Salisbury makes a last ditch attempt to resolve the problems of royal income. While the success of Robert Kerr at court signals the arrival of a new royal favourite
Download Podcast - 332 The Great Contract (Right Click and select Save Link As)
Now everyone I need to start with an apology, which is never a good thing. Last time we heard about the first appearance of the words Digger and Leveller, and I have received quite a lot of social media, online abuse for the section, as is the way of the troubled world of social media, and I was in fear of being cancelled. Well, by a lot I mean two people mentioned in a mild kind of way, but it tapped a nerve for I was already ashamed of myself, I must say. Because I had failed to mention in the discussion, the English folk Rock band The Levellers, who are one of my fave bands of all time, and in fact I even mentioned the title of one of their albums in te weekly word bit – namely, Levelling the Land – and yet did not mention them. I povel with agrology. They are themselves evidence of the power of the name and of the word and of the reputation of Honest John Lilbourne and his radical movement.
Now then. Before we were distracted by the Good Captain Pouch and his lump of green cheese out in the provinces last time, we had been talking about money and all that. Well, it might not surprise you to learn that we are going to be talking once more about the filthy lucre, or the lucre most filthy as David Suchet’s Poirot would probably have it.
After the significant victory over Bate’s Currants and the ability for the king to impose customs impositions, better men than Cecil might have found a laurel, cut himself a frond and sat on said frond for a while, because I’m told this is the best place to rest after a victory. However, Salisbury was not a laurel resting sort of person, and indeed he was mulcho worried-o-mentus, because the surface of the king’s money problems had merely been scratched, most of the iceberg remained under the surface, the stitch might have been in time but really the obligatory nine were still required.
James however was thoroughly cheesed off, and really not terribly keen on having another of those parliament things, turns out the English version was much overrated, minus points on the net promoter score. But Salisbury dragged himself up to his duty, because he knew a longer term solution was required. And so he read to the king the riot act, even though the riot act would not in fact be invented until 1714, but Salisbury was, like Donny’s Joseph, Rowena, a man ahead of his time. Because the king’s debts were now standing at over £1m squid. Ok now by hook and by crook Salisbury would get that down to £300,000 by 1610, but there was an annual deficit even then of £50,000. So riot act then – he wrote a series of tracts to make the king face the fact that he could not be safe unless his he lived within his means. He used the example of the frugal and controlled Henry VII, riffed on the Amicable Grant of 1525 and what a disaster that had been and concluded
It is not possible for a king of England to be rich or safe but by frugality
If this had been my father in front of the king, no doubt he would have roguishly deployed Mr Pickwick to help in his argument
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six , result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery
Sadly, Mr Pickwick was even further in the future than the Riot Act, so shoot me for the anachronisms, I would deserve it. Anyway things were looking bad; Prince Henry was approaching the age when he’d need his own household, being 16 in 1610 and a good looking young man according to his portrait, with what my mother would have described as lovely wavy hair, wistfully if she happened to be looking at her son with his king sized toilet brush. We should talk about young Henry but for the moment James eventually saw the point and realised that the bottomless pit he’d envisaged had, like all of us, a bottom, and he wept that
The glorious sunshine of my entry here should be so overcast with dark clouds of irreparable misery
Which I have to say is a bit melodramatic, but hey.
Salisbury would probably have reflected that Prince Henry was shaping up well, because there would be a big expectation attached to the lad. It’s true that, in common with many teenagers I’d have thought, that Henry was interested in physical stuff more than mental stuff, what with all those flexible muscles and hormones and so on. I remember flexible muscles. But through a glass, darkly. Henry was a big one for discussing battles and armour, he had a passion for matters naval. He was a horse lover, and the French ambassador wrote home that
none of his pleasures savour the least of a child. He is a particular lover of horses … He studies two hours a day, and employs the rest of his time in tossing the pike, or leaping, or shooting with the bow, or throwing the bar, or vaulting.
