Coincidentally: Heirs to the Hairless

Dr. Martin Routh, president of Magdalen College for 63 years, was the last Oxford don to wear a wig in the 18th- century style, and this he did until he died in his 100th year in 1854. He had been born on the 25th anniversary of the death of Peter the Great, who banned beards from the imperial court while tolerating court wigs. As St. Petersburg is the Liverpool of Russia, it is intriguing to learn from philologists that the local Liverpudlian accent pronounces “hair and heir” and “hairpiece and herpes” the same.

Received opinion is that hair loss is in proportion to intelligence. One thinks just off the top of one’s head of William Shakespeare, William Cullen Bryant, Herbert Spencer, Octave Cremazie, Wilbur Wright, and Dwight David Eisenhower. The bearded Bard of Avon seems to have been a bit defensive about his alopecia, for he says in his Comedy of Errors, “There’s many a man hath more hair than wit.” It may well be that incorporeal angels would appear to us as totally bald by virtue of their perfect intelligence. Hair is a liability. Absalom, never to be equated in IQ with the angels, was doomed when his rampant follicles got caught up the branches of an oak tree. Elisha conjured up two she-bears to tear apart 42 children as punishment for the first bald joke mentioned in history. “Go up thou bald head” (2 Kings 2:23) is a fragile jest, but something may have been lost in translation. At Athens, traditionally bald St. Paul converted Dionysius the Areopagite, a man frequently confused with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, whose writing could have been lost to the world without the Latin translations of Erigena, who was funded in the ninth century by Charles the Bald.

St. Paul tolerated hair only when it was covered, and tonsure has long been the style of a life of perfection. Seutonius writes that after vain Julius Caesar’s success over Pompey on the plains of Pharsalia, the Roman Senate voted him permission to wear the laurel wreath all the time, thus concealing his bald spot. After smallpox, Elizabeth I took to hairpieces and the Queen of Scots wore a wig to her execution in Fotheringay Castle. In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Churchill describes how her severed head dropped, leaving the executioner holing nothing but the chignon. This romantic Mary was born, coincidentally, on the bicentenary of the death of Snori Sturluson; his epic Heimskringla is virtually a hymn to the Norwegian kings who were congenitally hirsute, from Harald the Fairhaired up to 1177 when bald intelligence entered the royal succession.

A man’s wig plaited with a queue and tied with a black ribbon was the fashion of George Washington and other Founding Fathers. One fabled exception was Benjamin Franklin, whose bust of him shown wigless was venerated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame during the Reign of Terror. In 1761, Franklin was in London representing the Pennsylvania Assembly on tax matters concerning proprietary estates when Hogarth published his engravings of Five Orders of Periwigs. Fifteen years later, as representative of his new nation and adulated as man bien dans sa peau, his accounts while at the Hotel d’Hambourg show expenditures for several wigs that he may have worn when not in a Rousseauan mood. Different in attitude was the son of the poetess Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Edward, a rather eccentric Arabic scholar who purchased in Paris a wig made completely of iron. At 63, he died as Franklin was signing the Declaration of Independence. The plaited wig originally was called the “Ramillie” after the 1706 Battle of Ramillies won by the first Duke of Marlborough on May 23. Such was being worn by the duke’s equerry, Colonel Bringfield, when his entire head was sheered off by a cannonball as he was holding the duke’s stirrup.

During his leisurely pontificate, Pope Benedict XIII discouraged the Roman cardinals from wearing wigs. In 19th-century New York, Bishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey sported toupees without incident, unlike Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang of the Church of England, whose wig got caught in a chandelier in the episcopal palace at York in 1908. Exactly 300 years after the birth of the gradually glabrous Elizabeth I, the prematurely bald cardinal, Henry Manning, wrote: “Nine-tenths of our bishops and priests neither know nor care more for a Bishop’s wig than for a broccoli head.” These were his exact words. It is important that they be so for, if bewigged Dr. Routh ever said anything memorable, it was his parting advice to a youth who had asked for some wisdom to support him on life’s long journey: “Always verify your quotations.”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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