This Week in History: Knit a Monmouth Cap
On October 25, 1415: England’s Henry V (1387–1422) defeats the French at the Battle of Agincourt, an epic battle during the Hundred Years’ War between the two countries. Frequent PieceWork contributor Christopher John Brooke Phillips explores the history of the knitted Monmouth cap in his article, “The Monmouth Cap,” in PieceWork’s special issue Knitting Traditions Spring 2012. With the pattern in Christopher’s project that accompanied the article, you can knit “A Monmouth Cap for the Battle of Agincourt”!
Your majesty says very true; if your majesty remembered it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which your majesty knows, to this hour is an honorable badge of service, and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon St. Davy’s day.
So speaks the Welsh Captain Fluellen to King Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7, written in 1599 but centered on the events of October 25, 1415, the Battle of Agincourt. The Monmouth cap is a knitted and fulled wool cap, somewhat like a watch cap, that takes its name from the town of Monmouth, Wales, where the caps were originally manufactured. Henry V would have known the caps well, having been born in Monmouth himself; in fact, he was known as Henry of Monmouth.
The Monmouth cap may have been developed as a liner for steel helmets and chain mail that could be left on for warmth and protection when the armor was removed. Unlike the knight and nobleman, the common foot soldier and archer did not share the luxury of made-to-measure suits but had to make do with whatever ill-fitting chain-mail hood or steel helmet that came to hand. Anything that could make the headgear more comfortable to wear surely would have been appreciated.
The town of Monmouth on the English/Welsh border had a well-established tradition of hatmaking, but it is likely that Monmouth caps also were produced throughout the region wherever wool was plentiful. Wool had been a major product in England since the Roman occupation (A.D. 43–410), when sheep were imported from Spain to feed and clothe their garrisons. When the Black Death (bubonic plague) swept away more than a third of England’s population in the mid-fourteenth century, farmers no longer had the manpower to cultivate crops intensively. Sheep farming became the only viable alternative, requiring less labor but yielding multiple products. . . .
Unlike most patterns and suggested styles for the Monmouth cap, which appear to be reproductions of later examples of the cap or its cousins, this one seeks to emulate the cap worn by Welsh archers at the Battle of Agincourt. It is a thick, warm, fulled wool head covering that could have been worn with or without a chain-mail hood or metal helmet.
To speed production, because caps like these probably were manufactured in quantity as a cottage industry, the pattern is simple, knitted in the round in stockinette stitch except for the single purl round delineating where the brim or welt is folded to make a double layer. (The purl stitch did not come into general use in England until the sixteenth century.) The cap will look huge when it is first knitted, but it will shrink during handfulling.
And there you have it—just another example of knitting’s long and rich history!