Still, Henry’s court contained the intellectual also, and of course the religious. Henry was a committed protestant, to the extent of trying to root out recusants by hand, and being very keen to contract a protestant marriage when that time came – and that’s time’s a-coming, that time is a coming. In fact, he told his dad that
two religions should never lie in [my] bed
But, and there’s a big butt and I tell no lie, he was not noticeably frugal. By 1610, it appears Henry Frederick had a household of 500 people, which is more than the eponymous Crocodile.
Salisbury locked himself away with a wet towel over his head to work out how he might crack this problem. In this he might have been joined by his Chancellor of the exchequer, whose name would you believe it, was Julius Caesar. Not a single historian I have read expresses any surprise at this, and I therefore feel childish for mentioning it but you know – Julius Caesar as in the invader of Britain, winner of the cursus honorarium, went down to Brutus United 23 – nil? Anyway I looked it up, and this lucky coincidence appears to have been a result of the famous English refusal to learn anybody else’s language; his dad you see was an Italian Physician to Mary and Elizabeth, Cesare Aldemare, so the English called him, you know, Caesar as you do. His son then went full gens Julia with his first name, and Julius Caesar was set for the national stage. In 1610 he was 52 years old; and although in what follows he would be constantly at Salisbury’s side, it’s not clear they always sang from the same hymn sheet; Julius was rather more inclined to stress the king’s prerogative, and look to evade or ignore parliament.
But Salisbury was cut from a more realistic cloth. He new that parliament must be called, and that a deal with parliament was the answer, and finally he persuaded his reluctant master to recall parliament, which had not yet been dissolved of course since 1605. Salisbury then worked on a plan; and the indications are that it was very much his plan – he seems not to have worked it up with the Privy Council, working only with Julius and his colleagues in the Exchequer, this was his gig, and in so doing he was risking much, putting his personal credibility once more on the line. The plan was this; the King would demand a regular, reasonable and responsible income from parliament, £200,000 a year, and meanwhile in addition a one-off grant of £600,000 to clear his debts. Ask and thou shalt receive. In return – Salisbury was to offer 10 concessions; the ending of some stonkingly unpopular royal, feudal dues. The most significant was Purveyance, the right of the king to impose supply for his household and buy goods at a forced price which often, you will be shocked to learn, were well below the normal asking price. The king would abide by the statute of Limitations which bound his subjects, crown leases of lands with a contractual flaw would not be automatically cancelled. In discussion, Salisbury would also offer to abolish the court of wards – and that was a biggie and make no mistake. So, Salisbury launched the campaign in the Lords, declaring it the Great Contract, while Julius Caesar launched in the Commons.
Edwin Sandys was once more at the forefront of the negotiations between the government and the commons. By this time he was widely respected in the lower house, and he exercised his influence through committees, and helped innovate how these worked. By and large committees worked on refining and drafting bills; and in debate, every member was allowed to speak just once. But there was a newish concept of the Committee of the Whole House – and in this Sandys saw an opportunity; such committees considered the larger issues, and allowed MPs to speak more than once. By becoming chairman of the committee, Sandys effectively became something like the leader of the house.
And he used that status to good effect. Because to James’ immense frustration, rather than just getting on with it and granting him his right and voting the required cash – which everyone surely knew was nothing more than his God-given due – why, didn’t the Commons just start noodling again? Noodling, to be specific, about those blessed Impositions, and noodling also about trashing some claim made in a legal textbook that claimed that a king was above the law; at the same time it transpired that James had dissed the Common law, extolling Civil, or Roman law above it
Now if you ever find yourself hanging about parliament once day, just take a note not to diss the common law, because there will be much shuffling of feet, tutting and rolling of eyes, the worst signs of distress England has to offer. The implication is Civil law, which put the rights of Princes above the law, as the prince was maker of the laws. Well, there was much additional noodling, and James was forced to clarify, although he started badly growling that it was
Sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power
And in debate one Thomas Wentworth argued that if they could not debate the prerogative they might as well
Be sold for slaves.
