Catholic Herald, 9 February 1990
It is possible, but not very likely, that Edward Lear was standing in front of the portrait pictured on the far side when he wrote “. . . his body is perfectly spherical, he weareth a runcible hat”. Would you call that hat runcible? It looks more like a high-class bed-bonnet to me. Runcible, it seems, means a curved fork with three broad prongs.
But Lear may have derived his adjective from the French rouncival, meaning a large pea. Wolsey, who sports the runcible bonnet, was, of course, possessed of another rather grander hat. You may be able to make it out in the top right-hand corner of the portrait – a cardinal’s hat. I have just seen what purports to be the self-same item of clerical headgear, thanks to the kindness of the Treasurer at Christ Church College, Oxford.
And before you all buy day returns to see for yourselves, no, you may not. The Hat is kept in the Upper Library, a part of the college that is closed to visitors. If enough pressure were brought to bear, those who decide this sort of thing might be persuaded to relocate the hat in a public place. Weirder things have happened.
The Upper Library is a beautiful room with an exquisite eighteenth century stucco ceiling and splendid Norwegian oak bookcases. In the middle of this grand setting is what looks like a wooden font. In this “font” reposes Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat, protected by glass topped off with a faded green silk mat.
The hat itself is a rusty red and is probably made of rabbi fur felt. If it really did belong to Wolsey it must be almost 500 years old! What a small round head Wolsey had, very rouncival in fact.
The decorative golden danglers are missing. Perhaps Charles Kean (actor) stripped them off to use as sock-suspenders? He is said to have worn the Hat whenever he played Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Kean bought the Hat in 1842 for £21 when Strawberry Hill was sold on the demise of Horace Walpole. (Kean’s daughter showed fine business acumen when she sold the Hat to Christ Church in 1890 for £63.)
Walpole had come by the hat via a succession of aristocratic Albemarles. And they got hold of it from the Clerk of the Closet (who he?) who had found it in the Great Wardrobe (where that?) in 1700.
Objects like that Hat have as much interest for us as the thoughts they conjure up. A young friend recently presented me with a small piece of greyish concrete. She knows I collect stones. “It’s a piece of the Berlin Wall”.
This contemporary talking point is sitting in one of my egg-cups but I’m thinking of building a “font” for it. Odd how such scraps of matter can be so evocative. A host of associations clusters round that little stone and the faded red object in the Upper Library.
Wolsey, whose cardinal’s hat is more substantially reproduced in stone as a motif on the westerly walls of the college, is hardly a shining example of Catholicism. But one wouldn’t want his chapeau to be binned; even if it isn’t genuine it’s a stunning example of early millinery.
Another cardinal of very different calibre is haunting Oxford this Hilary term. I warned you back in October that 1990 is Newman’s Year.
A series of eight public lectures began on January 16 with Lord St John of Fawsley opening the batting. Before he was introduced by the Provost of Oriel (who, with the President of Trinity, arranged these lectures), a message from President Cossiga of Italy (himself a Newman scholar) was read by the Italian ambassador.
President Cossiga dwelt poignantly on Newman’s four visits to Rome: the first a struggle between darkness and light; the second a time of discernment and creativity; the third when Newman showed his practical and administrative skills; and the fourth when he came to receive his hard-won cardinal’s hat, a visit of joy and fulfilment.
It is difficult, if not cheeky, to try and collapse into one paragraph the substance of Lord St John’s elegant lecture. How one envies the skill of an expert public speaker! Lord St John spoke to a packed audience on the theme Newman the Man. Observing that Newman had enjoyed a particularly happy home life and that he liked women and children, Lord St John explored the character of this balanced man. He opined that Newman was self-aware as distinct from self-centred; that he had an incredible memory, a soaring intellect and powerful imagination.
Despite controversy, Newman made lasting friendships and maintained an enviable inner serenity. He was interested in current affairs as well as theology, in music and in literature. Newman had a very un-Victorian sympathy for Ireland and argued for genuine pluralism. This balanced outlook no doubt owes something to Rosmini’s influence and precept ‘‘regulate your actions by the spirit of intelligence”.
Lord St John went on to recall Newman’s extraordinary speaking voice – quiet, measured and very memorable.
Dr. David Newsome, who gave the second lecture entitled Newman and Oxford, also referred to the unique voice which prompted Matthew Arnold to write, years later, “I seem to hear him still”.
Dr. Newsome neatly described Oxford as the place that “reared, feared, then revered Newman’’. He outlined Newman’s career and the personalities that influenced his development as both an Anglican and a Catholic, pointing out that Oxford was the scene of some of the cardinal’s bitterest disappointments but also the arena of his greatest triumphs.
Dr. Newsome made the interesting observation that the rule and life of the Oratorians is not dissimilar to life in an Oxford College. This lively lecture included many witty anecdotes which were much appreciated by another packed house.
A string of distinguished speakers are yet to come. The lectures take place in the Examination Schools on Tuesdays at 5 pm, until February 27. I hope they will be published in due course, but if you are able to attend in person I guarantee a feast of electrical erudition.
The prophet Isaiah must have been a galvanising public speaker – all those resounding phrases. I’m thinking in particular of the turning of swords into ploughshares quote.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire has proposed something equally outrageous. He has suggested making pens out of the missiles that both East and West are committed to dismantle. This simple acknowledgement that the pen is mightier than the sword has the support of the Russians so far. I shall certainly buy one and put it in my “font” with the crumb of Berlin’s Wall.