It started with a Tweet. Something cropped up on Twitter that led me a merry dance through the sub-species of medieval headgear. By the end, I felt I knew how many angels’ bonnets could fit on the head of a pin.
Five years ago, my very first post was on ‘Norfolk’s Stained Glass Angels’. In it I showed one of this county’s most beautiful glass paintings of an angel in a feather suit completed by a feather hat .
When I want to know about a Norfolk church my first port of call is Simon Knott’s site for the descriptions of the astonishing 912 churches he has visited in Norfolk . In May, Simon posted a Tweet on this C15 angel from Feering in Essex.
The feather hat I’d seen in East Barsham and other Norfolk churches was virtually identical to one that Simon had seen in Essex so I asked him via Twitter if feather bonnets were East Anglian, rather than an exclusively Norfolk thing.
In my first blog post , I found that it was possible to overlay the East Barsham head on top of other Norfolk C15 painted-glass angels. The exactness of the match suggested they were copied from the same template, meaning they were from the same workshop. One stylistic tic uniting glass from various Norfolk churches with the figures drawn in the great east window of Norwich’s St Peter Mancroft (the benchmark for Norfolk painted glass) was the double flap covering the entrance to the ear. I hope regular readers will forgive me banging on but this lug flap is known as the tragus. A double tragus is a developmental rarity, yet both the ‘Essex’ and the Norfolk angels share this distinguishing feature. Simon Knott pointed out that the glass in All Saints, Feering, Essex was a loose collection of English and Continental 15th to 18th century pieces brought together by Father Bundock, who died in 1989 . So, the ‘Essex’ angel may well have been recycled from a Norfolk church and was almost certainly painted in Norwich.
David King, the authority on Norwich School glass, detected the ‘hand’ of at least three artists responsible for painting the east window of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich . The glass was made in the mid C15 in the Norwich workshop of Alderman John Wighton, who was succeeded by John Moundford of Utrecht (assisted by his wife), followed in turn by Moundford’s son John.
But I digress. What I was really interested in here was the Feering angel’s feather bonnet. Sally Badham, former President of the Church Monuments Society, suggested via Twitter (@SallyBadham), that the headgear was an orle of the kind she had seen on glass and monuments in Yorkshire. I had to look this up. One definition of an orle is a border set in from the edge of a shield, giving a clue to the heraldic origin of the name.
However, there is an alternative definition of orle that gets us closer to the angel’s bonnet. Wiktionary gives it as: ‘the wreath, or chaplet, surmounting or encircling the helmet of a knight and bearing the crest; a torse’. ‘Torse‘ is an obsolete French word for wreath and appears to be synonymous with ‘orle‘.
In heraldic terms, the torse – introduced in the late C14 – is described as the cloth circlet intended to hide the join between the ornate tournament crest and the helmet . The colours in the coil were the same as the wearer’s livery colours except, it seems, when the knight wore a lady’s favour. Such a makeshift torse could be a handkerchief, a ribbon or even the lady’s sleeve, twisted into a rope and worn around the helmet.
This twisted rope – the torse or orle – also applied to something that the knight originally wore in combat. For comfort, he would have worn a padded, circular orle beneath the heavy helm to lift it away from the head and eyes. With the development of lined, padded helmets the orle became redundant but was retained for decorative purposes. Below, on the effigy of Sir Richard Vernon, a highly decorative orle is worn outside the helmet . The sculptor has carefully depicted the roll of fabric studded with beads or even jewels and pearls. So, by this stage, not a utilitarian thing.
Below, the two celestial beings appear to be wearing stuffed orles around their heads, in which case the material billowing out of the hollow doughnut could be a caul or crespine – a bag-like net of gold, silver or silk thread.
Another item – the chaperon – plays a key part in the development of medieval headgear. This gets quite technical but, basically, the chaperon seems to have evolved out of Marty Feldman’s hood from the film, Young Frankenstein.
By wearing the face-opening of the caped hood around the top of the head – not the face – and tying it up with the long tail, the cape evolved into a hat that was worn throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.
The chaperon became ‘the most commonly worn piece of male headgear in Early Netherlandish painting’ . And it is this form, with the long hood tied up on top, away from messy paint, that is being modelled in this probable self-portrait by Jan van Eyck (d. 1441). Sometimes titled, ‘Man in a Red Turban’ it should really be called ‘Man in a Red Chaperon (tied up with its Cornette or Liripipe)’.
Van Eyck was one of the first (Vasari said the first) artists to paint with oil, using thin translucent oil glazes to build up luminous flesh. In this, the painters of the Northern Renaissance were ahead of the Italians. Based in Bruges, the Italian Giovanni Arnolfini spent most of his life in Flanders; van Eyck painted his portrait wearing another complicated headpiece of red woollen fabric, this time the flaps are down and the loosely-twisted roll is clearly visible.