So James summoned the cussed lot of them and laid down the law that it was
Not lawful to despute what a king may do
You must not set such laws as make the shadows of kings and dukes of Venice …only papists and puritans were of that opinion
Then he went on that ‘if they had a good king they were to thank God’ but if an ill king prayers and tears were their only weapons
If a king be resolute to be a tyrant all you can do will not hinder him. You may pray to God that he may be good and thank God if he be
Well, that went down with some of the commons like a led balloon, and it does sound like the politics of despair. Wentworth continued to make a name for himself by resorting to that traditional hardy perennial of English debate, a comparison with France
The difference between England and France was that by the law of England no imposition can be made without assent of Parliament
Here we have it then – a return to the dislike of the impositions resulting from Bates and his Currants. There’s also a specific point here about freedom of debate; here’s young Thomas again, that it was
An ancient and undoubted right of Parliament to debate freely all matters which do properly concern the subject
Well James tried to head things off, but they were not to be so off headed, and instead to his rage the commons started debating those blessed Impositions again and whether Bate’s case could really be used to justify the other unrelated impositions which had followed. All of this was seriously derailing the serious business of Salisbury’s Great Contract, this deal which would solve the king’s money worries for good an all.
In June, however, a couple of things happened which rather distracted everyone from their gumpiness. The first was to be the investiture of young Prince Henry Frederick as the Prince of Wales, now that he was 16. As you’ll know now, there’s nothing a Cecil likes better than a bit of a procession, and Salisbury, in between arguing and wheedling for his Great Contract spent an age working on the details. And when it came to pushing boats out, we are in Titanic territory; nothing could go ahead until London had stumped up a loan of £100,000 for example. The installation took place in the court of requests at Westminster Palace before both houses of parliament and numerous guests; everyone compared the ceremony to a coronation. Everything was well hung… with arras, everyone lavishly robed and carefully seated. The Prince was rocking an ermine-lined gown costing more than £1300. Symbolic tokens—a sword, ring, verge, and coronet—were bestowed upon Henry; and on and on. Not only that the extraordinary quasi-sacramental parliamentary installation was surrounded by a whole year of court festivities.
Still, the Prince made a good impression;
he was tall and … strong and well proportioned … his eyes quick and pleasant, his forehead broad, his nose big, his chin broad and cloven, his hair inclining to black … his whole face and visage comely and beautiful … with a sweet, smiling, and amiable countenance … full of gravity.
There began from this moment a tradition and sense of hope to grow up about Henry Frederick, and how he might turn out. Not only was he apparently a fine, well knit fellow, he was a resolute and determined Protestant which could only bring him support from the country. He was also developing a strong intellectual and artistic side too; his mother probably inspired him to patronise the arts. So he commissioned engineers and designers to plan major renovations at Richmond Palace, he launched Inigo Jones’s career, you know the builder, and avidly collected paintings from northern Italian and Netherlandish artists. It felt like here could be a young man that really brought renaissance and religious traditions together in the person of the king.
I said two events; because just before the investiture, one of France’s finest monarchs, got stuck in traffic. A catholic religious fanatic François Ravaillac, saw his opportunity and stabbed and killed Henry IV for being insufficiently catholic.
This was an event which shocked Europe, including England. Suddenly the investiture of Prince Henry acquired a new significance – at least here, there was a healthy king, with a fine upstanding heir, and a perfectly serviceable spare in the form of Prince Charles. So when parliament reconvened, Salisbury knew just what to do – and he struck like a snake to use the brief, warm feeling of love for the monarch and relief for his fecundity to get a subsidy out of the parliament. It was not the £600,000 for which the Great Contract had demanded – it was but 1/6th of a loaf, just over £100,000, but given how rubbishly negotiations were going, it was at least some bread round which the king could get his chops.
