Charles Nevin: We will fight them on the aitches - Winstone, a leader for our bleedin' times

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The Independent Online

Stone the crows! There are those, I understand, who have expressed surprise at the rather strong London accent with which that fine actor Ray Winstone is presently portraying Henry VIII on our television screens. My quibble is that he is not going quite far enough. It is time that more historians noted the seminal influence on the young Henry exercised by his nursemaid, Mistress Cotton. Thanks to "Old Dot", as she was known, the king often spoke informally in rhyming slang, as this declaration, faithfully recorded by the Tudor chronicler Thomas Trinder will show: "Oi, Crommy, me old son and daughter, get one of your pluckin' lyres to move his bottle and glass darn to Dick Short sharpish and see if that jumped-up Derek has got any new shillings and pence on the bleedin' cart and 'orse!" Some of you might require a translation: "Prithee, Master Cromwell, my trusted courtier, despatch one of thy squires down to Hampton Court with all haste so that we may learn if that proud cleric [Cardinal Wolsey] has any new intelligence on the pestilent matter of my divorce!"

Thrilling stuff. And nor is Henry by any means unique. Many monarchs before and since have taken great delight in the use of colourful demotic, often learnt at their nursemaid's knee, finding it an invigorating contrast to the stultifying constraints of courtly protocol. Little of this is familiar to the modern reader, as nearly all their pronouncements have been rendered subsequently into the, ah, King's or Queen's English by writers who owed more of a duty to royal dignity than the truth, rather in the manner of flattering court painters.

A return to the original sources proves highly supportive of Winstone's interpretation, if a little disappointing for the more romantically inclined; as the following selection will show:

Camelot, AD450: "Listen, Lancey me old China, you keep your brass bands off my trouble and strife or there'll be no more sitting round the Cain and Abel and you'll be down the apple and pears and off as sharpish as your plates of meat can carry you back to your Lake if you want to keep hold of your orchestra stalls, orlrite?"

Wessex, 878: "Lordluvaduck, can you Christmas Eve it? I've taken my mince pies off the Lancelots for a cock linnet and now they're as much use as a brown bread housecarl!"

Runnymede, 1215: "Strike a light! This is a right load of barons, this is! And look at the size of the thing! You're taking the hit and miss, aincha? I'm signing nothing without my brief, even if he does charge like a Saracen with a lance up his Khyber! Carter! Where are you?"

Agincourt, 1415: "Wor! Canny dye! Crispin's! Broons alroond! Wan tha boot cams in! Hadaway, Froggies! Haway wi happy few lads, wi band of marras!"

Bosworth Field, 1485: "Now then, my lovelies, has any of you got a dobbin goin' spare? Oi think you'll foind it worth it as oim getting a tiny bit despereight."

Tilbury, 1588: "Ay youse, yeralrite dere? I know I ave the body of a weak and feeble Judy, but I ave a heart and stomach just like me dar, I'm not jokin yer. 'Onest, doh, dese Spaniardos, dey do make yer sick, don't dey doh?"

Whitehall, 1649, outside the window, on the scaffold: "See you, Jimmy!"

Windsor, 1714: Actually, I don't think I'm quite up to dealing with Hanoverian rhyming slang, which, though terribly funny, depend for most of its effects on a detailed knowledge of the many local varieties of wurst. We shall have to wait a few years, then, for the resumed and benign effects of a royal upbringing:

Windsor, 1783: "Vell, I'll go to ze beginnings of our bannisters! Amerika! Kaput! On its Jack Von Jones! Or should I say its John Paul Von Jones! Boom, boom! Seriously, zo, what an absolute egg and spoon! It's enough to send ein man to Plaistow! Zorry? Plaistow! It's nearly Barking! Barking! Woof! Woof!"

Osborne, 1887: "Woy don't think that's veroi funnoi, actualloi."

Soon after that, of course, the arrival of wireless brought this colourful royal tradition to an end, although older readers may remember George V punctuating his early broacasts with the occasional "It were all a bit of a bugger". No, Mr Winstone has done us a service, and in the very nick of time.