1640, John Wilkinson alleges the John Spy of Hastings flouted royal authority over imported hats

John Wilkinson. SP 16/441 f. 41 (1640)

To the right honourable the lordes and others of his majesties most honourable privy councell

The humble peticion of John Wilkinson

Most humbly sheweth

That his majestie, by proclamacion 26 May 1638 hath prohibited the importacion of all hattes and cappes from beyond the seas to be putt to sale in England and Wales upon payne of forfeyture and punishment. As by the same proclamacion at large appeereth

Since which proclamacion, for the accomplishing of his majesties pleasure therein letters pattentes are by his majestie graunted to the petitioner with charge to officers for aid to search in any suspitious place for such hattes and cappes and to seize them to his majesties use. As by the same letteres pattentes under the greate seale dated 28 November 1638 fully also appeereth.

Now may it please your good lordships your petitioner for his majesties use hath lately seized fyve dozen and 3 hattes so prohibited which he found in the howse of one John Spy of Hasteinges in Sussex; but the said Spy would not obey his your majesties aucthority so given unto your petitioner; likewise the officer of whome your petitioner required ayd (being the said Spies neighbour and freind) refused to assist him. So that the said Spy by force tooke the said hattes away, saying they were all fooles to let their goodes goe uppon such termes or aucthority

The petitioner by the said Spy in bribeing way hath since byn offered gould; but he altogether desireth the offence may be punished, it being to the evill example of others in contemning of his majesties prerogative royall, and the disinabling of the petitioners aucthority so given by his majestie

Therefore and for the prevencion of future evill which may be by such refractory persons

The petitioner most humbly prayeth a warrant from this honourable board that the said Spy may appeere to answer the premisses

And your petitioner (as he is bound) shall ever pray for your lordships etc

The petitioner maketh oath that the allegacions in this peticion are true.

Report by Graham Camfield

In his petition John Wilkinson recounted that in 1638 the King had banned hats and caps from abroad and granted him the authority to search for and seize any such apparel. He had recently discovered 63 such hats with a John Spy of Hastings. Spy had refused to give them up. An officer Wilkinson had called on for aid, who was also Spy’s neighbour, had refused to assist him. Subsequently Spy had tried to bribe him. Wilkinson sought Spy’s punishment and a warrant to require him to appear before the Council and answer the charges.

Hats in the 17th Century

In the seventeenth century a head covering, whether hat or cap, was an essential item of clothing for all classes. The form and material quality might differ according to wealth and status, but all would have been made through various processes of felting. Over time the term ‘feltmaker’ became synonymous with hatter. The base material of felting is wool, and the quality of the wool and its processing determine the quality of the finished product. As techniques developed from the 13th century onwards beaver wool or fur was found to have properties which could produce a much superior felt. Initially the technique was developed on the Continent, where the European beaver was hunted to extinction by the end of the 16th century. Thereafter the opening of North America by England and France provided a new source of beaver pelts of varying qualities.

Haberdashers and feltmakers

Among the livery companies of London, the wealthy and influential Haberdashers’ Company sought to control the manufacture of hats and caps and the trades associated with it. An Act of 1566 consolidated their monopoly, prompting the feltmakers to lobby for their own independent company with the authority to regulate their craft and to gather the duty and fines incurred. They were finally successful under James I and in 1604 were granted incorporation.[1] James, like his son and grandsons after him, was a lover of finery. On his accession in 1603 he reportedly purchased twenty beaver hats.[2]

Demi-castors and beaver-makers

By the 1630s the beaver hat had become de rigeur for the upper classes, but quality was being compromised by the introduction of demi-castors,[3] made with low grade beaver and often adulterated with wool. Less expensive and more accessible to ordinary people, many of these hats came from the continent. To protect their trade the beaver-makers now petitioned for their own Company and independence from the haberdashers and feltmakers, who strongly resisted the ensuing loss of control. In June 1637 the King granted the beaver-makers’ petition:

‘to incorporate them and sever them from the feltmakers, and to prohibit all foreign hats and caps, and all mixtures with beaver… and committed the despatch thereof to certain lords, who have called before them the petitioners and the feltmakers, and the only difference that rests unagreed upon is the making the said trades several bodies with distinct governments, which it is our pleasure to have done. You are to prepare a grant of incorporation accordingly’.[4]

For the King there was a sure source of revenue from the duty imposed, ‘12d. payable to his Majesty upon every beaver hat and cap made by the Company of Beaver-makers of London, with a moiety of the benefit of seizures of all foreign beaver hats imported, and of other profits arising to his Majesty upon their charter and contract’.[5] On 26 May 1638 he therefore issued the proclamation, cited by John Wilkinson in his petition of January 1640, banning the import of all hats and caps from abroad.[6]

Wilkinson and the import ban

The same petition records that John Wilkinson was authorised by letters patent granted in November 1638 to search ‘any ship, cellar, or other place for hats, caps, or demi-castors wherein beaver is mixed’,[7] making him a sort of ‘hat finder general’. Wilkinson was a feltmaker. In a succession of petitions and counter petitions through 1639 it is clear that the old rivalries persisted. First the haberdashers on 18 January complained that:

‘It was ordered that if the beaver-makers should find any deceitful or corrupt beaver-hats, the said hats should be seized and carried to Guildhall, London, there to be tried by jury. Yet nevertheless, Roger Gibson and John Wilkinson have in the houses of petitioners seized and carried away hats allowed to be sold by proclamation, and have appropriated the same to their own use, without carrying them to Guildhall to pass their trial. It was ordered that the petition should be sent to the Lord Mayor, and he be required to examine the truth of the complaint, and how both companies have behaved themselves in performance of the proclamation and orders of the Board, and either to end the difference, or certify the Board what he thinks fit to be done.’[8]

To which Wilkinson complained on 23 January that:

‘he had been much opposed by divers persons, some of them officers, who in contemptuous manner broke the seal of his letters patent, and gave notice to the parties whose houses were to be searched’.[9]

The Livery Companies’ dispute

Then on 1 February the beaver-makers intervened with their own bitter complaint:

‘That the haberdashers of London have obtained an order from the Board upon misinformation, whereby Roger Gibson and John Wilkinson are appointed to seize to the King’s use all such hats as are prohibited by proclamation. That the Lord Mayor has referred the said business to a committee of aldermen, the most of them being haberdashers; that the endeavour of the haberdashers is only to maintain demi-castors, which was totally disliked by the Lords, and which are prohibited to be sold by retail … Under colour of the liberty contained in the proclamation that demi-castors should be for transportation only, the haberdashers cause the same to be made in as great abundance as ever they were, and the greater part are made of coney wool, which, if prohibited, would be very beneficial to the subject, it being altogether unprofitable. Pray his Majesty to discharge the late reference to the Lord Mayor, and to refer the same to such as have formerly examined the said business … that the making of demi-castors may be totally prohibited, and that no beaver may be wrought but by the said company, they being enjoined to work nothing else.’

To this was added a note that His Majesty was displeased by the Lord Mayor’s referral to a committee of mainly haberdashers and had passed it to the Attorney General to consider.[10] The dispute between haberdashers and beaver-makers continued on into September 1639. On 7 September the beaver-makers petitioned once more:

‘Your Majesty formerly gave directions to prepare a proclamation prohibiting the mixture of any materials with beaver in the making of hats, and against making of demi-castors, for stay whereof the haberdashers on Sunday last preferred a petition upon fair suggestions for stay thereof. The haberdashers, under pretence of having demi-castors made for foreign vent, have caused the same to be made in more abundance than ever, and have filled the country therewith, although by the proclamation after May last they were not to be worn by any your Majesty’s subjects and not to be sold by retail in six months before. The aim of the haberdashers is to continue mixture with beaver, by which they are the sole gainers, as your petitioners the felt-makers and the most part of the castor-makers have shown in their former petitions, and so to beat petitioners out of their trade and to fill the country with such prohibited hats, the great fairs and marts being now at hand, whereby your Majesty will be at a great loss in your duty payable from petitioners. Pray that a speedy day may be appointed for hearing this business, which will be a great advantage to you and your subjects.’

