Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2013. Do not copy without permission.
Completely Off Topic
Completely Off Topic

Okay, so you and I both know that Henry VIII didn’t have an MP3 player. But what if he had? What kind of music would he have collected? What interesting tunes would turn up on shuffle?

<insert watery wavering lines and harp glissandos as we travel back in time…>

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509-1547. His father, Henry VII, had a serious interest in music and was a strong supporter of musicians. Throughout Henry VIII’s childhood, music occupied a prominent place at his father’s court, and young Henry was trained in music from an early age.

When he was still a teenager, it was his turn to be king, and Henry VIII turned his court into a center of musical culture. He encouraged foreign musicians to work there, introducing the Franco-Flemish style of church music (see my posts on Josquin, Dufay, and Ockeghem for more about this style) to England, and building up an enormous collection of musical instruments.

During his lifetime and after, supporters created the Henry VIII Manuscript. The manuscript is mainly a secular document, and includes descriptions of life at court (perhaps somewhat embellished and romanticized by a finely honed sense of “courtly love”). It also includes song lyrics, naming composers such as Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), and even the names of some of his buddies. Other manuscripts from Henry VIII’s reign contain a variety of songs and instrumental pieces in three and four parts.

From this environment, by mid-century, a distinctly English genre for solo voice accompanied by a consort of viols had emerged. The master of the consort song was William Byrd (1543-1623), who raised the technical level of the medium to new heights. Byrd’s collection was very successful in his own lifetime and after, and although English madrigal and lute songs are better known today, composers would continue to write songs for consorts well into the 17th century. But Byrd was more a composer for Elizabeth I and James than for Henry’s. I mention him here so that you can see how English music would be hugely colored by Henry VIII, as much by the man himself as by the political and religious change that his monarchy brought about.

Speaking of change, the leader of the Reformation movement and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), wrote to Henry stating what was to become the basic principle for settings of the new English musical texts: “The song should not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, a syllable for every note.” This put the emphasis on the text, where it had been before polyphony came along, about 500 years earlier. (For more on this, read my blog posting Chords versus Polyphony.)

Composers reacted variously to the new conditions. John Taverner (1495-1545), one of England’s shining stars, gave up composition altogether to become an agent of Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540), who was First Earl of Essex and the chief minister who helped orchestrate the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services, which, while attractive, did not match the technical interest and artistry of their Latin music. Both continued to compose Latin motets, but obediently no longer wrote the lengthier (and more undeniably Catholic) Mass music. 

The suppression of the monasteries between 1536 and 1547 not only involved the dispersal of monastic musicians, but often included the destruction of musical manuscripts in large quantities, so much of the pre-Reformation music of the British Isles is lost to us. We have the Fayrfax Book (collected c1500) and the Eton Choirbook (collected 1500-1505) from Henry’s father’s time, but that is nearly all that survived. (Don’t you wish there really had been MP3 players?)

The Chapel Royal

In the 13th century, English monarchs established a  body of priests and musicians to provide musical entertainment and who were part of the royal household. This group was called the Chapel Royal, and to be named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal was a considerable honor. It meant income, status, and property. (There is still such a group in England today. Other countries had similar bodies, although most have long since disbanded.)

During Henry’s father’s time, big names like William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), and John Lloyd (d.1523) were part of this establishment, and after Henry’s time,  William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) received this honor.

During Henry’s reign, only Richard Edwardes (1525-1566) seems to have been added to the very auspicious ranks. Edwardes was probably Henry’s illegitimate son by Agnes Edwards, so it’s hard to know if he was there on merit or by some obligation on Henry’s part. 

On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII (1491-1547)

But that doesn’t mean Henry VIII didn’t surround himself with musicians of the highest caliber. It meant that many of the greatest musicians of his time were already members from his father’s reign. But he didn’t stop with British musicians. He invited big names from all over the Continent to come, and come they did.

Henry collected all things musical, and musical instruments were no exception. It probably started with the tradition of having household minstrels. At the time, minstrels were common for royal households and those of other aristocrats. Ecclesiastics kept them, and so did towns and ships. Minstrels played either haut instruments or bas (for more on haut and bas, see my post on the shawm) as required by the occasion, and they sang and were expected to compose songs on demand. Kind of like today’s rap artists.

