For many people, the song ‘Greensleeves’ is associated with the Tudors, England and with traditional English music. If the hit counters on ‘YouTube‘ are any guide it is still popular, the version above has been watched over 25,000 times whilst another has had over a million hits!
There is a persistent myth that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen Anne Boleyn. Anne rejected Henry’s attempts to seduce her and this rejection is apparently referred to in the song, when the writer’s love “cast [him] off discourteously.” However, it seems Henry did not write Greensleeves, which is probably an Elizabethan tune.
In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice without any explanation to the tune of Greensleeves, and Falstaff later exclaims:
Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!
I like the idea of the sky raining potatoes! These allusions suggest that the song was already well known at that time.
A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves
A broadside ballad by the name of Greensleeves was registered at the London Stationer’s Company in 1580 as “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves”. It then appears in the surviving A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) as “A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green Sleeves.”
No-one really knows who wrote Greensleeves but we do know that music played a huge part in Tudor court life. Dancing was a form of exercise enjoyed by the royal family and practised every morning. Dancing was accompanied by the Court musicians. Low born but talented musicians sought places at the court of the Tudors, and one such musician, Mark Smeaton, featured strongly in the tragic story of Anne Boleyn. Favoured by Anne Boleyn he was falsely accused of being her lover, tortured and finally put to death.
A rich time for music
The Tudor period was a rich time for music making – and I play and listen to music which would have been familiar to Tudor ears. Music and dancing were at the heart of life for rich and poor alike. The medieval music of the pipe and tabor was still very much in evidence, and many tunes that were played then are still used for English Country Dancing and Morris Dancing. I know many of these well as I play the melodeon for dancing. New instruments were being developed during the Tudor period; and the religious turmoil of the age acted as a stimulus for the music of Tallis, Byrd, which will be the subject of a future post.
PS On the subject of Tudor music we had a comment from Philip Sheppard who is composing music for the forthcoming David Starkey TV program about Henry VIII . If you want to hear a preview of the music go to his blog “radiomovies“