Music Teacher's Helper Blog

King Henry the VIII: Musician and Composer!

Henry 1 Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived! Is that what comes to mind when you think of the famous Tudor King of England? I imagine that his chat up line should have gone something like this: “Don’t worry; I won’t keep you for long!”

On a more serious note, probably a lesser known side to this colourful character of history was his ability as a musician and a composer! Born in 1491, Henry received an excellent education from the leading tutors of the day. As was expected of children born of the nobility, Henry was to become proficient in many skills such as hunting, fencing, jousting, archery, hawking, wrestling, dancing, writing poetry, singing as well as learning to play several musical instruments.

Henry 2A Very Long iTunes Playlist!

Henry developed a life-long love of listening to, performing and composing music. He built an extensive collection of musical instruments over the years including some 78 flutes, 76 recorders, 10 trombones, 14 trumpets, 5 bagpipes and many others! He was well respected as a competent musician and singer, doing much to actively encourage the very best musicians of the day to attend court. Many of the finest musicians and composers were attracted to this centre of musical culture with some coming from faraway European countries! During his reign, much experimentation in combining different musical instruments together in ensemble playing contributed greatly to the developing Renaissance era. At the height of this musical community, Henry had almost one hundred musicians and composers at his beck and call! They were highly organised, taking shifts to provide the King with an almost constant soundtrack to his day. From his waking moments, appropriate instruments would entertain his seemingly insatiable appetite for music.

Henry 3

Who Needs a Barry White CD!

Perhaps rather shocking is King Henry the VIII’s requirement for musical accompaniment whilst he entertained the ladies in his bedchamber! That must have been a very awkward working environment for those unfortunate musicians! And who dared defy the King? Heads were known to roll…

Henry the Composer

Most fascinating is the King’s compositional output. He wrote a great deal of music although sadly some of which has been lost including many of his masses and ballads. A testament to his ability as a composer is the popularity with which some of his pieces enjoyed, spreading from his court, across the realm and into Europe. And not only in his lifetime. Some of his songs have passed through the generations and are still performed by early music ensembles today!

For many years, the belief was that King Henry the VIII wrote the popular folk song Greensleeves. Much speculation arose about the subject of the song possibly being Anne Boleyn but scholars have rejected this claim. It is now felt that this piece was written in an Italian style of composition which only arrived on English shores sometime after Henry’s death, therefore dating it as Elizabethan.Did He or Didn’t He?!?

Henry 4Henry VIII Songbook

An extraordinary collection of his music is today kept at the British Library in London; the so-called Henry VIII’s Songbook. This book contains over 100 secular compositions by contemporary Tudor composers, 33 of which were written by the King himself. Beautifully notated and illuminated by one of his inner circle onto parchment, this manuscript gives us an amazing insight into the developing composer, taking us from his early works when he was as young as eleven through to his extremely mature and complex compositions as an adult.

A Number One Hit!

Contained in this collection is Henry’s greatest success, a song written in 1509 shortly after his coronation entitled “Pastime with Good Company.” So popular was this catchy tune with its raucous lyrics, that it “broke out” of his court and quickly spread through England becoming a national hit. People sung it in the streets and in the taverns and before long it travelled into Europe! It also endured the passage of time, being handed down orally to later generations; Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, herself an excellent keyboard player, said that this was her most favourite song. Take a listen! (You will need to open up this article on the MTH website to hear the recording below. If you can read music, click on the original manuscript above or the modern version below to enlarge and follow along!)

Recording of Pastime With Good Company, composed by Henry VIII, recorded by Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford

Henry VIII Pastime With Good Companye_Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford

Henry 5“Pastime with Good Company”

Bearing in mind that you are following a score written 500 years ago, it is an interesting comparison to the sheet music we musicians use today, acting as a milestone in the constantly evolving journey of notation practice. The first thing you might notice as missing is a time signature or bar-lines; those concepts came later! Just a vertical line to mark the end of each verse. However the notes are recognisably written on a five lined stave (staff) with the lyrics underneath. As you look closely, the same rhythmic values that we use today are discernible; semibreves (whole notes), minims (half notes), crotchets (quarter notes) and breves (double whole notes) at the end of the first and last phrase/line of each verse. Also, at the start of every line, is an early C clef. If you count up from the line in the middle of the clef you can work out that the first note is in fact B flat! (You will notice that a flat is neatly positioned as a key signature at the start of every line).

In conclusion, I’ve added the lyrics and a modern score to help you further in your studies. It is worth noting that the ‘9’ in the first line is an abbreviations for com as is also ‘c?’, in the 9th line.

Original Spelling (Early Modern English) Modern English 
Pa?tyme wt good 9panye Pastime with good company
I loue & ?chall vntyll I dye I love and shall until I die
gruche who lu?t but none denye grudge who lust but none deny
?o god be ple?yd þus leve wyll I so God be pleased thus live will I
for my pa?t?ce for my pastance
h?t ?yng & da?ce hunt sing and dance
my hart is ?ett my heart is set
all goodly ?port all goodly sport
for my c?fort for my comfort
who ?chall me let who shall me let
youthe mu?t haue ?? daliance youth must have some dalliance
off good or yll ?? pa?tance. of good or ill some pastance
Company me thynke? then be?t Company methinks then best
all thought? & fan?ys to deie?t. all thoughts and fancies to digest.
ffor Idillnes for Idleness
is cheff ma?tres is chief mistress
of vices all of vices all
then who can ?ay. then who can say.
but myrth and play but mirth and play
is be?t of all. is best of all.
Company wt hone?te Company with honesty
is vertu vices to ffle. is virtue vices to flee.
Company is good & ill Company is good and ill
but eûy man hath hys fre wyll. but every man has his free will.
the be?t en?ew the best ensue
the wor?t e?chew the worst eschew
my mynde ?chalbe. my mind shall be.
vertu to v?e virtue to use
vice to refuce vice to refuse
thus ?chall I v?e me. thus shall I use me.


See other posts by Reuben Vincent

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!

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