But the argument about impositions rumbled on and continued to distract from the Great Contract, and despite Salisbury’s doughty defence, the Commons remained very unenthusiastic. In fact the Commons were so unenthusiastic about both taxation and impositions, that the vast majority of them did not bother to come back from their countries to sit in parliament – and the likelihood is that many of them had received burning ears from their constituents about what was going on, or at least those with whom they consulted. So – of 497 MPs, and mere 100 came back, not wanting to be associated with any royal handouts. Presumably those that did come back were the more radical and the result was that eventually a bill was unanimously passed through the commons. It declared that
‘by the laws of England no impositions could be lawfully laid by the king upon the subjects’ goods but by consent in parliament’
Well by now if Weldon’s bit of poison pen about the slobbering and codpieces things had been true, then James would have been dribbling and fiddling with fury at an Olympic level. He called a group of them in, on 16 November. Sandys was one of the 30 Members so called, to put them straight on a few matters, and the discussion eventually turned to impositions,
‘concerning which Sir Edwin spake to the king in justification of the proceeding of the Lower House in the business’.
Well James had had it with parliament, up to his eyes with the cussed lot and complained to his secretary that his dignity and sovereignty had been so ‘tossed questioned and censured and ‘himself so disgraced as seldome has been offered to any monarch’ that he could only conclude that the commons were determined to ‘lay the foundations of a popular state’. Now that would be a thing. Toys left prams – even if the Commons now folded completely, declared James, the insults visited on him by the proles were
Scandalous reproachful and intolerable …very neere to the point of treason
And so he wouldn’t touch any of their poxy money anyway. He prorogued parliament on 6th December, but it never met again and he dissolved it in disgust in February 1611. Because he did so, he of course did not give assent to the impositions Bill the lower house had passed, and so it never became an Act, and was lost, and the royal prerogative had once more been used to frustrate parliamentary intentions.
Now this story can give a slightly faulty impression, of a political system in complete stasis, and we need to leaven that bread a little – a very large number of public and private members acts were passed, from minor private acts like the naturalisation of a couple of folk, to acts to drain fenlands in Cambridgeshire, acts regulating trade and so on. We of course focus very much on the big things. But none the less, James was little consoled by the Seashore acts for Devon and Cornwall, and instead his disillusionment with parliament was pretty complete. The Commons had
Periled and annoyed our health, wounded our reputation, emboldened all ill natured people, encroached on many of our privileges and plagued our purse with delays
Salisbury was exhausted by the whole experience. It wasn’t that he’d stood alone against the onslaught, there were plenty who agreed that the king held the powers he claimed; Francis Bacon spoke strongly also in his favour. But the Great Contract had been Salisbury’s plan, Salisbury’s enterprise; and the failure of the Great Contract was to a large degree laid at his door by his boss, and he told Salisbury that
There is no more trust to be laid upon this rotten reed of Egypt, for your greatest error hath been that ye ever expected to draw honey out of gall, being a little blinded with the self-love of your own counsel in holding together of this parliament, whereof all men were despaired (as I have oft told you) but yourself alone.
However, James didn’t really have anywhere else to go just yet; Salisbury despite this setback was a class act. After a short period where James started to communicate directly with the Privy Council, by February James was speaking always through Salisbury once more, and had confirmed his lucrative silk farm concession which earned Salisbury £7000 a year, so not to be sniffed at.