The minstrel would have had a large collection of instruments, such as the louder winds and the trompette de menestrals (which was a slide trumpet or sackbut, not a modern trumpet), stringed and keyboard instruments, along with gentler wind instruments like recorders and cornetti. Wind instruments were his favorite, and Henry VIII had 77 recorders in his stash when he died.

Henry was a skilled all-around performer, playing several keyboard instruments, the cornetto, the recorder, and the lira de flauti (don’t know what that is, but I’m going to guess that it’s some sort of lyre or harp). There are stories that Sir Edward Stanley (c1460-1523), the fellow reputed to have killed James IV of Scotland, wrote and sang a ballade to the clavichord while at court, but it isn’t known if Henry accompanied him.

There were plenty of people in Henry VIII’s court who played or composed, including Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), Richard Davy (c1465-1538), William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Thomas Ashewell (c1478-c1513), John Redford (c1486–1547), Nicholas Ludford (c1490–1557), John Taverner (1495–1545), Christopher Tye (c1505–c1572), and most notably, Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585). And there were some Chapel members who didn’t compose but were fine musicians, such as Benedict de Opitiis (dates not available), Ambrose Lupo (d. 1591), Dionisio Memo (dates not available), and Richard Sampson (d. 1554). All of these fellows would have been on Henry’s MP3 player. There would also have been women at court who played or sang, including some of his wives, such as Anne Boleyn, who was Henry’s equal in musical skill..

Henry’s education was quite good. In addition to reading and  writing in English, French, and Latin, he played the lute, organ, and virginals, along with an assortment of wind instruments.

Music was terrifically important to him, and he brought musicians from the Continent to teach and share their compositions. It was Henry VIII that put an end to English musical isolationism, something that Elizabeth I would follow up on with enthusiasm.

In 1513, Henry took the members of the Chapel Royal to Lille, where they met the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria. It must have been a wonderful festival full of music. While Henry was out and about, he recruited  Venetian organist Dionisio Memo (mentioned above), a whole bunch of French and Flemish musicians, and the Bruges organist Benet de Opiciis (no dates on this fellow, although he took payment for a regal organ—a post about these to come—in 1518).

In 1520, they all trooped over to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France, where they met the French Chapel of Francis I. The meeting was intended to improve relations between France and England and was considered a successful meeting, but one which not be repeated until Queen Victoria met King Louis Philippe I in 1843

You all know the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, so I won’t tell it here. But the result of the fracas was a new church. In 1534, Henry convinced Parliament to separate from Rome and named himself as the new head of the Church of England. The new church remained essentially Catholic in Doctrine under Henry, but Henry wanted a few changes. He wanted less pomp and circumstance, as prescribed by the Mass format, but more importantly, he wanted the services to be in English rather than Latin, the language of Rome. English music would be changed forever.

The Music and Musicians

The leading composer of the early 16th century was John Taverner (c1490-1545). His Masses and motets exemplify the English taste for long melismas, full textures, and cantus-firmus (the chant melody, usually performed slowly as a counterpoint to the polyphony swirling around it). This is the opposite of what Thomas Cranmer prescribed, if you’ll recall, and probably had a lot to do with Taverner’s quitting the music business.

Most of Taverner’s church music was probably written during the years 1526-30, while he was organist and choirmaster of Cardinal College (now Christ Church), at Oxford. It includes eight Masses, three Magnificats, and some shorter pieces. But Taverner was attracted to Lutheranism, and he became a zealous agent of Thomas Cromwell during the Dissolution and repented that he’d previously made “Popish ditties.” He abandoned composition altogether.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1527) wrote to Henry, stating the basic principles for settings of the new English texts. He preferred syllabic music (one note per syllable) rather than melismatic (a single syllable spread over lots of notes). But not all composers agreed.

Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services. They  were nice, but not as interesting or technical as their Latin music. Both Tye and Tallis continued to compose Latin motets but not Masses, and it is perhaps this simplification of music that led to what would become the English anthem (you’ll read more about those in my post on William Byrd, coming soon).

