Every schoolboy learns three facts about Henry VIII.  One, that he had six wives, two, that he broke with the Church of Rome, and three that he wrote Greensleeves as a love song song for his second wife Anne Boleyn.  I have no difficulty believing in the first two facts, but the third is a tougher one to swallow.  Certainly, Greensleeves is 16th century, but from the time of Elizabeth I, rather than that of her father.

So, when Falstaff refers to Greensleeves in The Merry Wives of Windsor – written by Shakespeare around 1597 – Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves he’s probably referring to a contemporary tune.  Worse still, as far Henry and England’s signature tune is concerned, the melody and its underlying harmonies are almost certainly Italian in origin.  Such a notion is almost unthinkable to the English, and it would be rather like saying that the chimes of Westminster were written by Wagner (actually there is a school of opinion that says they were written, or at least inspired by Handel, but that is another story).

Never mind, depriving Henry VIII of Greensleeves, doesn’t diminish his reputation as an amateur composer, and nearly 40 pieces – or arrangements – by the King, can be found today on the shelves in the British Library, including the so-called King’s Ballad – Pastime with Good Company.

I suspect Henry simply followed the pattern of the typical Renaissance man, who regarded music as an essential part of his education.  However, his obvious enthusiasm for it laid the ground for the next era, that of Elizabeth I and the so-called Golden Age of English Music.

The era of Elizabeth I

Like her father, Elizabeth I had a passion for music and possessed skills in singing and performing on the lute and the virginals;  in addition, she was remarkably nimble footed on the dance floor.  As the  Spanish Ambassador related after he had attended the Twelfth Night celebrations at the English Court in 1599 The head of the Church of England and Ireland was to be seen in her old age dancing three or four galliards.

To sum up.  Music was a driving force in the lives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and their desire to be surrounded by it inspired the great composers of the day to rise to the challenges of producing first class compositions, which readily rivalled those being written on the Continent. The study day explores the wide range of musical talent that existed at the Tudor Court and draws on the music of Cornyshe, Henry VIII, Tallis, Byrd, Morley, Johnson, Dowland, and – of course – Anon.

Italian Virginals

A modern copy of a late 16th century Italian virginals (right) is available to connoisseurs.  It may be heard in the following recording of Galliard Neopolitana.

Galliard Neopolitana by Antonio Valente 1576 – played by Peter Medhurst on Italian Virginals

John Bull – Les Buffon – played by Peter Medhurst on a Virginals Muselar