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The mad hatters of Caudebec-en-Caux

Matching a vintage postcard view of a Normandy town when 80% of it was destroyed in WW2 is tricky.  Pretty little streams like the one in our picture still tumble through Caudebec-en-Caux but the streets are unrecognisable.

Caudebec-en-Caux match!
Caudebec-en-Caux match!

Smooth clean lines have replaced medieval clutter and ancient brooks now rush along neat stone clad gullies. But as you can see from our photograph the town views are still attractive and bright flowers soften modern edges.

Medieval life revealed

Next to Notre Dame church a few of the old houses survive, protected by deep ecclesiastical walls.  King Henry IV of France declared Notre Dame de Caudebec-en-Caux the most beautiful chapel in his kingdom.

Church of Notre Dame Caudebec-en-Caux
Church of Notre Dame Caudebec-en-Caux

Once hugely ornate, many of the external sculptures were destroyed in the religious wars of the sixteenth century and more during the fires of 1940 and WW2.  Those that survive and those restored reveal a charming insight into daily medieval life as musicians play, dignitaries pose and artisans toil amongst the saints.

A successful, if smelly, town

We found our match, next to a small memorial garden.   Only the stream remains from our postcard view.  In the garden a few ruined stone walls recall the old town.  A handy information board, one of many in the town, explains the changes and ensures history is not forgotten.

New Caudebec-en-Caux
New Caudebec-en-Caux

Pictures of course tell only part of the story.  What they disguise here is that at the height of Caudebex-en-Caux’s prosperity, when hundreds of ships clogged the port and merchants spent many happy hours counting their money, it must have stunk.  Much more than the average medieval made municipality.

It was all because of the hats, and a King.

Setting the scene for prosperity in Caudebec-en-Caux

A ‘good’ king by all reports, but not until he was dead.  Before then religion cast a shadow over the reign of Henry IV France.

Henry IV of France.  He could do with a hat.
Henry IV of France. He could do with a hat.

Henry was born a Catholic then raised by his mother as a protestant.  This was a time when ‘faith’ the Catholic faith, was seen as the glue that held society together.  Majority belief was for ‘une foi, un loi, un roi’ (one faith one law one king) which rhymed in a very convincing way.

There were real fears that if other religions were allowed to practise, French society would crumble, so law denied non Catholics basic civil rights (they were not really French…) and generally trusted not one jot. Occasional massacres helped get the Catholic view across.

A kingdom ‘well worth the Mass’

A practical man, Henry declared himself Catholic to secure his throne and was crowned on 2 August 1589. He said, Paris was ‘well worth the mass’.  This spiritual swing didn’t convince all of Henry’s subjects that he was the right man for the job but fortunately he survived all but the last of over 20 assassination attempts,  and reigned for 20 years.


Henry signs the Edict of Nantes
Henry signs the Edict of Nantes

During his reign, fed up with the religious wars that rumbled around Europe in the sixteenth century, he made the brave move to introduce some legal religious tolerance.  A sound idea that was given one of those incredibly dull historical names that torment students; The Edict of Nantes.

See? An annoying name that says nothing to explain the remarkable changes it created or who Nantes was.  To save a trip to Wiki it was probably decreed on 30 April 1598 and Nantes is a rather pretty town on the Loire river.

Money money money

Edict of Nantes
Edict of Nantes

Religious tolerance for Protestants in France (known by the nickname ‘Huguenots’ ) had a remarkable effect.  They could relax a bit in a country that had until then persecuted them legally and enthusiastically. They could concentrate on industry and make some money.  So they did.

The industry in Caudebec-en-Caux, a town with handy transport links to Paris (the river Seine) and plenty of fresh water, was hats. Particularly the ‘Caudebec’ hat, made from animal hair and felted in a top secret process that made it unique for the sixteenth century, it was waterproof.  The Caudebec was a triumph.

Wonderfully waterproof

How it became waterproof was down to an accident in the felt making factories of Caudebec-en-Caux.

Felt making was based on an ancient method bought back with Crusaders who discovered from the Turks that to get a really good felt, treat it with camel pee.   In Normandy they used what was available and it became the workers habit to pee on the felting fur.

A revolting discovery

Then a remarkable discovery was made that become the money making ‘secretage’ that no Huguenot would ever divulge.

