Cromwell the Dandy

Puritan souls may hide a cavalier approach to clothes, according to Patrick Little as he explores fashion at the court of Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, tentatively dated to 1650, in the surprisingly 'gay attire' of 'petticoat breaches', lacy boot-hose and a plumed hat.
Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, tentatively dated to 1650, in the surprisingly 'gay attire' of 'petticoat breaches', lacy boot-hose and a plumed hat.

Sellar and Yeatman's 1930 comic history of England, 1066 and All That, neatly sums up the popular picture of a Puritan. In the public eye, the very clothes of a Roundhead are deemed to show him to be serious, religious and opposed to all the pleasurable aspects of life. He was 'right but Repulsive'. Such men not only fought a civil war against their flamboyant king, they executed him; they not only created a religious republic, they banned Christmas and horse-racing and set up the regime of those notorious killjoys, the Major Generals. Their leader was the archetypal Roundhead, the quintessential Puritan, Oliver Cromwell.

The traditional image of the Puritan is so pervasive that it comes as something of a surprise to discover that costume historians are becoming increasingly sceptical that clothing of the period can be interpreted in a political or religious way at all. Professor Aileen Ribeiro, in her important recent book on dress in the seventeenth century, emphasizes that the historian needs to be wary of taking clothing at face value. She argues that the sober costume seen in 1630s' portraits of future Parliamentarians merely 'represents a change in fashion from the more elaborate decorated styles of the earlier 1630s towards a simpler mood'. Even that most 'puritanical' of outfits, the black suit, cannot be 'read' as easily as one might expect. Charles I and his courtiers favoured black in the later 1630s. Black dye was very expensive, and sitters in black are usually portrayed as wearing 'high-quality silks, often figured, and with expensive braid and lace'. Nor was the wearing of armour in portraits necessarily a sign of Puritanism, or even of a military background. Indeed, we are told that armour 'was almost "timeless" in its neutrality'. Ribeiro's findings also hold good for the 1650s, and her question 'how far is it possible to see a "Puritan" or even a "Republican" influence in dress during this period?' receives a surprisingly equivocal answer. There were apparently no fixed rules. In the absence of a royal court, fashion became 'deregulated', with London merchants supplying the desires of rich customers, especially royalists eager to cock a snook at the protectoral regime.

Professor Ribeiro's conclusions are important; but her focus is on the whole of the seventeenth century and her coverage of individual periods is necessarily variable, not least because the quantity and quality of surviving evidence itself varies. One particular problem is that, while there may have been no royal court during the 165Os, from 1653 until 1659 there was a protectoral court. Recent research has uncovered the importance of this institution, not just politically, but also culturally. In fact, when it came to art, architecture, music, literature and horse-breeding, it is now thought that Cromwell's court was just as vibrant as the earlier royal courts had been. With this in mind, should our view of the Puritans and their 'sombre garments' be completely overturned?

The first point that must be made is that there is not a shadow of a doubt that those around Protector Oliver dressed à la mode. Hostile witnesses were quick to link the flamboyance of Cromwell's family with the corrupt nature of the regime. For the disaffected Colonel Matthew Alured, writing in 1659, 'there was no apparel good enough to be gotten in London for the Lord Richard and Lord Henry (meaning his ... highness's two sons) to wear', and he added that they 'did keep courts higher (meaning more chargeable) than ever the prince ... did'. Another critic, Lucy Hutchinson, remarked that Cromwell's son, Henry, and his son-in-law, John claypole, 'were two debauched, ungodly Cavaliers'. The royalist, Anthony Wood, was specific in his criticism of the clothes favoured by Cromwell's chaplain and vice-chancellor of Oxford, Dr John Owen, and lambasted him for 'going quirpo [cloakless] like a young scholar, with powdered hair, ... lawn band [or linen collar], a large set of ribbons pointed at his knees, and Spanish leather boots with large lawn tops, and his hat mostly cocked'. Another source notes Owen's Velvet jacket' and 'breeches set round at knee with ribbons' and 'as much powder in his hair that would discharge eight cannons'.

Other evidence suggests that such comments had a firm foundation in truth. In November 1656 Samuel Pepys wrote to his patron, the councillor Edward Montagu, reporting the results of a shopping expedition in London:

I have sent swords and belts black and modish, with two caps for your honour ... two pairs of spurs for yourself and two for the gentlemen [Montagus sons, Edward and Sidney] with two riding coats for them, as handsome as the Monsieur can make, and I hope they will please.

Pepys' purchases suggest that Montagu was keen to have what was 'modish', and this included the apparel of his sons, who were kitted out with fashionable riding coats made by a French tailor.

A portrait of the councillor and comptroller of the protector's household, Philip Jones, shows him wearing a long black coat (perhaps a riding coat?) fastened with twelve ornate clasps down the front, and at least two on each sleeve, with lace cuffs and a wide, plain linen collar. The overall effect is both elegant and formal, and very suitable for one of the senior figures of court and state. Even more sumptuous was the black and gold suit, with wide beribboned 'petticoat' breeches and fancy boot-hose, sported by Cromwell's cousin and close friend, Oliver St John, in his portrait of the early 1650s.

With men like Owen, Montagu, Jones and St John dressed in high fashion, it was appropriate for others attending the court to do so as well. Periwigs were coming into fashion in London during the 165Os and these were also worn at court. After the wedding of one of his daughters in November 1657, Cromwell played a practical joke on the bridegroom when he 'pulled off [Lord] Rich his peruque, and would have thrown it into the fire, but did not, yet he sat upon it'. (Lord Rich was the eldest son of the puritanical Earl of Warwick; and a 'peruque' is a periwig.)

The few surviving personal financial accounts confirm that Cromwellian courtiers dressed according to the fashions of the time. The case of Charles Howard is suggestive. Although a young man (he had barely turned thirty at the time of Oliver's death), Howard was very close to Cromwell, serving as captain of his lifeguard until February 1656, and as a Scottish councillor from 1655. The protector's respect for Howard can be seen in these various appointments, and also in his decision to elevate him to the peerage, as Viscount Howard of Morpeth, in the summer of 1657. In many ways, Howard is the epitome of a Cromwellian courtier, and this makes his choice of clothing significant. Howard's household accounts show that he liked to dress fashionably. In October 1650, for example, he purchased a 'shagged coat' (shag was velvet plush) and a number of waistcoats, and in February 1651 he acquired a 'fur coat' and new boots, with six pairs of drawers 'with facing, ribbon, etc'. In January 1652, nine months after taking command of Cromwell's lifeguard, Howard was sporting a periwig. Howard also ensured that his servants were dressed stylishly, and his accounts for the early 165Os include fancy outfits for a 'footboy', who had been replaced by an equally glamorous 'French boy' by September 1658. Aside from the boys, livery was supplied to other Howard servants, including the grooms, postillion and coachman, who all wore lined suits with scarlet buttons and silk thread.

Another courtier with close personal links to Cromwell was Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill. An Irish peer who had joined Cromwell in 1649, Broghill went on to become president of the Scottish council in 1655, and in 1657 he was a leading figure in the scheme to offer the crown to the protector. Broghill's personal accounts for 1657-58 show that he was also eager to dress fashionably. In the spring of 1658 he acquired 'three vermillon waistcoats' to set off a new suit which had 'ten dozen of gold and silver buttons'; the matching coats had a further six dozen 'large silver and gold buttons'; and the whole ensemble was trimmed with 'rich silver and gold frost work lace' costing £3, as well as 22 yards of ribbon. The colour of the suit and coats is not known, but the use of ribbon and gold and silver lace suggests that these were far from being 'sombre garments'. In July 1658 Broghill had another suit made, this time with four dozen buttons and 30 yards of ribbon, complemented by a 'strait coat' (presumably a fashionable close-bodied coat) with 24 buttons. In the same month he acquired a further 'laced coat' made of silk with 'three rich laces in a seam'. We do not know whether Broghill topped off his extravagant outfits with a periwig, but he was certainly wearing one in 1660, when his earliest surviving portrait was painted.

As with Charles Howard, Lord Broghill found it necessary to provide his servants with gorgeous livery. On April 30th, 1657, for example, an account was drawn up for 'the four liveries which were bought' for the coachman and other servants that attended his private coach. Each of these suits was made of scarlet cloth lined with white, and between them used 42 yards of silver lace, with 'loop lace' for the doublet collars and the sleeves of the coachman's coat. Each coat had forty-two silver buttons and each suit forty-eight 'breast buttons' of different sizes. The knees of the breeches had 12 yards of 'tenpenny broad ribbon for knots' and each man was provided with a hat with a silk hatband. These elaborate costumes may have echoed Broghill's personal style of dress, with its emphasis on gold and silver lace and buttons, and it may not have been a coincidence that red was used for the master's waistcoats as well as for the servants' coats.

