This article appeared in the Fencers, Dancers and Bearbaiters Quarterly in 2002.
The Evolution of the Military Cassock in Elizabethan England
In the mid 1500s, the Trained Bandes of London did not really have any kind of uniform. The Trained Bandes militia wore their own clothing for the most part, though there were certain requirements for dress - requirements that do not seem to have been reinforced with any great zeal. The requirement of a wool cap of some sort was more to bolster the English wool trade than any desire for a modern military-style uniformity. While individual commanders might dress their own men to show off (The Earl of Essex did this with great panache when heading a mission into Holland, dressing all his men in tangerine doublets), the majority of the militias that constituted what little "army" England possessed were private citizens who were given little money and less clothing for their pains.
The one item issued with any regularity for parades and special occasions that is detailed in available records was the cassock - a kind of half-length overcoat with sleeves. The problem we have when researching this garment is that the name seems to have been a catch-all term for a couple of different types of outer garment - the loose coat/cloak with sleeves cassock that we as Elizabethan re-enactors are familiar with is one form, but the term "cassock" was used in England before that particular style became fashionable.
In any attempt to document Elizabethan clothing from pictures, we run into the problem that only the rich and powerful members of society had their portraits painted. The practice of painters documenting every tiny detail of normal life did not come into vogue in England until the 18th century, so we are left with a very small number of clearly English references. The woodcut illustrations that do exist are often crude and undetailed, and the finer quality painting and illustrations are Dutch and German, not English. The largest source of non-aristocratic 16th century English pictures we have is the documentation of military parades and royal processions - these were planned in great detail, and sketches were made by the planners to assure correct placement of all participants - putting someone in the wrong place or rank would have been a serious breach of protocol.
These parades are documented in great detail, but there are only a few pictures of them left. Two of the more valuable pictorial documents we have are the planning pictures and illustrations of the funeral procession of Sir Phillip Sydney in 1587, and the painting "A Fete at Bermondsey" by the Dutch painter Jorges Hoefnagel.
The Spanish influence in England at the mid part of the century was very strong - Henry VIII's marriage to the Spanish Catherine of Aragon brought into vogue the Spanish styles, and the subsequent marriage of Catherine's daughter Mary Tudor to King Phillip of Spain had an effect that lasted throughout her reign and into Elizabeth's. This Spanish influence is seen in the Bermondsey painting, which depicts several soldiers or militia wearing what appears to be a long-skirted over doublet, and a gentleman pensioner in the background wearing a similarly shaped livery coat.
This over doublet is patterned as a "ropilla" in the Spanish "Tailor's Pattern Book (1589)", where the differences between it and the more fitted doublet are made very clear. Doublets are fitted closer to the body and has decorative short tabs attached by sewing, while the ropilla is looser, and the skirts are cut as part of the body of the garment. Misheu's "A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, 1599" translates a ropilla as "a cassocke", establishing the linguistic link at the very least. Comparing the patterns in the Pattern Book and the Bermondsey painting, it is not a huge theoretical leap to say that they are probably the same garment, especially considering the Spanish influence in England. Multiple enlargements of the Bermondsey painting show the several military men wearing a green long skirted doublet/coat over their doublets (which do not match), most clearly on a man dancing at the extreme right of the painting. His green coat is open, showing his buttoned doublet underneath.
So the first definition of the cassock appears to be a loosely fitted over-doublet with skirts cut as part of the body.
A second definition is shown in Minsheu's "Dictionarie", and the pattern book; they refer to a "herrereulo", shown in the Pattern book as a cloak without sleeves, and translated in the "Dictionarie" as a "soldier's cassock or long coat".
The second definition of the cassock would appear to be a plain cloak without sleeves.
By the 1580s, Spanish and English relations had changed. Elizabeth's ardent championship of the Protestant faith and refusal to marry had soured England's diplomatic ties with Spain, and England now had turned her eye to the support of the Protestant Low Countries (now Holland and Belgium). At this point, the Dutch influence on English fashion became stronger, and the sleeved cloak worn in Holland became a popular item. Known as a "Dutch Cloake", this garment was warmer and easier to make than the Spanish cassock. Soldiers fighting in the Low Countries seem to have quickly adapted this versatile garment for their use. The descriptions and sketches of Sir Phillip Sydney's funeral procession show that the men in the procession were issued special black outer garments to wear - which the notes call "cassocks". While the garments are listed as cassocks, the pictures clearly show the men wearing Dutch cloaks - their coats are loose and cape-like, and do not resemble the Spanish cassock.
Here then, seems to be a third definition; a "Dutch Cloake" adapted for military use. This is the garment that most TBL (Trayned Bandes) and ECW (English Civil War) re-enactors are used to calling a cassock.
The unifying factor in all these descriptions is that they are military garments. The Bermondsey painting identifies the men in green as military of some sort; they carry swords, and more importantly, bucklers. The men procession in the Sydney funeral parade are identified in the notes as Bandesmen. As England switched its diplomatic focus from Spain to Holland, the Spanish cassock fell out of fashion, to be replaced by the Dutch cassock. Since the function of the garment was the same - a warm outer layer to keep out the wet and cold - the name stayed the same. Everyone who wore one or talked about one would understand the meaning.
Calling all three garments a "cassock" seems to be a military reference for the most part; in civilian circles, the Dutch cloak would have retained its original name. I can find few references to a cassock outside military descriptions, though there is a reference to a "Cassock for a Blackamoor" in Elizabeth's clothing inventories. The jump from military clothing to servant livery is not a large one, and certainly the livery companies of London are using the Dutch cassock in their livery costume by the early 17th century.
The only group to keep using the old Spanish style cassock were the Gentleman Pensioners; Elizabeth's personal bodyguard, they were men of rank and power who held a highly coveted place in her court, and wore an identifiable livery like servants to show their position. The Gentleman Pensioners eventually morphed into the "Beefeater" guards at the Tower of London; while The Duke of Wellington completely revamped the guard structure of the Tower later on, the ceremonial gold embroidered red and black cassocks are immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the 16th century Spanish style.
Notes (to be notated):
The cassocks issued for Sidney's funeral would have been wool, not linen. It is unlikely that these coats were ever made of linen, considering the average temperature in England at the time. Certainly any cassocks issued by the Queen's order or by a commanding officer would have been wool. Essex dressed his men in silk; Essex also died hugely in debt. It is unlikely that a more prudent leader would have considered silk a suitable fabric for his men.
A Fete at Bermondsey, Hatfield House, England
The Armada Campaign 1588, John Tincey and Richard Hook, Osprey, 1988