The practice of referring to “excessive bureaucratic rigmarole” as red tape dates back more than 400 years to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, 1500-1558, heir to three of Europe’s most powerful dynasties (Habsburg, Valois-Burgundy, and Trastámara).
At the time, administrative documents were bound in some fashion, either with rope, string, ribbon, or cloth. During the early 16th century, in order to distinguish the most important documents that required immediate discussion at the highest levels of government from those of less significance, Charles’ ministers began tying important papers together with red string or red ribbon.
Seeing the efficacy of such a system, the method was soon adopted across Europe, and England’s Henry VIII used red string, ribbon, or cloth to secure the petitions he sent to Pope Clement VII requesting annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527.
The term 'red tape', in reference to this string for important papers dates back to the late 17th century where it was written in Maryland Laws: “The Map . . . upon the Backside thereof sealed with his Excellency’s Seal at Arms on a Red Cross with Red Tape.”
The Oxford English Dictionary dates its current meaning to 1736 and John Hervey’s Poetical Epistle to the Queen: “Let Wilmington, with grave, contracted brow, Red tape and wisdom at the Council show.”