a position of authority. His accusers countered with testimony that he remained seated at the council table and influenced proceedings with his very presence. Strafford's guilt or innocence hinged, in part, upon descriptions of the setting, dress, positioning, and actions during the earlier trial. Strafford's role in the court martial was not merely defined by his office as Lord Deputy of Ireland, but was part of what Michael Braddick describes as "a broader, organic, set of social roles." (1) The debate surrounding Strafford's hat during his treason trial demonstrates the reflective nature of early modern political culture as both Strafford and his accusers exhibited a sophisticated understanding of the language of gesture and presented competing interpretations of Strafford's actions.

Catherine Richardson has described clothing as a crucial marker of social identity in the early modern period because it provided one of the easiest methods of recognizing and categorizing people. (2) The symbolic display of authority, through coded use of dress, played an important role in reinforcing the hierarchy of the early modern English state, which was less formal than many on the continent. (3) Amanda Flather has observed the widespread expectation that, among other forms of symbolic display, clothing "had to be organized and performed properly to reflect a person's station in life" in order to maintain such unformalized hierarchies. (4) Hat honour played a central role in this confirmation of hierarchies as removing one's hat clearly identified one's inferior position before a social, legal, or political authority. Conversely, the wearing of a hat acted as a powerful instrument of performance in formal settings as office-holders carefully delineated what Michael Braddick terms "the distance between the individual and the office." (5) Thus, an individual's identity could, at any given moment or context, be communicated clearly through dress. In Strafford's case, while he wore his hat at the council his identity was that of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, a superior to each of the men around the table. By removing it, he had shifted his identity to that of a private suitor bringing a charge before the council. At any given moment an individual's identity could be deciphered through a reading of his dress, in conjunction with other elements such as other gestures, personal carriage, or the broader setting.

Since Penelope Corfield's article, "Dress for Deference and Dissent" in 1989 that honour has been on the forefront of the study of dress and gesture in early modern England. (6) The common assumptions about what a covered or uncovered head meant in terms of social and political hierarchy have provided valuable information for historians about how those hierarchies were questioned or challenged. Much of the subsequent research has focused on the decline of hat honour and the use of hats as subversive instruments by men who were brought before ecclesiastical, civic, or royal authorities. Corfield uses the example of an oatmeal maker, who refused to "put off his hat to bishops" before an ecclesiastic court. …

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