Wigs on roundheads: puritans, peruques and powder under Oliver Cromwell

In our latest blog, Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section challenges one of the lingering stereotypes associated with the era of puritan rule…

The fashion for wearing periwigs is commonly thought to have been brought into England by Charles II and his court after their return from the continent in 1660, but there is plenty of evidence to show that the practice was already widespread during the interregnum, despite the popular conception that the roundheads eschewed ‘gay attire’ in favour of ‘sombre garments’ (W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 and all That (1930), 71-2). In fact, the wearing of wigs was part and parcel of an increasing trend for men of means to wear more colourful and elaborate clothing as the 1650s wore on. This has been associated by historians with royalists keen to foster a sense of common identity and to make public their disdain for puritanical rule, but the reality was more complicated than that.

Algernon Percy, 10th earl of Northumberland and one of the leading Independent grandees of the 1640s, was in retirement for much of the 1650s but was far from being a royalist. Yet his household accounts show that he was a dedicated follower of fashion, and this included wigs. He purchased three in 1653, four in 1654, 3 in 1655, eight in 1656. There was a slight dip in 1657, when only two wigs were purchased, but the number soon grew again. In fact the only year in which no such purchases were recorded was that leading up to the Restoration. Northumberland also paid for the refurbishment of his collection, buying hair powder and other necessities for the dressing of wigs. The earl was not at the centre of power at the time, but it is clear that wigs were also being worn by those close to Oliver Cromwell. According to his private accounts for 1652, Charles Howard, captain of Cromwell’s lifeguard (and later MP for Westmorland in 1653 and Cumberland 1654-7, as well as one of the protector’s councillors), was routinely wearing a wig. Dr John Owen, Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain and vice-chancellor of Oxford (and MP for the university in 1654), may not have worn a wig as such – the sources are unclear – but he sported a fancy hair-do, with ‘as much powder… that would discharge eight cannons’ (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, p. xli).

Wigs were certainly acceptable head-ware at the protectoral court. When Oliver Cromwell’s daughter was married to the grandson of the 2nd earl of Warwick in November 1657, the high-jinks included a practical joke by the protector himself, who ‘pulled off [Robert] Rich his peruque, and would have thrown it into the fire, but did not, yet he sat upon it’. (Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. W.C. Abbott (4 vols., Harvard, 1937-47), iv. 662.) The veracity of this story is supported by other evidence of the rich apparel favoured by many Cromwellian courtiers, and by other instances of protector’s boorish sense of humour. Whitehall and Hampton Court were certainly not ‘puritanical’ palaces during the 1650s. The favoured style is suggested by an intriguing engraving by Pierre Lombard of Cromwell on horseback, based on van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I. In this image, probably dating from 1656, Cromwell is wearing armour, but he is attended not by a riding master but by an elaborately dressed foot boy with a long flowing wig.

‘The Headless Horseman’
engraved by Pierre Lombard, c. 1656

The wearing of wigs also appears to have made its way down the social scale very quickly.  Marchamont Nedham, the journalist and propagandist, was satirised for wearing a periwig as early as 1650. When Cromwell’s would-be assassin, Miles Sindercombe, tried to escape from the Tower of London in 1657, he bribed his gaoler to procure an outfit that would allow him to blend in with the crowd. This included ‘a black suit of clothes, a periwig and a short dagger, to pass him the watergate’ (The Whole Business of Sindercombe (1657), pp. 3, 10, 21). The middle classes were clearly embracing the fashion for false hair pieces. It would not be much of a leap of imagination to picture the protectorate House of Commons filled not by dour, soberly dressed puritans but by MPs wearing rich apparel and powdered periwigs!


Further Reading:

Biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Charles Howard and John Owen are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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