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The Bristowe hat

A to look at a rare survival from the Tudor era ‒ the Bristowe hat.
SALLY: So Eleri, we’re here in the stores of the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection at Hampton Court Palace. And we’re surrounded by objects, but we’ve got a very significant one in front of us. Could you tell us why this one is so important?
ELERI LYNN: Yeah, absolutely. Well, as you said, we’re in the stores of the historic dress collection, where we have 10,000 items of royal and court dress dating back to Tudor times. But only two of those objects are from the 16th century. And there are lots of reasons for that. One of them is that the intrinsic value of clothing and textiles in the 16th century was such that you would hand clothing down, you would bequeath it in wills, it would just get repurposed and refashioned. So I’m sure that most of the Tudor wardrobe is now threadbare cushions in stately homes, up and down the country, having been reworn and then turned into upholstery. And then fashioned into smaller things.
Also, we know that the Stuarts sold off a significant portion of the Tudor wardrobe, and that Oliver Cromwell did the same for the Commonwealth sale. If it survived all of that, it then had the Great Fire of London to contend with, because the main store of the Royal Wardrobe was right in the heart of the city of London.
SALLY: Lots of things to overcome.
SALLY: Leading on, then, what is the story behind this hat?
ELERI LYNN: Well, so this hat is known as the Bristowe hat. We actually acquired this quite recently from a direct descendant of an important courtier called Nicolas Bristowe. And he had been an important courtier to Henry VIII, to Edward, to Mary, and to Elizabeth I. So during the 16th century–
SALLY: That’s a a long stint.
ELERI LYNN: Absolutely. But he lived for 90 years, which, in the 16th century, is a significant stretch. And he was one of the officials of the Royal Wardrobe. He was Keeper of the Jewels. And he was also Keeper of the Little Wardrobe at the Tower, which meant that he was in charge of prisoner’s clothes at the Tower. And one of the perks for that was that he got first dibs on the clothing of executed prisoners. We have a record that the day before Thomas Cromwell was executed, that Nicolas Bristowe arranged for the transfer of all of his clothes to be delivered here to Hampton Court. And then distributed to top courtiers.
And Nicholas Bristowe was in receipt of a significant number of Thomas Cromwell’s own clothes. We also know that Nicholas Bristowe received gifts directly from the King of clothing– accessories, and so on. Sadly, there isn’t a receipt that says to Nicholas Bristowe from the King, right on–
SALLY: One red hat.
ELERI LYNN: Exactly, one plum coloured hat with green ostrich feather. According to family legend, Nicholas Bristowe was in France at the siege of Boulogne. And when the city fell, Henry threw his hat up in the air, Nicholas caught it, and this is the said hat. And the family kept it all of that time.
SALLY: Lucky catch.
ELERI LYNN: Yes, exactly. So even if it isn’t true, the fact that the family believed it, and that they kept this hat in sort of almost relic-like conditions– they kept it away from the light, they kept it in fantastic conditions, which means that it has survived with this vibrant colour, this fantastic plum-coloured silk and this green ostrich feather. We did get it scientifically dated because it looked so vibrant. Almost you can’t believe that it is that old, but the scientific data came back that, yes, it was the right period. They did have lots of techniques, lots of colours, lots of material– some of them quite bright and bold.
We know that it’s a high status hat because it has a silver braid button just here. And aside from the fact that it’s silk and ostrich feathers, which are elite materials, the fact there’s silver on it also elevates its status. And more than that, there are evenly positioned holes around the side here, which suggests that jewels could have been attached that way. So jewels weren’t attached permanently to clothing or to accessories, it was definitely something that you would mix and match. You would take off the jewels and pearls, and reattach them to something else. So that makes a lot of sense.
SALLY: So it’s definitely high status.
ELERI LYNN: Definitely high status.
SALLY: Definitely fashionable?
ELERI LYNN: I would say so. Looking at the documentary evidence, talking about the fact that the courtiers did indulge in these colourful and wonderful styles. We can pretty much say that it was a court hat. It wouldn’t have been worn outside of court, partly because the materials would have excluded it from most people’s reach. And even if it wasn’t Henry’s hat, the fact that it was an important court hat, and has this direct provenance to Nicholas Bristowe, is enough to make us very excited about it here at Hampton Court, because it’s almost as if it’s come home.
It’s almost certain that this was worn around one of the royal courts, and Hampton Court being such a favourite, it’s nice to think that it’s been here before.
SALLY: Yeah, you really want it to be, don’t you? You absolutely want this to be the hat. And if it was Henry’s, that would be even better.
ELERI LYNN: It would. The one thing I haven’t done yet is measure it– on the inside– in comparison to existing armour, and things like that. Which seems like a bit of a no-brainer. I think that’s the next step.
SALLY: Can I be here when you do that? That would be amazing. I feel like we’ve mentioned the materials quite a lot. We wouldn’t see this kind of style, necessarily, in fabrics today. So how is it– how have they managed to produce this effect?
ELERI LYNN: Yeah, it is unusual, particularly in millinery. So it is a wool felt base, over which they’ve put a bit of a netting, through which then comes this tufted silk. And it’s a technique called thrumming, which was particularly fashionable in the mid-16th century. And almost the effect is like a long, uncut velvet. It looks very plush, very rich. I mean, you do wonder whether or not there may have been another ostrich feather this side, but I’m not sure.
SALLY: And do you feel the ostrich feather is original to the hat?
ELERI LYNN: Yes, I think so.
SALLY: Not an extra add-on?
ELERI LYNN: No, it is original. However, there is evidence to show that here it has, I think, been sort of slightly repositioned. So maybe it fell off, or maybe it’s not quite in the original position completely.
SALLY: It is a fabulous piece.
ELERI LYNN: It is, and such an incredible survival. There’s a whole avenue of research there that is opened up because of the material study of this object.
SALLY: Thank you.
ELERI LYNN: Thank you.

In this video Sally meets Eleri Lynn, the Curator of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Historic Royal Palaces, to look at a rare survival from the Tudor era ‒ the Bristowe hat.

Eleri explores how the hat came in to the Historic Royal Palaces’ collection and shows us the curatorial clues she found to confirm its provenance as a hat from the Tudor court.

We see the hat close up and get to explore how it was made, the materials it was made from and the luxurious decorations that would ensure its wearer in the Tudor court stood out and their status could be seen by everyone.

  • How does this hat differ from the hats worn by Henry VIII in some of the portraits we have seen?
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A History of Royal Fashion

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