Salisbury remained convinced that if the king wanted to solve his money problems he must deal with parliament
Seeing that place hath ever been the only foundation of supply to princes whose necessities have been beyond the cares and endeavours of private men
But he was facing an increasingly tough audience; James was moving towards a position where it would be a cold day in hell before he allowed parliament to meet again, and there surely must be ways to raise money without them. In this, Salisbury’s side kick Julius Caesar agreed, at least in intention – just to re-inforce the point that James was by no means alone in his view about royal prerogative and his right to rule without the interference of parliament, and certainly his House of Lords was largely with him. So impositions on trade continued, but more was needed, and the idea that was hit upon was the Baronet. Now what, I hear you ask, exactly was a baronet? Well, it was not an entirely new title – Edward III had created a few apparently, but it was certainly a backwater, and James & Salisbury revived it specifically to bring in some cash to the family coffers. A baronet was not a peer of the realm – you didn’t get to sit in the house of Lords or any such; in fact you were titled Sir and Dame just like a knight but in order of precedence and in your general pomposity rating, you outranked a knight. And, the title of baronet could be yours for the knock down price of £1,095, just sign here sir if you wouldn’t mind.
Well, it was a popular idea, and sales were brisk, the till of state was busily dinging away; James had promised this would be a limited issue offer so they would not become as common as muck, which initially helped; until people saw he was fibbing, and the price fell, down as low as £220 a pop. Still, by 1614 the great jumble sale of state had generated £90,000 which isn’t bad. Interestingly, the money raised was linked quite explicitly to the maintenance of an army in Ireland – a subject to which we must quickly return, incidentally, for one of the most momentous events in British history. And it was very often catholic recusant families who came forward – about a quarter of the initial 88 baronetcies created. This had two impacts really; one was that it was a sort of under the counter act of toleration; by the transaction, recusant families were stating their faith in the monarchy; by accepting them, James was acknowledging that the Gunpowder plotters had been fanatics, not representative of the views of the majority of catholics, who were loyal. However, given where the money was going, the action also linked these catholic families explicitly with the Protestant settlement project in Ireland.
Ok, this was a wizard wheeze, and helped royal finances – but did categorically not solve the problem. And James quickly started running up the bill once more – by 1613, the accounts showed an annual deficit of £160,000, and the crown debt was at £500,000. Salisbury didn’t care a fig I have to say, for reasons I’ll come to.
Now everyone talks about James and his favourites, so I can see that you are probably feeling a little let down; I mean – where are all these blessed young men with a fine turned ankle and tight, well filled hose? After all we can’t really count Salisbury as a favourite, he’s too functional. Well, one had in fact entered the garden of court. His name was Robert Kerr.
Kerr has generally been seen as some obscure and rather lowly Scot made good, and certainly that was one of the accusations made against him in the frequently febrile atmosphere at court, where the English feared the Blue Bonnets were depriving them of their birthright and access to royal ear and patronage, and driving public finances into the ground, while the Scots meanwhile feared their king would become an Englishman. This continuing rivalry led to waves of anti-Scottish xenophobia at court and parliament. None the less, Scots continued in the strength of their influence and Robert Kerr was part of that – and he was in fact, not particularly, nor his family politically obscure. In fact his Mum, Janet, and Dad Thomas, had a rollicking political career. They were of the Lairdly class, Lairds of Ferniehurst in the Borders, and were pretty well heeled. Lairds, by the way are not strictly the equivalent of the English Gentry, although they are often spoken of in this way, being below the top rank of the peerage in Scotland. But unlike Gentry they were in fact fully noble,, holding their land from the king directly. So not quite the same. Anyway, Kerr seniors had been fierce supporters of Mary QoS, and in and out of trouble with the Protestant Scots, forced at one point to flee to France for a few years. Thomas was something of a prime example of the problems of managing the borders before James became king of England – close to the end of his life, as warden of the Middle March, he got into a brawl with his English counterparts, Lord Russell was killed and Thomas spent some time behind bars, to die in 1586.