The role of servants, and the way in which their clothes reveal something of the tastes - and perhaps the dress - of their masters, provides an interesting sidelight on the fashions of the Cromwellian court. Such splendid outfits can also be seen in Cromwell's own household, especially once the royal palaces were restored to something approaching their former splendour. Livery was issued to the protector's foot guard in the spring of 1654, and it is significant that this coincided with the formal 'remove to Whitehall' of the new protector and his family. The new clothes issued to the guards were described as 'grey coats (with black velvet and lace in every set)' - with the choice of grey, rather than red coats, perhaps suggesting that the guards were not to be regarded as a branch of the army, but as household servants. In fact, their dress had been modelled on the uniform of the former royal guards; as one contemporary recorded, 'the coats for his guard [were] in the old fashion and form'.

Cromwell's personal servants may have been dressed in the height of fashion. Important evidence for this can be seen in the well-known engraving of Oliver Cromwell on horseback by Pierre Lombart, which probably dates from July 1656. Lombart lifted the horse and its rider from Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of Charles I attended by his riding master, M. St Antoine, but replaced the king's head with that from Robert Walker's 1649 portrait of Cromwell. This 'regal' image of Cromwell is well known, but little attention has been paid to the fact that the figure of St Antoine has been replaced by a page, with 'long flowing curls' (which look suspiciously like a wig), a lace cravat, wide cuffs matched by long frills beneath his knees, a short doublet and a great swathe of gathered ribbons filling the gap above the petticoat breeches with their matching bunches of ribbons at the knee. This figure is, in fact, wearing very much the sort of outfit favoured by fashionable young gentlemen of all political persuasions during this period. He may even be the protector's own 'footboy' - a servant decked out in the highest of fashions, like those retained by Charles Howard. Moreover, this was no satirical print. The inscription indicates that it was to be presented to the protector's council, and it is probably one of those 'portraits' of Cromwell approved by the board in the summer of 1656, for which the engraver received a £20 'gratuity'. It clearly did not occur to Cromwell's councillors that this fashionable attendant was in any way 'inappropriate' for a Puritan head of state.

The picture that is emerging, of a protectoral court peopled not only with stylish young courtiers and imposing older statesmen but also with a large number of personal and liveried servants, sits uneasily alongside the popular view of a rough-hewn, puritanical Oliver Cromwell. In the past, historians have routinely endorsed this stereotype, emphasizing that Cromwell's dress was (in Sir Charles Firth's words) 'marked by the same simplicity' as other areas of his personal life. Christopher Hill acknowledged that in the later years Cromwell's dress became more ostentatious, but added that 'presumably this was, or was believed to be, politically necessary'. Antonia Fraser even claimed that Cromwell lacked a visual imagination, and 'remained at heart sublimely and rather endearingly indifferent to what he wore'. More recently, Laura Lunger Knoppers has emphasized Cromwell's 'plain style' and his indifference to fashion, even to the point of passive 'self-effacement and reluctance to shape his own image'. She also agrees with Hill that Cromwell's acceptance of the trappings of power was for political expediency, and that 'the ceremonies recognize an office, not a person. There is a danger of historians finding the Cromwell they want to find, influenced by the few surviving portraits.

The portraits of Cromwell are certainly beguiling but, when it comes to clothing, they are generally unhelpful. The most famous ones include Robert Walkers half-length portrait (1649), which shows Cromwell in parade armour, with a plain collar and shoulder-length hair, and the unfinished miniature by Samuel Cooper (c. 1649-50), in which the clothes are merely sketched. Against these superficially 'puritanical' images can be set another of Walker's portraits, this time a full-length study tentatively dated to 1650. In this case Cromwell dresses unexpectedly, with fashionably wide 'petticoat' breeches and lacy boot-hose cascading onto extravagant buckettopped boots. The armour and buff coat are still there, but the sleeves of the latter are adorned with gold ribbons. This is 'gay attire' rather than 'sombre garments'.

Oddly, very few reliable likenesses of Cromwell survive from the protectorate. Sir Peter Lely's portrait has been dated to 1653-54 - perhaps from the very first months of the new regime - and a further Cooper miniature has been dated to 1655 (on the grounds that such a date 'seems about right'!). The portrait by Edward Mascall, dated 1657, of which Laura Lunger Knoppers makes great claims, is of doubtful provenance, and may not be of Cromwell at all. Generally, there seems to have been a policy of recycling earlier portraits, especially the half-length study by Robert Walker, and the earlier Cooper miniature was copied extensively. This lack of official portraits from the protectorate may in itself be significant. Cromwell's self-effacement in politics has been described (by Blair Worden) as one of his 'arts of power'. He knew when to distance himself from controversial decisions, and when to use his council or his courtiers - as a front. Cromwell's image, like his political persona, may have been deliberately enigmatic.

