Tag Archives: Henry VIII



I hope you’re enjoying Christmas Eve. Preparations are well underway here at Wordfoolery HQ and the festive spirit has inspired me to explore the word tinsel today.

Tinsel edged noticeboard, with thanks to my daughter

I was surprised to find that tinsel can be a noun, adjective, and verb. The noun relates to threads, sheets, or strips of metal (or plastic) used to create a sparkling appearance in decorations and fabrics. The version I’m most familiar is the festoon of tinsel, a sparkling feather boa, slung around Christmas trees. Personally I prefer decorative ribbons on our tree, so the annual tinsel explosion happens in my daughter’s room instead.

Tinsel as an adjective describes anything which is like tinsel, or is gaudy. Tinsel as a verb is the act of interweaving or adorning with tinsel. I assume this means if you drape your tree in tinsel you are tinseling when you do it.

Tinsel is a surprisingly old word. Its first usage was as early as 1538. It entered Middle English as tyneseyle which was a cloth interwoven with metallic thread and the word probably came from Anglo-French tencelé which itself came from the verb estenceler – to sparkle.

The king of England at the time was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He’d buried three wives by that point and had a fondness for rich fabrics like cloth of gold so we may have him to thank for the fashion for tinsel as courtiers would copy his style.

By the 1650s the idea of tinsel had become associated with things which were showy but ultimately of little worth. Again this fall in tinsel’s reputation may be related to politics as by 1650 England had been rocked by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Charles II sat on the throne but had been forced to curtail some of the more over the top aspects of his court fashions for fear of following his father to the chopping block.

The use of Tinsel Town to describe Hollywood dates to 1972. Although it also describes my daughter’s bedroom at this time of year.

Happy Christmas, and until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Why are prisons called Bridewells?


I’m just back from Clifden, Connemara. As a history buff I enjoyed reading the information notices around the town. One explained that the rather hulking ruin towering over the town’s Ardbear Bridge was the town’s bridewell. It housed prisoners from the 1800s up to 1923. I didn’t fancy staying the night in it but it did make me wonder why prisons are sometimes called bridewells.

My travelling companion suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that the prisoners’ brides welled up with tears outside the walls of the jail and it does have a loose connection to brides, but not in that way.

The OED tells me that bridewell is a mid 16th century term for a petty offender’s prison and it was named after St. Bride’s Well, in the City of London, which was near such a building. No less an authority than the Liverpool Police Website expanded on this information by explaining that any police station with cells may be called a bridewell. More than that, the term has a connection the many wives of Henry VIII, King of England.

Henry was using the Palace of Westminster as his residence until it was destroyed by fire. His then friend Cardinal Wolsey offered him the use of St. Bride’s Well Palace, his bishop’s palace built near modern-day Fleet Street. The king accepted. All was well until the Papal Nuncio decreed only the Vatican could rule on the issue of annuling Henry’s marriage to Cathering of Aragon (his first wife whom he was trying to dump in favour of Ann Boleyn). Henry, and his court, left the bishop’s palace in a fit of anger and it fell into disrepair and disrepute.

Tower of London - royal palace and former prison

Tower of London – royal palace and former prison

Over time the Saint part of the name was dropped and the buildings became a prison. The term spread throughout Britain and Ireland.

Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry over the the slow legal proceedings and was on his way to prison, the Tower of London rather than the Bridewell, when he died.

This left me with one more question – who was St. Bride? I guessed, correctly that she was St. Brigid, a well-known Irish saint. Her church, one in a long line of churches on the same spot, still stands on Fleet Street today. I could speculate about why the home of London’s journalists needs a prison and a church…

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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Red tape – where does the phrase come from?


I was watching “The West Wing” last night (and enjoying it as much as I did the first time) when Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, began declaiming on the topic of red tape. He claimed that it began with veterans of the civil war coming to Washington to claim their pensions and finding the paperwork, after long delays, to be bound with red tape.

A dim memory of reading about the Chancery Court in London and its red tape made me suspect that just this once, President Bartlett might be wrong.

Merriam Webster says the source of the phrase lies with thick bundles of legal documents tied with red ribbons in the English legal system.

Wikipedia adds a time-line as Henry VIII’s petition for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was bound with red tape – it’s still in Vatican archives apparently. The practice probably pre-dates that case and certainly predates the veteran pensions in Washington.

However we can’t lay the blame solely with English monarchs and lawyers. Charles V of Spain began the practice in the early 16th century as a way of distinguishing “fast track” paperwork from the ordinary papers bound with string/rope. The tape was made in the Netherlands and the town’s name lends itself to the Spanish term for red tape.

So we could blame the Netherlanders, the Spanish, English, or Americans. Sadly red tape is a worldwide problem and has been with us long enough to have been attacked by Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens (especially in “Bleak House”).

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any support for my distant memory of red tape having been used precisely because it fades to pink. Hence if a document is untied (without permission) the new knot will show that it was opened thanks to the uneven fade marks on the ribbon. Seems likely, but does anybody out there have any proof of this?

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,