Irish Judicial Costume, 1500s-1925

From the Irish Independent, 17 August 1925, this entertaining and informative account of historic Irish judicial costume, inspired by the then ongoing discussion as to the robes to be worn by the judiciary of the Irish Free State:

“The question of what kind of judicial costume will be adopted in our High Court has been, and is to-day, the subject of much speculation.  That some special garb will be decided on may be taken for granted, for it will be admitted that even the best-looking judge seems lacking in the chief asset of dignity when he takes his seat with nothing to distinguish him from his fellow-man, in addition to his morning coat “thoroughly shrunk”, his black tie, and maybe his snuff box and quill pen.

The official dress of the judges has remained practically unchanged for centuries.  When a certain Lord Lieutenant gave a fancy ball at the Castle, at which all the guests were to be arrayed in the costumes of the reign of Charles II, the late Lord Justice Barry observed that he and his brethren might congratulate themselves on the trifling cost of their ball costumes.  They had merely to purchase little black silk skull caps, edged with white satin, and red heels to their boots.  In a scarce but interesting volume called “Dugdales Origines Judicials” it is recorded that the provision for the wardrobe of the judges in the days of good Queen Bess included ‘five ells of thick woollen cloth each for their gowns in riding their spring circuits’ and further on ‘forty skins of miniver for their summer circuit gowns.’

The custom was in Hilary and Michaelmas Terms to wear black cloth robes, trimmed with ermine; in Easter and Trinity Terms purple trimmed with ‘sad coloured silk’ and at Nisi Prius a plain black silk.  The ‘full’ ermine robes were ponderous in all conscience.  The judge first buttoned himself up in a close scarlet jacket, then he put on a scarlet gown with hanging sleeves, trimmed in front with ermine, and with gigantic ermine cuffs, for all the world like an old lady’s winter muff.  He was then girdled with wide silk sash like a cummerbund, and over his head was thrown the hood, which covered the whole of his judicial chest with scarlet, like a red robin, whilst at the bank hung a bag of ermine, with a long and wide red tail attached.

So complicated were the details of these very theatrical costumes, with the full-bottom wig super-added for State occasions, that many judges and their train-bearers regarded the putting on of the full regalia as a bad job.  They certainly presented a motley and amusing spectacle thus arrayed, and with their skirts tucked up, in the grand procession over the red cloth across the central hall of the old Four Courts at the opening of term.  Some of them in those far back days irresistibly suggested a lot of old women going to the laundry.

The gold collars were generally purchased by the Chiefs from their predecessors, and they were valued at £200 or £300. 

The ‘black cap’ is the one survival in our courts as a distinct item of the old costume.  It was generally known to the learned as the ‘Erasmus’ cap, but is really just like an ordinary college ‘mortar board’, deprived, however of every vestige of stiffening and with the front of the cap cut away – in short, little more than a square of black cloth, varying in size, according to the individual taste.

Buying a new set of robes was an unheard-of-thing by a judge, no matter how long he adorned or encumbered the bench, and the result was that some of the robes became very worn out and tarnished. In one instance well remembered, his lordship’s original black robes had become somewhat chameleon-like, changing from brown to green as the light fell upon it.  Every trace of fur had departed, and there were ink stains and splashes everywhere.  It was amusing and pathetic to see the old man raise his arm, and, in the stately stereotyped form of his own, say ‘that while he sat on the bench he should always preserve the judicial ermine unspotted.’

It is anticipated that under the forthcoming new rules the judicial costume will combine simplicity with dignity.

JS Hall.”

Top Images: Lord Chief Justice of Ireland Charles Kendal Bushe (1767-1843) , in and out of judicial regalia, via Wikipedia and National Gallery of Ireland.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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