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Cap of Maintenance of King Henry VIII

Cap of Maintenance of King Henry VIII on display in the award winning Medieval Museum.

A gift from King Henry VIII to the Mayor of Waterford, the red velvet Cap of Maintenance, embroidered with Tudor roses and marguerites (daisies) is a very rare and remarkable survival. The embroidered roses represented the red rose of England, the symbol of the Tudor monarchy. The daisies or marguerites were the emblem of King Henry VIII’s grandmother, the famous Margaret of Beaufort, whose sheer determination, political and military skill had put Henry’s father, Henry VII, on the throne of England. Henry VII’s claim to the throne came from the fact that his mother, Margaret of Beaufort, was a direct blood descendant of King Edward III who died in 1377. Coincidentally, the earliest surviving portrait of King Edward III is on the Great Charter Roll of Waterford (1372), also on display in the Medieval Museum.

That an item as fragile as the red velvet Cap of Maintenance should survive for over four and a half centuries is remarkable. That an item so intimately connected to one of the most notorious monarchs in European history should survive in Waterford through all the vicissitudes of the wars of religion and conquest is a testimony to the high regard the people of Waterford had throughout the ages for its material culture. It is perhaps no accident of history then that it is in Waterford that you will find Ireland’s only purpose-built medieval museum proudly displaying the great treasures the city has inherited from that remarkable age of chivalry. As gold bullion, that is solid gold thread, was used in the embroidery on the cap we know that it was made for the king himself. It is furthermore the only piece of clothing to survive that belonged to either King Henry VIII himself or, for that matter, any of his predecessors.

The crown of the cap is kept stiff by the use of a material called baleen. Whales use baleen to filter plankton from the sea, on which they survive. Baleen has been used for centuries in ladies’ underclothes such as corsets that allowed ladies create a figure demanded by the fashion of the day while men wore it as collar stiffeners. However, the baleen in Henry VIII’s Cap of Maintenance is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving examples in Europe of the use of baleen in costume.

When King Henry VII invited William Wyse to the royal court, because of his father’s assistance during the Warbeck affair, he befriended the young prince Henry. On becoming king in 1509 as Henry VIII, he appointed William Wyse to many important positions at court including Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. Remarkably the king’s wardrobe accounts survive and show that he gifted William Wyse many fine outfits made of velvet, a very expensive fabric in Tudor times. Some outfits the king gifted him even had silver buttons. There was clearly a very close relationship between the Waterford commoner and the king who remarkably throughout his life cast tradition aside in order to favour men of ability over men of nobility.

After returning to Waterford, William Wyse was elected mayor in 1534. In the same year Silken Thomas - whose mother was a cousin of King Henry VII and his father Gerald Fitzgerald, governor of Ireland - went into rebellion against the king. Silken Thomas believed that Henry VIII, who was now trying to take more control of Ireland, had executed his father and planned to execute him and his uncles, which he did in 1537.

To quash the Silken Thomas rebellion and show his determination to increase his grip on Ireland, the king sent royal troops to the loyal port of Waterford where his childhood friend William Wyse was now mayor. The Silken Thomas rebellion was quashed in 1535. Later that year the city sent William Wyse to the royal court at Greenwich near London as the city’s envoy or ambassador. The city no doubt hoped to extract many privileges and favours from the king through the good offices of William Wyse.

To ensure that the king was aware of Wyse’s presence and both his and the city’s loyalty, the king’s representative in Dublin sent a letter to Cardinal Wolsey’s successor, Thomas Cromwell, urging him to remind the king of the debt owed to the city and to William Wyse, the city’s representative then at court.

Wyse’s presence at the royal court in 1536 coincided with what was a very short period of great joy for King Henry VIII. The tortuous divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his execution of his great friend Thomas Moore were now behind him. In fact his marriage to Anne Boleyn, though not recognised as legal by many in England and Europe including the pope, now seemed more secure. The king’s former wife Catherine died in January 1536 and his new wife Anne was pregnant. With Catherine’s death, Anne and any children she would produce now had a new legitimacy; it was finally working out for the king and the Tudor dynasty, or so it seemed. However Anne who had already borne the king a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, had a miscarriage later in January and the infant was the much-hoped-for boy.

As Henry toyed with disentangling himself from Anne, he concentrated on building up relationships that were coming under severe stress due to his religious reforms. In March, he sent Wyse to Waterford with a bearing sword as a gift to the mayor. On his return to court, Wyse was again sent back by the king to Waterford on 30th April this time with a Cap of Maintenance. The king instructed that it was to be carried before the Mayor of Waterford on ceremonial occasions as symbol of the king’s high esteem for the city.

A Cap of Maintenance was symbolically carried before the king on his way to his coronation and it was said that he who wears a cap of maintenance need doff his cap to no man. There is a beautiful illustration of King Henry VII’s coronation procession with a cap of maintenance being held aloft on a tall pole by one of his court.

There can be little doubt that the cap was made in London by tailors working at the royal court though the velvet was made almost certainly in Lucca in Italy then a centre of the luxury cloth-making industry. The very expensive dye used to create the red colour came from the kermes beetle found only in Egypt. The cost of producing red coloured cloth was enormous and that is why red is usually associated with
royalty.

For centuries, the cap was carried before the mayor, the tradition that only ended in 1920 when Mayor Vincent White, intentionally or otherwise, quoting Oliver Cromwell declared ‘away with these baubles’. Fortunately succeeding generations understood its historic significance and the Cap was relegated to the secure vault in City Hall known as the Muniment Room. Whenever there was a tie in mayoral elections, it was taken out and the names of the two contenders placed in it, the name drawn from the cap was deemed to be mayor.

It was exhibited at a major exhibition in Dublin in the late 19th century along with other items of civic regalia. In 1998 it was conserved and prepared for exhibition at Waterford Treasures at the Granary. A metal plate in the crown was removed having been analysed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and found to date only from the 19th century. When the new Medieval Museum opened in 2012 it was put on display in a specially-constructed circular showcase that allows the visitor view this remarkable object from all angles. The Cap gifted in April 1536 is a link with a time in our city’s history when Waterford was on the crest of a wave and held in high esteem by one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. However this was the calm before the storm for the forces of religious and political reform would unleash, in time, a tidal wave of destruction.

Visit the award winning Medieval Museum to see this fantastic artifact.