King Louise IIV in a Caudebec hat - he better stock up...
King Louise IIV in a Caudebec hat – he better stock up…

It was all because of a felt maker, lets call him Francois the feutre (felt), who caught an unfortunate case of the pox.  Syphilis.  This unpleasant disease was treated in that very modern sixteenth century way, with mercury.

Never mind his discomfort, what everyone noticed was that when he peed on his fibres they matted in a new and very interesting way.  The felt became almost impenetrable.  The felt makers then made the very first waterproof hat. The wide brimmed black ‘Caudebec’.

This chic chapeau became so popular it was worn by Henry IV and exported by the thousand to England (who Anglicised the name to Cawdebink or Cordyback) Holland and beyond.

A more reliable method of applying solution of nitrate of mercury to the fur was developed – brushing it onto dry skins – and here we begin to worry about the felt makers.

The mad hatters of Caudebec-en-Caux

Long exposure to Mercury is not good for the health.  Side effects start at itching, skin peeling, hair loss and move up to kidney problems, pathological shyness, irritability and ‘hatter’s shakes’.

Persecuting the Huguenots
Persecuting the Huguenots

But what really annoyed (and worried) the hatters of Caudebec-en-Caux was after many successful years on 22 October 1685 King Louis XIV cancelled the Edict of Nantes and bought in another edict, this one the Edict of Fontainebleau. Religious tolerance was over.

Since Louis XIV came to the throne in 1654 freedoms gained in the Edict of Nantes were slowly chipped away.  The Edict of Fontainebleau merely legalised growing persecution of France’s non-Catholics.  Protestant Huguenots were no longer protected by the laws of France.

Taking just what they could carry

Religious zealots destroyed churches and schools, violent attacks became common and the pressure to become Catholic, immense.  So the Huguenots left France without their money (one of the new laws) taking their skills and savvy with them.

Just a few days into the following year, on 17 January 1686, King Louis XIV proudly announced that from a population of nearly 900,000 Huguenots only 1000 or so remained living France.

He was quite pleased until a severe dent in the country’s income was explained to him.

The original Brain Drain

Louis XIV has created the original ‘brain drain’.  The clever Huguenots had taken their expertise with them.  From the time of the Edict of Fontainebleau the quality of France’s silk, glass, silversmithing, watch-making, cabinet making, and of course hat making, plummeted.

Louis XIV in another Caudebec hat - he really didn't think through that edict...
Louis XIV in another Caudebec hat – he really didn’t think through that edict…

In Caudebec-en-Caux it is estimated that 500 people lost their jobs as Huguenots abandoned the town for their own safety.  Unemployed felt-makers were reported to be marauding shyly and desperately around the countryside.

Across France as some celebrated spiritual victory, thousands of unemployed went hungry. France’s enemies welcomed the brilliant Huguenots with open arms.

An agitated Emissary

By May 1686 Huguenots in Holland were exporting hats to France, by 1701 Huguenots in England joined them.

Rumours are entirely true that that in 1686 Louis’ emissary to England Bonrepaus was so downcast to see industry that once thrived in France now swelling English coffers he offered the Huguenots of Ipswich cash to return to France.

They did not take him up on his offer. Hats are no longer made in Caudebec-en-Caux (and the air is a lot nicer for it).

Caudebec-en-Caux by Jules Janin
Caudebec-en-Caux by Jules Janin

2 thoughts on “The mad hatters of Caudebec-en-Caux

  1. This article claims ‘the Caudebec was’ the first waterproof hat-but I-a Caudebec/Cuddeback myself vehemently disagree. ( BTW Caudebec became Cuddeback when Jacques Caudebec settled in Pennepack- he thought ‘Cuddeback” would be a last name that might hide us better from the French govt he just escaped-instead of keeping our nom de famille: Caudebec)

    People from around the world have known how to make various materials waterproof since ancient times- including the Lenape- the people whom graciously nutured Jacques when he arrived in the south all the way up to where he settled in Pennepack (close to present day NY/NJ/PA borders) and beyond! The super advanced civilization that allowed Jacques Caudebec to make our home in their home knew how to make hides waterproof since ancient times. They are just one of many ancient peoples who’ve had this knowledge. Please update the article to reflect these truths. Perhaps it was the first felt hat made waterproof by this specific process of consuming mercury & urinating on the felt…. but in no means is this “the first waterproof hat”[ in all of world herstory] like the article is currently claiming. Other then that thanks so much for all the information~~ or as Jacques Caudebec, the refugee, probably said to the Lenape ~~ Wanishi (Thank you)

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