Hat service

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This article was written by Tony Barton for the Winter 2010 issue of True Relation.

Rank, and the deference shown to it in the 17th century was a fact. The vestiges of this deference are still with us: we behave hesitantly at funerals, our body language and speech strictly restrained; we automatically behave differently when with relatives, bosses or peers depending on our own status, without even being aware of it.

And the behaviour of the most radical politicians when near members of the Royal Family can often be very funny.

It’s all about body language; to break the rules is startling. Try, when called into an office for an interview, walking straight up to the desk behind which the Boss is sitting, then sit on it casually, looking straight down at him in his chair.

I don’t think you will get the job.


Status is part of our genetic make-up: the child defers to the parent or older sibling; children sort themselves into a pecking order almost instantly; all societies invent an elevated status for Chiefs, Shamans etc., based on supposed spiritual power, virtue, or simply wealth.

Most societies on the planet now, and our own until very recently, also distinguish sharply between men and women. Our opinions on that topic now have nothing to do with trying to understand the situation in 1640s Britain.

That Society was an old one: the habits of behaviour were absorbed in childhood, with no more thought being given to them than the weather: they were a fact of Being.

We have lost that instinct, and when creating impressions of 17th century people we need to make a constant and conscious effort to mimic it.

Deference was based on status (or Rank as they called it), which in turn was entirely based on wealth, age, sex and power.

The disparity in wealth needs emphasising and was at the root of deference. Even a very minor Gentleman, owning and renting out land and with an income of perhaps £80 per annum, employed servants paid perhaps £3 per annum. He also rented to Yeoman farmers earning £10, and cottagers on £2.

These people in turn had dependent families who lived an almost cashless life, living on their own produce. Most Britons were subsistence farmers if in the country or if they were townspeople, they were craftsmen, tradesmen of variable income, apprentices or servants. There were also large numbers of labourers, without land or status of any kind, who moved where the work was, mostly to towns.

To own enough land to live off the rent was everything: it gave gentry status.

There were about 500 families with that status and at the top of the pyramid were the Nobility, perhaps 40 families with the sort of income that beggared belief. The Marquis of Newcastle is supposed to have spent a million pounds supporting the King: he was amongst a mere handful commanding wealth on that scale (in his case derived from owning the Durham coalfield), but you can immediately see that he could employ almost any number of Gentlemen just to carry his cloak.

So the male pecking order was based on wealth, and the actual rank that came with it, gentleman, knight or peer.

The female order depended on the status of the husband, if married, or widowed or the status of her father if unmarried. And a servant’s status was enhanced by that of their employer.

There were a few oddities: the clergy, lawyers and physicians, regarded as learned professions, had a special status of their own: they were from the gentry, but not quite of them.

Rich merchants affected the status and behaviour of gentry, without being quite accepted, though once married into the Gentry they rose rapidly. Their wealth was often greater than that of the gentry, but their power was based in commercial centres like London, controlling the corporations.


Let us try to understand what this means for our behaviour when re-enacting: much of this is already in use among us, but repeating it does no harm.

Deference was displayed by body language such as standing aside, not speaking unless spoken to and hat-service for men, which is the contemporary term for the wearing or removal of headgear. Ladies are entirely spared hat-service.

Most of life was done standing up: do not remain seated in the presence of superiors.


Rules of Deference only apply when not in rank and file under arms. All officers are treated as gentry, even if that status was dubious.

When addressed by an officer, stand still and remove your hat (or if a helmet, raise your knuckle to the brim).

Refer to him as “your honour” or, if a General , “your excellency”. If he moves while still addressing you, follow him a pace behind and to one side, carrying your hat, until he dismisses you.

You refer to your equals by their christian names, or sometimes William Goatstrangler, using his surname as well, especially if you are not that fond of him.

None of the following material about gentry behaviour applies amongst your peers, but know your place.


Behave as described above: stand still and remove your hat, which you only wear when outside anyway, never indoors.

Caps may be worn when working indoors, but not in the presence of the family.

When walking outside with family or master, you wear the hat until addressed. It was usual practice for the older male servants to escort families, particularly the womenfolk, when going abroad. They would wear hat and sword, normally walking in front. If, say, the mistress calls, you stop, uncover and listen to instructions, then get on with them. Reply “Master” or “Mistress”.

If the master meets some gentry equals, the servant removes their hat and retires out of the way.

Refer to other Gentry as “your honour”.

When serving hatless, indoors, if you have no immediate task and attending your employer, you stand quietly out of the way, normally near the door rather than in front of the fireplace.

Servants had their own hierarchy too: the Footman defers to the Butler, who defers to the Steward.


None of the hat-service applies.

Stand silently and modestly indoors when unoccupied (very rare). If addressed, curtsy or bob, and go about your instructed task.

When outside, walk two paces behind the Mistress. Bob when addressed.


All the above in the presence of gentry, but more so. Cringe in silence. Common Soldiers are your Equals, but they are armed.


Refer to your soldiers as “Soldier”, “Sergeant” as appropriate. If addressing a countryman, he is “Goodman”.

Women would be “Goodwife” or “Goodie”, girls “Maid”, boys.. well, “Boy”.

Servants, who were in a real sense members of your family, were referred to by their christian names, and lived in a much more intimate relationship with their employers than they did in Victorian times.