However, being a fan of James’ mother was also a recommendation for him; and Robert when only an infant was taken into James household in Scotland; in 1608 James was heard to say that he ‘had brought him up as a child’, so there was a strong connection. Kerr fell further on his feet when he became page to James’s head of the Scottish Privy Council, the Earl of Dunbar, and in 1604 travelled with James to England and was immediately appointed to the king’s bedchamber. Where he sort of noodled in the background for a while, until at the age of 22 he had the good luck to fall from his horse and break his leg, the lucky thing. Good luck because James took a personal interest in nursing back to health, and clearly fell for him. Whether or not the relationship was physically homosexual it is as normal difficult to tell, but from James’ point of view his feelings were clearly passionate and intense towards young Robert. It’s harder to know Kerr’s feelings, but his position entirely relied on James’ emotions towards him which sounds like something of a nightmare, the burden of the favourite – relying on powerful emotions subject to whim. Desire, deflection, envy. I mean – scary. Kerr attracted attention – described as ‘straight-limbed, well favoured, strong shouldered, and smooth faced’; it was noted how James openly expressed his affection – leaning on his arm, pinching his cheek, smoothing his clothing and gazing at him while talking to others. Clearly smitten.
So, for the moment goodies flowed; Kerr was therefore quickly knighted, and grants followed, Walter Ralegh’s confiscated place at Sherborne, Rochester castle; but most important of all – the king’s ear and constant attention, and that was a prize without price; giving him the status of a patronage broker, a door to whom the ambitious must beat a path.
Well as insurance policy and because it’s what you do at court, from 1610 Kerr started to get involved in politics, and developed his networks with the powerful – the Earl of Dunbar, Northampton, Southampton and Suffolk; and ambitious courtiers and politicians – Robert Killigrew, Ralph Winwood and Henry Neville. In 1611 he was created Viscount Rochester by James, and in April 1612 he was appointed to the Privy Council; he had officially arrived in a political sense, as well as a patronage broker.
Now Kerr’s promotion was down to the king. But his strategy and involvement owed a lot to his friend, Thomas Overbury. Thomas Overbury was a Gloucestershire lad, who’d met Kerr when he went to Edinburgh on holiday just before Elizabeth’s death. They became great friends, and Overbury travelled south with his mate; his friendship with Kerr gave him an entre into smart society; he was knighted in 1608, and was part of the literary circle at court – Cecily Bulstrode, one of Queen Anne’s household held a sort of witty news game to which anyone literary was invited – the likes of John Donne for example, who I understand was some sort of poet. The key to Overbury’s success was that he became Kerr’s mentor. What does that mean I hear you say? Well, Francis Bacon would describe him as the ‘Oracle of direction’ which presumably means court tactics and alliances – who was worth knowing and cultivating, who was not. He sat by and helped draft letters to politicians and Ambassadors for Kerr; ‘all that Kerr speaks and writes’ claimed Overbury later ‘is mine’.
There was a particular group with whom Overbury brokered relationships; the earls of Southampton and Pembroke, Henry Neville and Ralph Winwood, a group who themselves had forged a relationship with the people they called the ‘Parliament mutineers’ – the likes of Sandys and Wentworth. It’s a little difficult to discern Kerr’s policy and political objective, he’s a bit of a chameleon, but this group aimed to push the king into an activist, Protestant foreign policy, which caused one wag to term them the Patriots. And in 1612, something happened which they thought gave them a chance to get a grip on the tiller of state.
The event was a death, though for the purposes of story telling I might tell you about two other deaths first of all. The first was James’ general in Scotland the Earl of Dunbar which for a while left a political vacuum there. The second was a death which shocked English and Scottish society. During the summer of 1612, the prince Henry had been much occupied with the possible marriage of his sister, Elizabeth to his proposed match – the staunchly and impeccably protestant Elector of the Palatine, Frederick. He was fine, working away, delighted at the prospect. Then in October he fell ill with a fever, now suspected to be typhoid. And by November – he was dead.
Well, the death of Henry was obviously a personal disaster. Anne was devastated – 4 years later when Charles was invested as prince of Wales she refused to go because she was worried she’d be overwhelmed by grief at the memory of Henry’s investiture. For the English public, who had been in a pother at the idea that Henry might marry a Catholic, there was quite an extravagant outpouring of grief – not entirely complimentary towards James of whom opinion was beginning to turn. And for historians it’s been seen as something of a disaster, the idea that Henry might have ushered in a new period of English Cultural renaissance.
