Tag Archives: Ann Boleyn

What Is The Origin Of (230)?…

Purple patch

Regular readers of this blog will know by now that you will have to search long and hard for anything that might resemble a purple patch. Indeed, many critics contend that a purple patch is something to avoid in any literary endeavour as it denotes an over-written passage in which the writer has strained too hard to achieve their effect. It is something out of the ordinary in comparison with the rest of the writer’s output. Its usage these days has been extended to indicate a period of success or outstanding achievement, particularly in a sporting context.

Where does it come from and why purple?

The starting point in our survey is Ars Poetica, written by the Roman poet, Horace to give him his Anglicised name, in around 20 BCE. In the opening passages to his work he compares and contrasts his style of writing with those of his contemporaries. He notes “weighty openings and grand declarations often/ have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam/ far and wide…There’s no place for them here.” This is the earliest reference to a purple patch, or purpureus pannus as Horace wrote it, in a literary context.

In Roman times, purple was the colour associated with those in power, adopted by emperors and magistrates. The dye to create the colour came from the mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail and was highly prized and expensive. To associate a piece of writing with this rare colour was to indicate that it was out of the ordinary, exceptional, special.

The survival of pagan Roman literature through the periods of Christian ascendancy was a hit and miss affair until their value as works of art was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Ars Poetica was one that made it through the dark centuries in reasonably good shape and formed part of the required reading matter of an educated chap and the occasional chapess. Unusually for the 16th century, Ann Boleyn insisted that he daughter, Elizabeth, obtained “knowledge of all tounges, as Hebrue, Greeke, Latyne, Italian, Spanishe, Frenche.” Indeed, Queen Bess, as she became, developed into a noted Latin scholar.

What better way to keep your Latin up to scratch after you have dealt with the affairs of state than to translate one of the classical masterpieces into English? In 1598 she turned her hand to the Ars Poetica, rendering our passage thus; “oft to beginnings graue and shewes of great is sowed a purple pace, one or more for vewe.” This is the earliest example of the phrase to have survived in English but given the translator it may be a reflection of her status rather than being the first genuine usage.

The early 18th century was a disputatious period when wits and political rivals would pen furious pamphlets to either attack their opponents or to promote their cause. One such was Dr Charles Davenant, a cousin of Jonathan Swift, who invented a character called Tom Double to espouse anti-Whig sentiment. But then, to the dismay of Swift and his chums, Devanant had a political volte-face, prompting his friends to publish, in 1704, The True Tom Double.

Within its pages is a discussion of literary styles. The prevailing taste was for a style which was even, rather than one which had the occasional splash of literary brilliance. “All a man writes should be proportion’d Even and of a piece; and one Part of the Work should not so far outshine, as to Obscure and Darken the Other. The Purple Patches he claps upon his Course Style, make it seem much Courser than it is.

It seems that the use of purple patch in a context other than literary was a much later phenomenon, perhaps around the turn of the 20th century. The Westminster Budget used it, in October 1900, to denote something exceptional or truly noteworthy; “true, it is hardly to be counted a purple patch of history…

Book Corner – February 2019 (4)

Thomas Cromwell – Diarmuid MacCulloch

Apart from the two World Wars is there an era of history that has been racked over so often and so extensively as the Tudor period? I can imagine that in a couple of decades or so there will be myriad books exploring how the hell we got into the Brexit mess but that is another story. The story of Henry VIII and the main characters of his reign are so well known, at least we think they are, that it is a brave writer who sets out to put a fresh spin on hackneyed material.

Not only is Diarmuid MacCulloch brave but on the whole he pulls it off, giving us a fresh and more complete perspective on Henry’s go-to-man of the 1530s. It is a massive and magisterial book and MacCulloch wears his scholarship lightly. But it would be wrong to suggest that it is a light read for the general reader. It is witty and acerbic but there are turgid passages when the historian explores the dynastic and genealogical complexities of the Tudor court and there is more about Tudor sewerage systems and navigation channels than you would care to shake a stick at.

Cromwell is a difficult character to rehabilitate. MacCulloch makes a brave attempt but I’m not entirely convinced by his case. Yes, Cromwell was brutal but, by the standards of the day, no more brutal than anyone else, given the chance. Part of his problem was that his boss, Henry VIII, changed policy and direction as often as he changed codpieces, perhaps more frequently. There is more than a hint of Trump in MacCulloch’s portrait of the monarch. Just to remain in post, Cromwell had to be nimble on his feet and not too fixed in his policies and trenchant in his views.

Cromwell’s chameleon-like political persona owed much to his religious stance. He was what MacCulloch describes as a Nicomedian, a term drawn from Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to see and learn from Jesus at night. After all, in his early years he defended the Boston guild’s right to sell indulgences. In later years Cromwell was, probably, a revolutionary Protestant, more inclined sympathetically to the teachings of Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich than Luther, but one who was able to hide his true sympathies behind conventional religious practice until the time was right. So turbulent were the times that the wisest counsel was to follow this course.

Irrespective of your view of Cromwell, it is incontrovertible that he played a major part in fixing the Catherine of Aragon problem and in the dissolution of monasteries and the expelling of the most egregious and usurious practices of an outmoded and corrupt Churches. But, MacCulloch argues, Cromwell was not the architect of the policy, more the organising genius who enabled what seemed to be a worthwhile (and immensely profitable) policy to be implemented. It was interesting to read that the origins of the policy dated back to Wolsey’s dissolution, Cromwell did the dirty deed, of a couple of monasteries to fund the building of a couple of colleges to commemorate the Cardinal.

MacCulloch argues, convincingly, that Cromwell and Ann Boleyn were always daggers drawn, Cromwell’s animus due to the part that Boleyn and her supporters played in the downfall of his master, Wolsey. The second half of the 1530s saw Cromwell almost fall from power following the Pilgrimage of Grace, effectively a civil war in the northern parts of England fuelled by opposition to his religious reforms, and hanging precariously on to power, defying the machinations of his foremost enemy, the Duke of Norfolk.

What did for Cromwell was his advocacy for Anne of Cleves as Henry’s fourth wife, prompted mainly by his reluctance, once his son had married into the Seymours, to see another English family usurp his position by marrying their daughter to the King. Those who live by the sword die by the sword and Cromwell’s downfall was swift and brutal.

But Cromwell’s legacy remains with us. He did much to fashion the Protestant church in England, even as it exists today.

I’m glad I read the book but would not recommend it to the general reader.