The Phrygian Cap or the Cap of Liberty

The phrygian cap — a soft, conical, brimless cap from antiquity — came to be associated with freedom and was adopted as the “Cap of Liberty” during the French Revolution. It was first used as a symbol of liberty on the 8th and 9th of May in 1790 when the red cap adorned a statue that represented the new French nation at a Federation festival in Troyes. Later that month, on the 30th, the cap also appeared in Lyon, where it was carried by the goddess of Liberty on the end of her lance. However, the history behind the phrygian cap starts with slaves in ancient times.

“In all countries the slaves were obliged to appear bareheaded; and whenever the day came that freedom was the reward … one of the ceremonies used in the manumission of the slave was the placing of a cap on the head by the former master.”[1]

Phrygian Cap or The Famous Cap of Liberty, Author's Collection

The famous “Cap of Liberty.” Author’s collection.

Although the cap placed on the slave’s head was a pileus (a conical cap that looks similar to the phrygian cap) the phrygian cap came to represent the symbol of freedom. However, before the phrygian cap existed, the idea of a cap being associated with freedom was a long standing tradition. For instance, when Caesar was murdered, his “conspirators raised a Phrygian cap on a spear as a token of liberty.”[2] In the fourteenth-century, despite the “tyrannical Gessler compell[ing] the hardy sons of Switzerland to salute a hat placed on a pole,”[3] they triumphed. Afterwards the cantons of Switzerland came to have a round hat for a crest, emblematic of their struggle against Gessler. A cap with the word liberty inscribed in gold letters was used in England as a symbol of constitutional liberty in the 1760s, and, further, Britannia has sometimes been depicted with a cap at the end of her spear.

During the French Revolution the cap gained real fame, and the bonnet rouge, as it was then called, became known as the “Cap of Liberty.” Moreover, as the revolution grew and the Reign of Terror occurred, the woolen cap was adopted by all classes of people and everyone was expected to wear it. Louis XVI was even forced to wear one to demonstrate his loyalty to the new republic. Supposedly, knitting women, known as tricoteuses, were the ones primarily producing the caps, which historian William J. Hills noted:

“[The tricoteuse sat] at the foot of the scaffold at every execution, knitting [caps]; and as head after head fell into the basket they would look up from their work and count ‘one’ — ‘two’ — ‘three,’ until the full quota of victims for the day had ceased to exist.”[4]

phrygian cap - Louis XVI

Louis XVI wears the Red Cap of Liberty. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the revolution, the red phrygian cap or Cap of Liberty still retained its importance to the French, which was something the British understood:

“”The ‘Cap of Liberty’ was placed by Napoleon‘s followers on the summit of Pompey’s Pillar … standing on the sea-shore near Alexandria and firmly secured there by a conical roof of wood. Alexandria surrendered … [on] Oct. 2nd, 1801, and shortly afterwards Mr. [George] Meredith … learned the history of the column and its trophy, when he immediately vowed that ‘he would neither eat nor drink’ until he had gained possession of the cap. Frequent attempts had in vain been made to remove it, when Mr. Meredith solicited permission to do so … and after flying a kite over the summit, our ‘bold Briton’ swarmed up the rope and with great labour and imminent risk of life, accomplished his courageous exploit. … He brought his prize to England and presented it to the British Museum. … [A newspaper then reported that] on Friday, Dec. 16th (1802), the Cap of Liberty, which was placed on the top of Pompey’s Pillar by the French, as a memorial of their conquests in Egypt … was with much solemnity suspended from the ceiling of the great hall in the British Museum, to be preserved with other monuments of British triumph.”[5]

Despite the cap being linked to a bloody revolution, it began to appear in other countries in different forms. Numerous medals were also issued by various countries throughout the 1700 and 1800s that included the Cap of Liberty on one side. Even the United States borrowed the phrygian cap. They minted coins with the figure of Liberty wearing it. However, the practice stopped after the director of the U.S. mint stated: “it is wholly at variance with classic authority to place the … Liberty Cap on the head of the figure representing Liberty.”[6] There were also numerous artworks created by such famous caricaturist artists, such as James Gillray, who used the red cap as a symbol of liberty in his drawings.

phrygian cap - bonnet de liberté

Louis XVI wearing the phrygian cap or the Bonnet de la liberté, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In France, over the years, the red cap has disappeared and reappeared sporadically. When the Bourbon’s were restored, the red cap became all the rage, and during “Napoleon’s Hundred Days” the cap temporarily reappeared. It resurfaced again during the July Revolution of 1830. However, according to Wikipedia, the most recent activity associated with the famous red cap involves an anti-tax association that adopted it in October 2013. Their movement, known as the bonnets rouges, used the famous red cap as a protest symbol, and, they proved successful because the French government rescinded the tax.


  • [1] Williams, William W., The National Magazine, Vol. 1, 1852, p. 56. 
  • [2] Preble, George Henry, History of the Flag of the United State of America, 1880, p. 254.
  • [3] Williams, William W., The National Magazine, Vol. 1, 1852, p. 56.
  • [4] Hills, William J., A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1896, p. 48.
  • [5] Meredith, Louisa Anne, Poems, 1835, p. 173-174.
  • [6] The Mechanics’ Magazine Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette, Vol. 22, 1835

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment