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Anne Boleyn’s Songbook: sharing the intimate emotions of a Queen

I posted recently about my interview with Dr. David Skinner, an eminent musicologist based out of the College of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge.  When I posted before it was about the logistics of my interview (getting caught in the rain, microphone not working, etc etc).  But now that his CD is soon available on Amazon in the UK, I want to talk about the actual substance of what he talked about with me.

Anne Boleyn was a highly cultured woman.  The reports about her early on when she first came to the Tudor court talk about how she wasn’t necessarily the most gorgeous of women, but that she radiated this culture and confidence, and was incredibly intelligent.  We also know that she was a devout Protestant and deeply believed in the tenants of the Reformation.  She was musical, which eventually got her into trouble when one of her musicians, Mark Smeaton, was accused of adultery with her.  Of course, four other men, including her brother, were also accused, so it seemed to be like a fever that was catching.  But Henry wanted a divorce, and what Henry wants, Henry gets.

It was finally under the Tudors, and Henry VIII especially, that music began to really flourish in England.  England was far too busy killing off the nobility during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century to spend much time cultivating the arts.  When Henry VIII inherited the throne, it was the first bloodless transfer of power in well over half a century – much longer than anyone alive could have remembered.   Henry himself was a supporter of music and the arts, especially in the first twenty years of his reign, before he went batshit crazy and turned into the fat tyrant we think of today.  When he was young, he truly saw himself as a knight building a modern day Camelot, complete with the best and newest music from the Continent.

Anyway, Anne kept this Songbook with her even when she was imprisoned in the Tower, and it would have been one of her most prized possessions.  The music is from the Continent – Anne was brought up for a while under Margaret of Austria, who was a patron of some of the most famous composers in all of Europe, and she began assembling the pieces in her Songbook while she was still in France.

The allure of Anne Boleyn was that she wasn’t like most other royal wives.  That’s because she wasn’t brought up to be a Queen.  She was noble, but her upbringing, in addition to being more liberal and including much more education in reading and writing than may have been common, didn’t prepare her for being a Queen.  She learned how to play the game of ousting a Queen – flirtatiously playing with Henry, but refusing to sleep with him as his mistress (which was, incidentally, the same game Henry’s grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville, had played with his grandfather Edward IV) but never the game of actually Being Queen.

When she finally did become Henry’s wife, after a struggle of nearly a decade, the very qualities that attracted Henry to her suddenly became her undoing.  Her vocal opinions, wanting to play a part in policy, being outspoken…these things may have been attractive in a lover or in the game of courtly love, but once she was crowned, Anne was expected to act more regal, above politics, more concerned with domestic issues.  She was also supposed to close her eyes and accept her husband’s mistresses, as all Queen’s were expected to (and to his credit Henry didn’t have nearly as many dalliances as he could have had, and as his grandfather Edward had).

She became the Queen by being intelligent, alluring, cultured, outspoken, and talented.  Those qualities may even have been acceptable if she had done the one thing Queens were supposed to do, which her predecessor couldn’t, and which she had promised that she would: bear a son.   Since she wasn’t doing her job in that way, and she wasn’t living up to the conventions of a Queen in so many other ways, those qualities became a liability, and her downfall.

Music consoled her until the very end, and it’s incredibly exciting to be able to listen to and fully experience the music that would have been important to Anne throughout her life.  It’s a very personal part of her that we get to share, and I’m grateful to David Skinner for doing the research it takes to put together an album that is so sublime and authentic.

Below is our interview if you’d like to listen to the master talk about his craft (it’s fascinating – I could have sat there, spellbound, listening to him for hours.  I think a great idea for a podcast would be David Skinner Talks While Heather Listens Enraptured but I’m not sure what the audience would be.  Maybe it would get a cult following).

Before the interview, though, here’s link to a ClassicFM feature they did on the Songbook: