He was also a poet and a musician.
While a few other English monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth I, were good poets, Henry VIII was undoubtedly the most musically talented ruler the island nation has ever had. Stevens believes that the king stood in a class of his own: “To the best of our knowledge Henry VIII is the only noble person who could lay claim to be considered a latter-day troubadour, poet and musician in one.”
A Virtuoso Musician
Henry’s natural affinity for playing music first entered the historical record when his father bought him a lute at the age of 7. Over the course of his life and reign, the king would develop this talent across other instruments, practicing at all hours and performing with other aristocrats in his private chamber.
His virtuosity in this field is a window into the bizarre world of Renaissance-era instruments. While some of these are recognizable precursors to the instruments we are familiar with today, others are downright peculiar. In addition to the lute, the king was skilled at playing the flute, recorder, regal (a portable organ), virginals (a type of harpsichord), and cornett (an early wind instrument with characteristics of both a flute and a trumpet). In one of the king’s illuminated manuscripts, he is shown playing a harp, and on one occasion, he also played a “lute-pipe,” and a “gitteron-pipe”—a mysterious music-making tool that one observer compared to a cornett. Biographer Alison Weir says that he specially ordered “Turkish-style drums” from Vienna that could be played while riding a horse.
A ComposerHenry VIII’s compositional skills were as good as his playing. He has been credited with composing the popular song, “Greensleeves,” although this Italian-inspired piece probably did not make its way to England until Queen Elizabeth’s reign. As to those pieces we are certain he wrote, his sacred music has all been lost except for a short choral piece. This is unfortunate, as this surviving motet for three male voices is his most ambitious and technically proficient work.
Thankfully, Henry’s secular compositions have been preserved. A manuscript dating from the early 16th century, known as “Henry VIII Songbook,” is an important source of early Tudor music. Its title is rightfully suggestive: fully one-third of the 100 compositions in it are inscribed with the heading, “the King, H.VIII,” indicating his authorship. The manuscript was compiled early in his reign, so he would have been in his late 20s—at most—when he wrote them.
His compositions were famous in his day, and widely performed throughout the kingdom. The most well-known of these is “Pastime With Good Company,” also known as “The King’s Ballad.” The piece demonstrates Henry’s ability to set the poetry he wrote to an original tune—a skill none of his other courtier-poets possessed. It was so celebrated that a bishop of the Church of England even drew on it for one of his sermons.
The song encapsulates the young Henry’s outlook on life. The king famously loved to pursue the pleasures of hunting, singing, and dancing—often to the vexation of the older, wiser government officials who ran the country. As its name suggests, “Pastime With Good Company” lyricizes Henry’s enthusiasm for “all goodly sport.” But it would be a mistake to equate this phrase with simple hedonism.
Company with honesty Is virtue, vices to flee; Company is good or ill, But every man hath his free will: The best ensue, the worst eschew; My mind shall be Virtue to use, vice to refuse, Thus shall I use me.In other words, you are the company you keep. There were many self-serving courtiers at court who strove to take advantage of the young Henry through flattery. Desiring “company with honesty” thus, for him, had implications for good governance. While he heeded the counsel of able advisors, he always kept his own mind.
A Skill for Recognizing Talent
The intrigue of court life was, perhaps, one reason that Henry preferred to surround himself with comparatively guileless musicians. He imported celebrated Burgundian specialists to write manuscripts, obtain instruments, and travel with his entourage. Ms. Weir wrote, “wherever he went, in public or in private, at state occasions, at his entrance and departure, and especially at mealtimes, minstrels played, choirs sang, or fanfares sounded.”
Henry liked musicians so much that he even tasked some with political duties—making, for instance, one of his organ makers a diplomat, according to Theodor Dumitrescu in his “The Early Tudor Court and International Musical Relations.” He brought talented musicians on as his household staff. The best among these even became members of his elite Privy Chamber. When Henry was deciding who to admit into his innermost circle, a great singing voice was a better determining factor than noble blood.
The king’s passion for cultural pursuits has been largely overshadowed by the devious behavior and paranoia that would come to the fore later in his reign. It is important to remember, though, that virtue is almost always mixed with vice. Henry VIII’s accomplishments, as well as his aptitude for recognizing and rewarding talent, helped make England what it is today. And though the splendor of his court is long vanished, the memory remains.