When it comes to written accounts of Cromwell's appearance, the evidence is also difficult. There are well-attested sources that describe Cromwell as dressing in a plain way, almost pointedly plain in some instances. Just as he wore 'plain black clothes with grey worsted stockings' when evicting the Rump Parliament in April 1653, during his inauguration as Protector the following December he wore 'a black plush suit and cloak'. Cromwell's more informal public appearances were equally subdued. One royalist described him as 'plain in his apparel'; a Quaker commented on his rough coat 'not worth three shillings a yard'; and a Scottish visitor wrote that 'as to his habit and clothes, he ... went plain and sober in his habit, more like a senator than a soldier'.

There is another side to this, however. Other sources suggest that he was capable of dressing more lavishly, as one might expect of the head of a fashionably dressed court. In January 1657, for example, Oliver's cousin, Harry Cromwell, who had angered the senior army officers by his speech in the House of Commons, attended the Protector to explain himself. According to one account, 'his highness answered him in ralliary, and took a rich scarlet cloak from his back, and gloves from his hands, and gave them to Harry, who strutted with his new cloak and gloves in the House this day'. This scarlet cloak was presumably not donned by the Protector merely to impress his cousin, and may indicate what Cromwell normally wore at court.

Other evidence is equally suggestive. In 1657 it was reported that Cromwell 'has introduced the Spanish habit and port' to his court circle; in the spring of 1658, after the death of Lord Rich, we are told that 'His Highness mourned three days in purple (as it used by persons of his quality)'; and in the same year twenty-five bales of silk were sent to the Protector by one Italian merchant. Cromwell's final public 'appearance' - his funeral in November 1658 - perhaps reveals more about Cromwell's garb than was intended. The effigy was suitably draped in robes of purple velvet and ermine, but beneath was not a simple black number but 'a rich suit of uncut velvet' made up of a doublet and breeches Of the Spanish fashion', with lace-trimmed fine linen, silk stockings, black Spanish leather shoes and gold buttons. This was the suit that he had worn to the wedding of his daughter Frances in November 1657.

The significance of the styles adopted by Cromwell in 1657 and 1658 are uncertain, but it is at least possible that the two mentions of Spanish fashions mark a development in dress, perhaps away from the French styles that dominated the protectorate period as a whole. The details may elude us, but there is every reason for believing that, while Cromwell occasionally adopted a sober manner, at court he followed more opulent fashions. Indeed, it would have been most odd especially in the eyes of foreign dignitaries - if he had not dressed splendidly in the state rooms of Whitehall or Hampton Court. Of course, there may be an element of calculation here. Cromwell may have dressed according to his audience, understanding that understatement was often more impressive. In this context, James Welwood's later description of Cromwell dressing to suit the occasion seems to ring true: 'He affected for the most part a plainness in his clothes; but in them, as well as in his guards and attendance, he appeared with magnificence upon publick occasions. It is interesting that the image that stuck in the minds of critics such as Colonel Alured, appalled by what they saw as Cromwell's betrayal of the godly cause, was that of the Protector wearing 'rich clothing ... being embroidered with gold and silver".

The notion that the court of Protector Oliver was not peopled by drab Puritans but by fashionable courtiers, and that Cromwell himself was also dressing modishly, fits well with the new view of the protectoral court which has emerged in recent years. Under Protector Oliver normal service had resumed, and this extended to the fads and fashions of the courtiers as well as to the buildings, ceremonies and trappings of the court. There is no doubt some truth in the notion that such opulence was driven by the dictates of international politics. As Britain became a major player in the world, there was a need to entertain foreign ambassadors, to keep up with the richest courts on the continent. Foreign influences were not the preserve of Charles II's threadbare court in exile.

Interestingly, there is much here that prefigures the Restoration - the period most usually associated with the fashions discussed above - and the continuities of personnel perhaps hint at a cultural hangover. In 1660 Broghill not only donned a wig, he also became Charles II's Earl of Orrery; Charles Howard (with wig already firmly in place) was made Earl of Carlisle soon afterwards; and Edward Montagu, as Earl of Sandwich, is familiar to us from that most Restoration of documents, Pepys" Diary. This need not mean that the Cromwellians were turning their backs on religious reform or godly government during the protectorate, despite what their critics might have said. Nor can Cromwell himself be accused of hypocrisy because of his fashionable lapses. Professor Ribeiro is surely right to argue that dress styles varied little between men of different political and religious views, whether Independent or Presbyterian, Roundhead or Cavalier. This was a world where styles of dress were not inevitably politically or religiously charged; rather they were an unalloyed demonstration of wealth, status and power by an increasingly confident and successful Cromwellian élite.

Patrick Little is Senior Research Fellow at the History of Parliament Trust and the author of Lord Broghill and the Cromwellian Union with Ireland and Scotland (Boydell Press, 2004)

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