Stewards, your man of business, local yeomen and others of the middling sort and their wives, might be addressed as mister and mistress.

“Sirrah” was used in ironic contempt to inferiors.. (a corruption of the older “Sire”, originally pronounced with two syllables.)


Higher Officers or Noblemen receive deference: remove hat and bow or curtsey, wait to be addressed, reply “your excellency” , “my lord” etc.

(Avoid the usage “sir”. This was used amongst equals such as junior officers, gentry friends etc but not to superiors.)

Noblemen: “my lord”… or if a knight, “Sir Whatever”.

Follow a pace or so behind and to his left side, still uncovered. The superior always keeps the right side, or nearest the wall in a street.

The superior being may, if he is kind, say “Gentlemen, pray cover”, at which point you may replace the hat, but maintain a bodily attitude of deference. If you were feeling particularly humble, clutching a particularly pressing petition, you might still keep the hat off.

NEVER walk in front of him, unless sort of half-backwards to guide him to some item of interest, or open the gate… but ideally there would be a man to do that.

Ladies of Status were treated in just the same way, but with even more courtesy.

All other beings are inferior, though you may behave courteously toward them without uncovering.

Merchants, mayors , local worthies etc might be addressed as “Master”, “Maister”, “Mister”. A slight bow is appropriate. Clergy as “Reverend sir”, “your Reverence”, or even very old-fashionedly as “Sir John” if he was familiar and that was his name.

Women of status “Mistress”, “My Lady” or “Madam”, and you remove your hat out of courtesy, if not necessarily deference. If you doffed your hat to a milkmayd, it might signify lascivious intent, and she should call her big brother at once.


Officers, ladies and gentlemen generally referred to each other by first names if familiar. To your relations, “Sister”, “Cousin” or “Brother” were common, as well as “Husband” and “Wife”.

When meeting near equals, courtesy demanded a nicely judged bow or curtsey, which could be slightly ironic... a ticklish business.

Officers referred to each other when in public by their Rank.


The correct procedure for a Gentleman’s bow:

  • Advance the right leg slightly forward, remove the hat with the right hand, passing it across to the left where it is held to the waist or chest with the inside away from the object;
  • at the same time incline the body and head forward and downward in a bow, slightly bending both knees and sinking a little.
  • Raise the right hand upwards in a gentle gesture and mime kissing it towards the object, then continue to sweep the hand down towards the knee.

Originally the hand was actually kissed, and you can still do this but it was fast degenerating into a flourish. The depth of the bow indicates your real or feigned respect.

Equal old friends might clasp hands or embrace and even kiss each other at that point: the English were much given to kissing their friends and relatives.


The correct procedure for a Lady's curtsey:

  • Turn to face the object, the toes turned out with the heels near together
  • perform a sinking knees bend, the arms turning out and down in a gentle gesture. The head is kept almost upright rather than being bowed.


It was remarked at the time that some middle-aged adults still had to stand mute and hatless like a servant in the presence of their aged parents. It was widely regarded as silly, but obviously persisted.

Which brings us to:


They were expected to stand, mute, in the presence of their parents. Some families were much more relaxed, but in any kind of public place they showed extreme deference.


All are barehead in his presence (except the Yeomen Guards, who are on duty), to the point of leaving their headgear behind. He was addressed first as “your Majesty”, or thereafter “Sire” (Seer: one syllable) and served, normally by noblemen, on bended knee.

The customary deference only broke down once he was imprisoned: he complained of hat-wearing, seated guards smoking in his presence.


These were much remarked upon as being part of the World Turn’d Upside Down.

Hats were worn everywhere, indoors and also in church.

The stronger radical protestants, particularly the middling sort who seized on the breakdown of traditional authority during the war, showed a tendency to remain covered in the presence of their betters, to protest their equality before God and even as a studied insult. This culminated with the Quakers, who famously refused hat-service to anyone.

It was rare and risky.

It frequently got them beaten up. Violence was ever-present and to insult a nobleman was dangerous, since he normally had plenty of men to duff you up on the spot.

At a lower level, to insult your gentry landlord was not wise since he was likely to be the magistrate as well.


Deference broke down somewhat in crowds, people in close proximity doing the British thing of ignoring each other unless forced to communicate.

However, the gentry would expect to have way made for them, which was one of the reasons for having manservants: a nobleman when walking in town would proceed very much like a modern head of state, ringed by security men protecting him with a human screen. When walking alone or in informal company in a crowded street the superior position was next to the wall: “giving them the wall” was to show deference and/or courtesy, particularly to a woman of any status, or the aged.


A word about formal processions such as entries into towns etc.: the place of honour was not at the front, but about two thirds of the way back.

Really important persons, such as royalty, were always preceded by trumpeters, footmen and representatives from the place visited. This created the effect of a crescendo to onlookers.

Small processions of more than about six people should be done in the same way: armed servants preceding, then the Principals followed by their immediate entourage.


Finally, don’t get worried about all this. It’s far more important to behave naturally than stiffly. I can recall occasions, particularly when dining in public, when the guests have appeared frozen in terror just at the prospect of eating with the wrong hand. Just relax.

Better an illbred slob than a stuffed dummy.