The musical life of King Henry VIII

When he wasn’t beheading people or vandalising monasteries, Henry VIII was remarkably skilled as a composer and performer, as David Skinner explains


Let’s clear one thing up first of all: Henry VIII did not compose ‘Greensleeves’. Italian in form with an Elizabethan text, this is one piece that must be struck from the list of works by this most musical of monarchs. He certainly composed, however, and many believe he composed well. Though not a requirement of any intended heir to the throne, music for a number of reasons came naturally to Henry and he remained a fanatical musician throughout his reign. This, at least, is one aspect of this king’s colourful and changing character that remained consistent.


Fired by his desire to secure the Tudor dynasty, Henry’s religious reforms of the 1530s and 1540s – a political revolution initially set up to secure his divorce with Catherine of Aragon – were to change the face of the English church forever, severing centuries of unbroken musical and religious traditions. Indeed the break with the Catholic Church and closure of hundreds of monastic and collegiate houses sent a great number of musicians to wretched poverty and composers into confusion. Nevertheless, we can credit Henry in his later years with one last positive gesture towards England’s musical heritage: he would go on to found or re-found two of England’s greatest musical institutions that still exist today – Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge – as well as finishing King’s College Chapel, that grand project started in 1441 by the teenage Henry VI. And without Henry’s reforms and the mid-16th-century reformations that followed, England would never have reached its musical renaissance as so exquisitely captured in the music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. So in the end, despite his reforms, Henry remained music’s champion.

It was on 24 June 1509 that Henry was crowned king of England, just shy of his 18th birthday. His early reign was seen as a new Golden Age, full of opulence, splendour, majesty and concord. But Henry, of course, was not originally destined to be king. As the second son of Henry VII he was raised in the manner of any European prince and received a sound education, with original hopes, it seems, for high places in the Church. Henry excelled at languages, literature, theology, sport and, famously, music. Little is known of his early musical tuition, but it’s likely that he would have benefited from contact with musicians attached to his father’s court, such as William Cornysh and William Newarke. His musically formative years doubtlessly took place while a boy at Eltham Palace, where he must have had exposure to many musical instruments; one can imagine him singing songs of youth, hunting and love, the things he excelled at so well as a young man. The untimely death in 1502 of his older brother Arthur, however, thrust the young Duke of York into the limelight. When Henry VIII came to the throne, he cut a very different figure to that most famously depicted by Hans Holbein in 1537.

During his early years the court abounded with cultural activity – indeed, the number of full-time musicians employed in his household increased from around a half dozen to 58. He also kept his own private household chapel choir in addition to his Chapel Royal, containing the finest musicians in the land, which was a regular part of his retinue.

This love of music made gift-giving easy for those hoping to gain his favour. One famous example is a royal choir book gifted to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in around 1516, now in the British Library (the nucleus of which was formed from Henry’s own personal library). A number of scholars have tackled the historical and musical nature of this beautifully illustrated book, though still relatively little concrete information is known of its origin and function. The frontispiece contains a tribute to Henry VIII which is set among Tudor roses and a fortified island representing England. The text ‘Psallite felices’ (Sing, fortunate ones) is set by the German composer ‘Sampson’ about whom little is known, though a number of his works appear in Continental printed sources – he is probably also the composer of the famous ‘Rose Canon’ Salve radix (Hail, root). The remainder of the book carries themes of eroticism and child bearing (Henry and Catherine were at this time trying to conceive an heir). 


From England itself, however, few tributes to Henry have come down to us. There is the Mass ‘God Save King Henry’ by Thomas Ashwell, of which only two of five parts survive. Earlier still is Robert Fayrfax’s setting of Lauda vivi alpha et oo (Praise, most exalted daughter of the living Alpha and Omega), a devotion to the Virgin Mary with an embedded prayer to the king, probably composed soon after Henry came to the throne in 1509. And then there is John Taverner’s O Christe Jesu, pastor bone (O Jesus Christ, good shepherd), which began life with a prayer to Henry’s chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, but was then adapted in praise of the king when the cardinal fell in 1530. Typical of the great pre-Reformation votive antiphon in its vast musical architecture, it was to be the great musical art forms such as this, forged from a long tradition, that would be swept away by Henry’s reforms.

• Read more: How the Tudors mastered musical propaganda

But what of Henry’s own music-making? It is well known that he was a competent player of a variety of keyboard, string, and wind instruments and there is even an image of him playing his harp in the so-called Henry VIII Psalter. According to Sir Peter Carew, a Gentleman of Henry’s Privy Chamber, the king was also ‘much delighted to sing’. We learn, too, from the chronicler Edward Halle that Henry was an accomplished composer, having set at least two masses in five parts which ‘were song oftentimes in hys chapel, and afterwardes in diverse other places’. The main testament to his compositional skill, however, is the so-called Henry VIII Manuscript, which contains 109 songs and instrumental pieces by composers attached to the court as well as some by foreign musicians. No fewer than 33 of the compositions, nearly a third of the entire collection, are ascribed to ‘the kyng h.viii’.

Music scholars often bash Henry’s compositions. True, several are weak: open chords, parallel fifths and other schoolboy errors abound. But all of his surviving works would have been composed when he was in his early twenties, teens or even earlier. If only those five-part Mass settings had survived, we would then have some measure of Henry as a serious composer. One can imagine that he gained advice from composers and musicians attached to his chapel and court, but these early errors seem to show that much of what survives is the king’s own. Of the 13 untexted works, Tandernaken is arguably his most accomplished, but there are other gems.
Most famous in the collection, Pastyme with good companye is similar to Though some saith in which he proclaims ‘I hurt no man, I do no wrong; I love true where I did marry.’ Other compositions, such as Adieu madame and O my heart, seem, meanwhile, to have been conjured from the depths of Henry’s emotions and vividly reveal a young king in love. Now this is good stuff. In celebration of 500 years since Henry came to the throne, perhaps it is time to give his musical side another chance, remembering that without Henry’s actions (good or bad) England’s musical heritage would most likely be different to that which we enjoy today.

This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of BBC Music Magazine

Read more…

• How the Tudors mastered musical propaganda


• Biography: Thomas Tallis