The earliest of van Eyck’s portraits to survive shows a man in the same three-quarter profile pose. Here, the chaperon appears to have developed into a more formal version, pulled over the head like a mob cap or Scotch bonnet, instead of something wound around the crown.
These examples of men’s headwear suggest how fashions from heraldic dress worked themselves into everyday life. They also transferred to female fashion: a C14 chronicler (quoted in ) described how ladies riding to a tournament would affect a masculine appearance by wearing short hoods that were wrapped about their heads by the liripipe.
Again on Twitter, Sally Badham suggested that the angel’s headpiece could also be based on the bourrelet. Like chaperons, bourrelets appear to have originated by rolling up a hood around the head but by the mid-C15 they had developed into a more formal, doughnut-shaped padded roll . Now, however, the doughnut-shaped bourrelet had undergone a further transformation into a ring of fabric folded around a framework, possibly made of wire .
Planché  suggests that the turban-like headgear worn by European men and women in the mid C15 evolved out of the chaperon – the hooded cape, twisted into fanciful shapes. On the other hand, both the stuffed or hollow bourrelet and the twisted torse have been likened to the turban that crusaders had seen in the Middle East. Separate influences or convergent evolution?
The bride in the Marriage Feast at Cana, from SS Peter & Paul East Harling, was said by Norwich-glass expert Christopher Woodforde to be wearing a good example of a ‘turban head-dress decorated with a large jewelled ornament’ .
Clues to the kind of headwear fashionable in mid-to-late C15 Norfolk can also be found in this county’s outstanding painted rood-screens. For instance, St Cecilia is illustrated (below) wearing a wreath of lilies to symbolise her virginity (the purity of which has been sullied by political emblems: the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York – two houses united by Henry Tudor in 1485). The copy of the floral wreath she holds in her hand reveals it to be made of two twisted strands. This perhaps tells us more about wreath-making than contemporary fashion but I’ll show this fine portrait of sorrowful Cissy anyway, since it is so different from the usual stereotypes.
The remarkable series of screen paintings in St Michael and All Angels at Barton Turf, painted in the late C15 , illustrates three Saints and nine Orders of Angels. This figure is a protective Principality from the Third Order of Angels. Ignoring the gold crown, this appears to be a twisted bourrelet or turban encircling a conical cap.
Again from Barton Turf, Archangel Michael in late C15 armour (below) wears a hat that encircles the head. This floral headwear, seen against the background of the halo, could be a hollow bourrelet studded with foliage.
The Cherubim below, from the Second Order of the First Sphere of Angels, wears a crown encircled by a red, doughnut-shaped wreath – the dabs of white suggestive of feathers.
The leader of the Powers, Archangel Raphael, is seen below thrashing the devil. His headgear is comprised of a helmet encircled with overlapping feathers decorated with a central badge.
Similar feather hats are depicted on painted glass.
An angel in the tracery of the east window at SS Peter & Paul, East Harling also wears a feather bonnet. If made at the same time as the superb main panels then this glass was painted around 1480 by John Wighton’s successors in his Norwich workshop. Angels were often depicted wearing feather onesies that ended neatly at neck, cuff and ankles, reflecting the outfits worn by actors in medieval mystery plays . In this case, the angel’s feather hat could simply be the natural accompaniment to these outfits. However, there is evidence that by the late fifteenth- early sixteenth century, caps and bonnets were also in great vogue in secular life, ‘ornamented with a profusion of feathers‘.
After posting this article, photographer Paul Harley (whose site contains superb images of Norfolk angels https://paulharley.wordpress.com/category/angels/ ) sent me this photograph of a harp-playing angel from Weston Longville.
It is a beautiful painting. Not only does the angel wear a very similar bonnet to the one worn by the East Barsham angel, but the overall pose is identical – the angels sharing many details, including that double tragus in the ear.
Paul also sent images of two ‘Powers’ from the Order of Angels, set in the tracery of the east window at Salle. Note the decorative orles worn around their helmets.
©2020 Reggie Unthank
Thanks: I am grateful to fellow Tweeps: Simon Knott (@last_of_england) and Sally Badham (@SallyBadham), for their readiness to help and for starting me out on this trail, and to Sue Roe (@SueRoeGardener) for the mugshots. Thanks, too, to Paul Harley for sending photos from his collection of Norfolk Angels.
- King, D. J. (2006) The Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, CVMA (GB), V, Oxford.
- Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. A project Gutenberg e-book (2012). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41617/41617-h/41617-h.htm#page402
- Paul F Walker (2013). The History of Armour 1100-1700. Pub: The Crowood Press Ltd.
- James Robinson Planché (1876). An Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Costume: from the First century BC to c1760. Reprinted by Dover Publications Inc in 2003.
- Christopher Woodforde (1950). The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century. Pub: Oxford University Press.
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk I: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.