A hearing was ordered for one week later at which the King would be present in person and the Governor of the Muscovy Company.[11] That hearing duly took place on 15 September:

‘It was ordered in the first place, that the beaver-makers and felt-makers being now distinct corporations shall so remain, the former having the sole making of beaver hats and the latter of felt hats. That they shall not in any sort intrude upon each other’s trade, the right of search and trial being open to them severally as well as to the haberdashers. That there shall not be henceforth any demi-castors or other false hats of beaver or of wool made by any beaver-maker, felt-maker, or other person whatsoever, neither mixture of beaver with any other material for the making of hats … That the haberdashers, beaver-makers, and felt-makers shall employ none in making search but only able men, and such as they will be answerable for. Lastly, it is ordered that special care be taken not only that all hats be good and merchantable, but that they be sold at reasonable prices, and that all such beaver, wool, and other materials for the making of hats as shall be found and seized as forfeited, the one half shall be for his Majesty and the other half for such as shall seize the same. To the end his Majesty’s pleasure herein may be better known the Attorney-General is hereby required to prepare a proclamation for this purpose, with such penalties and forfeitures as he shall think fit for his Majesty’s service herein, requiring all such whom it may concern to observe his Majesty’s command herein.’

To this was added a note: ‘His Majesty has seen this draught, and allows of the contents thereof. Francis Windebank.[12]

Wilkinson and Spy

Meanwhile John Wilkinson continued his search for hats and continued to face resistance. In Hastings he came upon haberdasher John Spy[13] holding sixty-three prohibited hats. One of the Cinque Ports, Hastings had declined as a working port but was still well placed for trafficking goods from the continent. Spy refused to accept Wilkinson’s royal authority and took the hats back by force, aided by a neighbour, an officer whom Wilkinson had called on for assistance. Spy afterwards tried to bribe Wilkinson with gold, but he was adamant, as he wrote in his petition, that Spy should be punished as an ‘evil example of others in contemning the prerogative royal and disabling the petitioner’s authority so given’.[14] On 12 January 1640 a messenger was directed to bring John Spy before the Treasury Board to answer the charges.[15] What the outcome was is not recorded in the published state papers, nor does there appear to be any further mention of John Wilkinson.



[1] Harry Duckworth, The early history of felt hat making in London 1250 to 1604: a research paper, (2013) Worshipful Company of Feltmakers, https://www.feltmakers.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Feltmakers-Research-Paper-Final-version.

[2] ‘Hats: felts, demi-castors, castors and beavers’, Costume Historian, http://costumehistorian.blogspot.com/2015/09/hats-felts-demi-castors-castors-and.html.

[3] Or demi-caster, from the French castor, a beaver.

[4] ‘Charles I – volume 366: August 18-31, 1637’, in John Bruce (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1637 (1868), pp. 377-400. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1637/pp377-400.

[5] ‘Charles I – volume 389: May 1-7, 1638’, in John Bruce (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1637-8 (1869), pp. 392-421. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1637-8/pp392-421.

[6] ‘A Proclamation touching the Corporation of Beaver-makers of London, and to restrain the importing of foreign hats, and the wearing of demi-casters within His Majesty’s dominions’, Thomas Rymer, Foedera, conventions, literae, et cuiuscunque generis acta publica inter reges Angliae, 3rd ed (1744), pp. 152-53. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XFRnAAAAcAAJ&vq=hats&authuser=0&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=hats&f=false.

[7] ‘Charles I – volume 441: January 1-14, 1640’, in William Douglas Hamilton (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1639-40 (1877), pp. 291-335. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1639-40/pp291-335.


[8] ‘Charles I – volume 409: January 1-23, 1639’, in John Bruce and William Douglas Hamilton, Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1638-9 (1871), pp. 286-356. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1638-9/pp286-356.

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Charles I – volume 412: February 1-15, 1639’, in John Bruce and William Douglas Hamilton (eds.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1638-9 (1871), pp. 411-470. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1638-9/pp411-470.

[11] ‘Charles I – volume 428: September 1-20, 1639’, in William Douglas Hamilton (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1639 (1873), pp. 471-513. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1639/pp471-513.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Spy, haberdasher of Hastings, was born about 1604 – Canterbury Marriage Licences, 2nd series, 1619 -1660, col. 929, FindMyPast, https://www.findmypast.co.uk/transcript?id=GBPRS%2FCOA%2FMARRLICENCE%2F00125843%2F1. He is probably related to the John Spy, haberdasher, who appears in several records of Rye Corporation at the East Sussex Record Office.

[14] See transcript above

[15] ‘Charles I – volume 441: January 1-14, 1640’, in William Douglas Hamilton (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1639-40 (1877), pp. 291-335. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1639-40/pp291-335.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.