To Beard or not to Beard…that is the question.

In 1969 my father looked into the mirror and decided that his naked chin did not project the right image. He was still a young man, the only male teacher in a large Grammar School for Girls, and he needed to exude an air of gravity and authority. He grew a singularly bushy beard. It allowed him a limited range of expressions as much of his face was invisible, but “stern”, “twinkly” and “grave” were listed amongst them. He could smooth his beard in a reflective manner when apparently thinking; he could brush it outwards on special occasion, so it resembled a baby owl thus achieving a comical effect. It was the perfect facial covering for the aspirational poet he was; it was even a good beard for his politics, definitely more William Morris than Vladimir Lenin. He kept his beard throughout his career, and was later known as Great Uncle Bulgaria, after the Womble of that name, but he rather enjoyed the title. He was defined by his beardiness.

Beards have sent out messages about the status, professions and political affiliation of their owners ; they have been regarded as patriotic, as subversive, as a sign of virility, and a sign of poverty. Kings and beggars have sported beards. What does it all mean? Does “The beard maketh the man?”.  As with so many of life’s big questions, for the historical perspective we should turn to the archival record.

The Medieval Beard

Medieval English and Welsh narratives award high status to the beard, for a beard was seen as a symbol of manliness, virility, and self-identity amongst men. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Green Knight insults the men of Arthur’s Court as “berdlez chylder” (beardless children). A beard, like a lion’s mane, was a sign of mature masculinity.  Medieval Welsh poetry frequently threatened “shame on my beard” if a brave act was not performed in timely fashion, and a legal triad exists in which one of the three reasons a man might beat his wife was if she wished shame on his beard. To say ‘Meuyl ar dy farf’ ( shame on your beard) was to cast aspersions onto someone’s public status  and perhaps on his virility.

A drawing of a judge. Image from the Peniarth Manuscripts
Judge. From a Latin copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda,
Peniarth Manuscripts at National Library of Wales © LLGCymru

Bayeux Beard Issues
Is the Bayeux Tapestry condemnatory of facial hair ?  The tiny figures on this masterpiece show the Anglo-Saxon English as bearded and moustachioed ; King Edward the Confessor has a lovely full beard. But the English were the losing side in this conflict, and we are meant to admire most the Norman Lean Clean(shaven) Machine with its well-trained troops and hairless faces.

The Elizabethan Beard
Beards pop up in Shakespeare to denote manliness. Rivals might encounter one another “beard to beard”, young men protest that they can’t act the woman’s part in a play because they “have a beard coming”. Old men of note have silvery or white beards. The Justice  of the Peace sports  “beard of formal cut” befitting his status. In As You Like It a teasing Rosalind notes that a man distracted by love might let his beard grow unkempt – a very unsatisfactory state-of-affairs for the fashionable Elizabethan beard was a neatly trimmed and pointed affair, often combined with a well cultivated and lively moustache.

Beards v. Wigs
Beards fell in and out of fashion during the ensuing centuries. In the eighteenth century as elaborate wigs came in, beards went out. A mixture of artificial head-hair and natural face-hair seemed curiously inappropriate. The eighteenth-century beard was largely confined to the working classes, whose incomes, occupations, and perhaps inclinations led them to spurn the wig and wear their own hair. Eighteenth century notions of gentility included cleanliness amongst its attributes, and beards, harbouring crumbs, gravy and possibly fleas, had no place in polite society.

The Military Beard
Attitudes to beards in the services have changed over the years, but in stipulating certain restrictions on facial hair the army, Navy and later, air-force made physical appearance a part of military discipline. The British Navy has always allowed beards but since the mid-1850s the beards had to be full and accompanied by a joining moustache. Within the Army facial hair did not become common until the mid-19th century ; it appears to have been both the cultural influences of the Asian and Indian wars, and the practicalities of the cold Crimean winter that allowed the beard to flourish on nineteenth century military cheeks. The effect of the Crimean Army Beard was to spark a fashion for large bushy beards amongst the men of Britain ; suddenly it became patriotic and attractive to cultivate swathes of facial hair.  Later Article 1695 of the Army regulations required that all but the upper lip should be shaved, although this was not universally observed. It did, however, lead to a wide range of military moustaches, many of which were copied by those in civilian life. The aviator’s preferred facial hair also focussed on the upper lip culminating in the magnificent handlebar moustaches of the Second World War fighter pilots. 

Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

Beards in Fashion
After a period in the 19th century in which size was the dominant feature in beard fashion,  a regime of maintenance became more important and demonstrating control of one’s beard was the aim.  The Victorian beard should suggest a vigorous masculinity trimmed (literally) to accommodate the demands of society. The beard should not be wild unless the owner specifically wished to exude wildness – poets and artists might want a wild beard ; but the predominant beard style was one which reflected the fact its owner was virile but civilized. 

Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

This nevertheless included designs which the present day might find eccentric.
Dundrearies  (or Picadilly Weepers) were exaggerated sideburns which might flow down onto the shoulders. Mutton-chop whiskers involved growing a moustache which connected to luxurious sideburns, but keeping the chin clean shaven.
In rural Cardiganshire there was a vogue for a beard which ran from ear to ear, and under the chin, but where the front part of the face and moustache area were clean-shaven. It demonstrated the ability both to grow and beard and yet control its parameters.
In more modern times we have had the anti-establishment beard, the hippy beard and the hipster beard – each conveying a different message and enthusiastically endorsed by its owner whilst sometimes causing consternation or bemusement in wider society.

A photograph of a man with a beard
Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

The Institutional Beard
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century institutions such as prisons and workhouses often chose to shave men’s heads and beards. There might be several reasons for this : where identification of the individual was important, a shaven face might aid recognition ( but see below) ;  head and facial hair might harbour fleas and lice, so removal improved hygiene in the institution ; shaving might improve morale by keep an inmate clean and smart  ; conversely it  might also be used to undermine the sense-of-self, and erode notions of individuality in an institution where part of the punishment involved depersonalisation.
Evidence suggests that it was the that prisons enforced shaving most strenuously – although there were questions over the safety of allowing prisoners personal use of the razor! In other institutions, such as the Workhouse beards might be allowed if kept “scrupulously clean and tidy” ; thus allowing a degree of self-expression and individuality to the inmate denied to the prisoner.

The Deceitful Beard
The Times of 2nd September 1873 noted that the beards and whiskers had been removed from some prisoners on their transfer to Newgate Gaol and “no-one, it is said, could have recognized them after this change in appearance had been effected”. Criminals were not slow to recognise possible advantages to this state of affairs. A beard – or the removal of a beard – could be a simple form of disguise, transforming and hiding a familiar face. In a system which punished recidivists more heavily than first time offenders, a new identity was very helpful, and a new beard might convince the authorities you were someone different.

Charles Williams was a bearded felon who found himself in Carmarthen gaol in 1865 and had his likeness captured. But was he really Charles? When had been in Carmarthen and Cardigan Gaols previoulsy, he had been known as Owen Pritchard, and sported no beard.  He had also appeared, clean shaven, in Stafford Gaol calling himself William Davies.

In similar vein a former convict reminisced in 1928 “at the time they took [the police photograph] I was wearing a couple of months’ beard. Also on the way to the photographers I picked up a couple of pebbles, put them into my mouth and screwed up my face until even my own mother would not have recognized me.”

Mugshot of Charles Williams from the Carmarthenshire Felon’s Register
© Welsh Legal History Society ( by permission of Carmarthenshire Archives)

The Bearded Family Man
Just as God the Father was often portrayed as a mature bearded figure in the 19th century, the Victorian paterfamilias often wore a beard, demonstrating his maturity, his maleness and the solemnity of his position at the head of the family. It was probably the rise of the safety razor and the clean-shaven faces of the new movie actors in the early twentieth century that caused the bearded father to fall out of fashion.

Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

Working Beards
In some professions excessive facial hair might be a positive danger to its owner ( think whirring machinery, environments where sparks might fly, places where a tight-fitting mask was essential ) but in others it might provide a layer of insulation, a protection from dust and dirt,  or simply a way to save time and money on shaving.  Older working men often let their beards grow, sea-farers found it expedient to keep their beards ( using a cut-throat razor in a storm has clear disadvantages ) and clergy often used beards to add to their gravitas.

Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives
Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

Sporting Beards
One area of British sport which favoured the beard was cricket – personified most notably in the late 19th century by W.G. Grace. But where are the bearded faces of early footballers? Conspicuous by their absence ; the favoured facial hair of the footballer was a moustache.

Image from Ceredigion Archives © Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

The Beard Tomorrow
What is the future of the beard? In twenty-first century Britain, cultural diversity is far greater than ever before and beards are a part of the story, with a proliferation of beard styles influenced by culture, religion and fashion. The beard seems set to stay with us for many years to come, an outward manifestation of the person within, a statement to society at large. But some record of these beards must be retained in the Archives to let posterity know how we felt about the twenty-first century beard – how best should the profession capture today’s beards? You decide.

Helen Palmer, County Archivist
Archifdy Ceredigion Archives

ed. Larissa Tracey Flaying in the Pre-modern World Michael Livingston “Flayed Beards and Gendered Power in Arthurian Literature”
Alun Withey Concerning Beards. Facial hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900
John Bollard  ‘Meuyl ar uy Maryf : Shame and Honour in the Mabinogi’ Studia Celtica 2013
Daryl Green
ed. L. Knaffla Policing and War in Europe. Richard Ireland “The felon and the angel copier”

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