Hats have many uses. Apart from being a means of keeping one’s head warm, and sometimes fashionable, they can be used to indicate status and deference; as a result they can be used to signal respect and roles. In the seventeenth century, the wearing of hats helped to signal the respect (or the limits to it) that Members of the Commons felt towards their social superiors in the House of Lords or individual Members of it. The earl of Kent was reported to have borne resentment towards Sir Edward Harley in 1693 because he did not remove his hat when he met him.
The Commons devoted considerable attention to the question of whether and when their Members should stand, bareheaded, when meeting members of the Lords at the cramped and inconvenient conferences which were required to resolve differences between the two Houses (for an example, see 14 March 1607 ). The Journal recorded precisely when a peer came to respond to questions in the House of Lords when the peer was ‘covered’ and when ‘uncovered’ (see Lord Torrington’s appearance in 1690, for example). When the Commons wished to interview one peer in 1667 whom they wanted to impeach, the Lords resisted the idea that he should face them without wearing a hat (see 31 January 1667). When an embassy from France attended the House of Commons in 1659, there was much removing and replacing of hats, all recorded carefully by the Clerk in the Journal (22 August 1659). The Quaker, James Naylor, when being examined by the House about allegations of blasphemy in 1656 insisted on wearing his hat: the House insisted on its removal (see 6 Dec. 1656).
In the Commons the only occasion on which MPs were actually required to be ‘uncovered’ was when a message was brought from the Crown. In 1690, at the reading of the King’s Speech Henry Poley refused to remove his hat. ‘We were all uncovered’, one MP reported, ‘except three, viz. Sir Edward Seymour, Mr Paul Foley, and little Poley the lawyer, which everybody minded, though nobody took any public notice of it, since it seems we may by the rules of the House be covered, except in case of a message signed by the King. However, it was thought a peevish disrespect in the three “Hattons”.’ A few years later Sir William Brownlow apparently contradicted the rule when. during the reading of a message from the King, ‘all the House except the King of Bantam (Sir William Brownlow), sat uncovered, but he gave his brother audience with his hat on’. It’s not very clear what is meant by the nickname, or the latter comment, although his brother, Sir John, had also been a Member of the House until his suicide in 1697. During a row in a committee of the whole House in 1675, Speaker Sir Edward Seymour reasserted order by taking the Chair, displacing the Chairman of the Committee, and making everyone in the House stand without hats to show their submission to his authority.
How and exactly when hats became used within the House of Commons (until very recently) for making points of order during a division is obscure, though presumably it had something to do with the fact that it was the opposite to what they would do when speaking in the House (i.e., speak standing and uncovered). Women in fact were exempted from wearing a hat during a division (see a 1984 example in which Harold Walker pointed this out to Clare Short).
Hats could also be raised to indicate assent, or perhaps even to move a motion formally, as is suggested by the example of Lord Elcho in 1887 and Parnell’s speech on the closure in February 1881. The Irish party in the 1880s seem to have been particularly prone to using their hats to acknowledge a point, or to appear to withdraw a statement without actually doing so (for example Charles Parnell on 30 May 1881; Dr Tanner on 4 May 1887, or Timothy Healy on 28 July 1887).
There were less formal uses of hats too. Sir George Oxenden, when he moved the Address on 21 Jan. 1729, would have made more mistakes were it not for the fact that his neighbour ‘had his speech wrote out in his hat, and sat next him and prompted him’. William Gore‘s efforts in 1714 to do the same required a similar prop:
As soon as the Speaker had returned to the House with the Queen’s Speech and had read it to the House, Mr Gore rise up [sic] with a paper in his hat which he did not read well, to make the motion of thanks, and repeated the Queen’s Speech word for word, so that Sir Joseph Jekyll observed upon him that the spirit of prophecy was not ceased, for there was a gentleman that know [sic] the Queen’s Speech before she spoke it, for ’twas impossible to remember it upon the first reading.
The most controversial use of a hat, however, was to reserve a seat in the House – on which, perhaps, more later.