The most important mid-century English composer—not just for the 16th century, but probably until our own times—was Thomas Tallis (c1505-1565). Firmly Catholic despite the laws against practicing Catholicism, he would come to write English service music and other sacred works that reflected the religious and political upheavals in England during Henry’s rule and through Elizabeth’s. But he couldn’t hide his own pain at the dismal situation his own religion was in, and it’s reflected in his music, either in melody or in the texts he chose.

Another noted composer of the times was John Merbecke (c1510-c1585). He wrote that music should follow natural speech rhythms. In 1522, Merbecke was among the pro-Calvinists who proclaimed that all music was vanity.

But what would Henry have listened to; what would he have asked his musicians to play? Part songs, which is music written for multiple voice parts (like soprano, alto, tenor, bass) were popular in Henry’s reign, and the fashion continued long after. Keyboard music was new and in vogue, such as that of John Redford (1485-1545) for virginals and organ. Most of these songs were based on plainsong with either imitative counterpoints or florid ornamental lines as accompaniment. There are plenty of dances, settings of psalm tunes and chant melodies by Redford’s contemporaries, and transcriptions of secular part songs and anthems in the Mulliner Book (compiled 1545-1570).

The FitzWilliam Virginals Book (collected 1562-1612) is from later years, but it contains organ works from earlier, such as dances, variations on themes, and fantasia forms (lots of improvisation) that are usually found in the lute repertoire.  The virginals or virginal (depending on what country you’re in) was a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord

Any Excuse

There would have been many reasons for making music. Church, obviously, would have been one of them. But it wasn’t all seriousness and prayer. There would have been dances, ceremonies for visiting dignitaries and the promotion of the aristocracy, and social entertainments. There would have been tournaments, festivals, and breaks from the work-a-day drudgery of ruling a nation. There would have been ambient music during meals, fanfares announcing the king’s arrival, and notifications of arriving ships or dignitaries. There would have been loads of music everywhere the king went. Except when he didn’t want it, of course. That’s what being king is all about.

Henry wrote plenty of music himself. There are 34 pieces identified as by Henry, and there are possibly more attributed to “anonymous” or lost. Of the 20 vocal items he wrote, many are not original but are arrangements of existing music, and his instrumental offerings might also have been arrangements.

Pieces for which Henry gets credit include Helas madam and Pastyme with good companye, which are  two of his most famous works. They’re very much in the style of what was going on over on the Continent. They also found 13 instrumental pieces in three or four parts, and a three-part motet, Quem pulchra est.

White note mensuration was used to write all this music down. You’ll want to have a look at that over on the blog I wrote about the History of Music Notation.

After Henry VIII

When Henry died, his son Edward was too young to take the throne properly. He had advisors, and as you can imagine, it was a fractious time to be at court. The Edwardian Act of Uniformity devastated all remaining musical establishments by forbidding the celebration of Mass. Attending church became less formal, a poor substitute for what had previously been the chief feature of the daily musical life at cathedrals, churches, and colleges. Whole throngs of monastic and clerical musicians were essentially sent out to compete with lay musicians, seeking patrons and busking to earn their keep.

Under Mary, for five years, Mass music reappeared along with the official restoration of Catholicism. But as soon as Elizabeth took the throne, it was banned again. In the new type of service established during Elizabeth’s reign, Latin motets could be used as church music, along with the new form, the anthem. You’ll want to read my blog post on William Byrd (1543-1623) when I post it for more on that subject. He’s quite a character!

hit counter

If you want to build your own MP3 player full of the same music Henry would have heard, you’ll want to search for music by the fellows in this article. Here. I’ll make it easier:

·         Thomas Ashewell (c1478-c1513)

·        William Byrd (1543-1623),

·         William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523)

·        Richard Davy (c1465-1538)

·         Josquin des Prez (c1440-1541)

·        Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474)

·         Richard Edwardes (1525-1566)

·        Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521)

·         Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

·        Henry VIII (1491-1547)

·         John Lloyd (d.1523)

·        Nicholas Ludford (c1490–1557)

·         John Merbecke (c1510-c1585)

·        Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497)

·         John Redford (c1486–1547)

·        John Sheppard (c1515–1558)

·         Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)

·        John Taverner (1495-1545)

·         Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572)


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche.  Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.

“Music Manuscripts,” by Arthur Searle. The British Library, London, 1987.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.