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The Musical Life of Henry VIII

While history often remembers Henry VIII as the fat tyrant that he became in later life, it’s not as well known that Henry was a prolific composer. Music was important at court, and it came naturally to Henry. His interest and commitment to a musical life was to be one of the few consistencies in his life. A man who wavered on which wife to marry or behead, Henry never journeyed far from his beloved compositions and musicians. At the bottom of this article you’ll find a playlist with music he composed – but read on to get the context.

His religious reforms caused temporary chaos for composers and musicians, though.

When he dissolved the monasteries, a centuries-old tradition of composing and singing prayers for the souls of deceased patrons came to an abrupt end. Singers and composers suddenly joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Composers who composed for the Mass and religious liturgy found themselves confused as to what texts to use. Something that was benign today was verboten (with possibly deadly consequences) tomorrow.

But Henry did take some huge steps to continue the musical tradition in England. He would found or re-found Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Those two colleges have traditions of musical excellence that are still with us today. He also finished the King’s College Chapel, a project that Henry VI started when he was a teenager.

Henry obviously had a personal love of music.

Henry VIII Composition

When Henry was young, he was educated at Eltham Palace, where he would have come into daily contact with the composers of his father’s court like William Cornysh. When he became King, he immediately employed more musicians in his household. The roster increased to 58, from the modest six that he started with. He also kept his own private chapel choir, with some of the best singers in England.

Courtiers and foreign ambassadors who wished to gain favor with the monarch would often gift him books of music. One example is in the British Library from about 1516. It contains, among other compositions, an opening poem to Henry extolling him for uniting the Lancaster and York roses.

Not only did he give and receive music as gifts, but he also participated as an active music-maker and composer.

Sir Peter Carew,  Gentleman of the  Privy Chamber, said that the King was ‘much delighted to sing’. Edward Hall also tells us that Henry set at least two masses in five parts which ‘were song oftentimes in hys chapel, and afterwardes in diverse other places’.

But even more than those mentions, we have Henry’s compositions from the Henry VIII Songbook in the British Library. Comprised of 109 pieces of music, 33 of those are composed by, “the kyng h.viii”. Among them are the famous Pastime with Good Company where he extolls the princely life of romance and hunting.

Similar in style is “Though Some Sayeth.” It defends his lifestyle, essentially saying, “I’m young, and I’m going to do my thing since I’m not hurting anyone.”

Though some saith that youth ruleth me,
I trust in age to tarry.
God and my right and my duty,
From them I shall never vary,
Though some say that youth ruleth me.
I pray you all that aged be,
How well did ye your youth carry?
I think some worse, of each degree:
Therein a wager lay dare I,
Though some saith that youth ruleth me.
Pastimes of youth sometime among,
None can say but necessary.
I hurt no man, I do no wrong,
I love true where I did marry,
Though some saith that youth ruleth me.
Then soon discuss that hence we must.
Pray we to God and Saint Mary
That all amend, and here an end,
Thus saith the king, the eighth Harry,
Though some saith that youth ruleth me.
In this book we also have O My Hart, where he displays his deep emotions, and expresses his longing and love.
Oh my heart, and oh my heart,
My hart it is so sore.
Since I must from my love depart,
And know no cause wherefore.
Take a listen:

I’ve put together a playlist of Henry VIII’s compositions, and similar court music on Spotify.

Listen here, or follow it to have it show up in your own Spotify list of playlists. I’d love to know what you think about this music! Does it change your opinion of Henry at all, now that you know a bit more about the man? What do you think about his music? Leave a comment, and let me know!

Here are some other episodes and articles you also might enjoy:

David Skinner links: Links from the episode where I interviewed musicologist David Skinner
Suzi Digby talks 500 years of choral music in 34 minutes.

Old Music Tuesday: Henry’s Musical Court: The Western Wynde Mass
Music for Impressing a King: Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, Wolsey, and Henry VIII