But there were a couple of benefits, just to be cold hearted. Henry had shown every sign of being just as extravagant as Dad; suddenly there was a household of 500 and its associated costs which could be wiped from the P&L. The other benefit was to the Kerr and Overbury faction; because Henry had showed every sign of hating them. That was partly because of James’ affection for Kerr, which Henry had resented; but also because his Mum absolutely hated Overbury and well as Kerr. The cause was probably again competition for influence with James, but worse, Anne accused both Kerr and Overbury of having laughed at her derisively, in her face, in the royal gardens. Anne was of course livid at such an insult – I mean you can do that in the middle of an argument about Brexit in the local, and just cover it with another pint or three, but you can’t do that to the Queen of England, or indeed the Hounds of Hell if Jack is listening. Overbury had been forced from court for 5 months in 1611 as a result. Now Anne hated them every bit as much, but she was losing influence with her husband – and now Henry, the future, was gone.
The other event was also the reason why Salisbury would not give a tinker’s curse that the king’s debt had risen to £500,000; because Salisbury was no longer there to worry. In 1611 he’d been diagnosed with two tumors; of course, he’d kept working away like a madman, but his health deteriorated, and by February 1612 government business ground to a halt along with Salisbury. In April 1612 he left for Bath hoping for a cure; he’d been to the waters before and found relief. But this time it was not to be, although he immersed himself in the waters and commiserated with his old friend and fellow invalid Sir John Harington, and his son William Cecil hastened to his side. But He failed to complete the return journey – and died on the way at Marlborough, Wiltshire, on 24 May 1612.
Obviously very sad, the libellers had a field day as you have previously heard. But as far as the Overbury, Kerr faction was concerned – this was the opportunity they’d been looking for. Salisbury had been in possession of not one, but three great offices of state. If they could get Ralph Winwood and Henry Neville into those posts, well they’d be rocking. We’ll hear more about that next time.
Before we go, just another quick word conversation. As you will have heard, the English referred derisively to their Scottish competitors for the royal purse as Blue Bonnets – not, as you might or might not expect, as the tartan army. Because it was the blue bonnet that was the distinctive item of Scottish clothing at the time, tartan’s popularity was to come later. It’s popularity seems to have originated in the lowlands of Scotland, but also northern England, and from a combo of the practical and fashionable. At the time in the 15th century the woollen industry was doing well, but the posh were wearing velvet, a pricey and delicate sort of material. A thickly woven blue bonnet looked something like the velvet cap – but its flat shape was perfect for keeping the northern weather off, which I guess Velvet isn’t, really. So it became popular with farmers and labourers, and would then spread to the highlands to boot. It has to be said there was some resistance to it too, amongst the mighty, as one complained in 1620
Purge your country…from that vnciwill kynd of cloithes, such as plaids, mantels, truses, and blew bonnets
When the Covenanters kicked off the Scottish Revolution in the late 1630’s, the Blue Bonnet became famous and front of stage; it was a sign of popular solidarity, this popular and commonly worn hat, and a white cockade was attached to the front, in opposition to the royalist red, and became an object of pride and commitment. The blue Bonnet lasted well through the 15 and 45 Jacobite rebellions, into the 19th century before it began to fade. Blue Bonnet also came to stand for other things – so a Bonnet Laird was a lowly sort of laird, a yeoman farmer essentially. Equally, a Blue Bonnet might be a border raider or soldier, as in the 1637 quote
His blacke Iackes hand in hand about his Court Shall march with our blew bonnets
It came to be used at the Jacobean court as we have heard, and outside, as a general name for a Scot – and I learn that a Blue Bonnet used also to be a name for a blue tit.