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Tudor Music as Propaganda: Three examples

A few years ago I did an episode on Tudor portraits as propaganda, and it’s still one of my most popular shows. I’m not the first person to notice that the Tudors were masters of messaging and propaganda – it’s obvious when you look at the portraits of both Henry and Elizabeth, that they had a very clear story they wanted to tell. A way to define their dynasty. And they knew how to manipulate information so that their story got out there.

With painting we can see this in a visual way, but what about with music? There was no radio or Spotify, obviously (though there is now, so I put together a playlist of the music I’m sharing today). But one thing over which they had complete control: the liturgy, and the music sung in churches every Sunday. People were required to go to church. You were fined if you didn’t go. So every Sunday they had a captive – if somewhat ambivalent – audience.

How did they use this power? Here are three examples of Tudor Music as Propaganda

Katherine Parr, Thomas Tallis, and War with France

In 1544 England was preparing for war on two fronts. Henry was away that summer in France, and the Rough Wooing (where Henry was trying to force a marriage between his son Edward, and Mary Queen of Scots) had started the previous December. He had been married to Katherine Parr for just about a year, and she was acting as his regent while he was away in France.

Henry wanted a way to rally the country to his cause. People were getting tired of wars. Henry needed some good PR. So let’s set the stage with the players: Thomas Tallis had become the chief composer of the Chapel Royal in 1543. Archbishop Cranmer was translating the Litany into English. And at the same time, Katherine Parr was working on her Psalms or Prayers, a book of 15 meditations on the psalter, inspired by Bishop Fisher.

In 1978, during renovations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, three musical fragments were found behind plasterwork. They were from the mid 16th century, and were identified an early version of Thomas Tallis’ famous piece, the six part Gaude Gloriosa dei Mater. But the text was different. It wasn’t Latin, it was English. And rather than being devotional, it was harsh:  ‘cast them down hedlonge … for they are treatours & raybels agaynst me … let the wicked sinners returne in to hell’.

These were Katherine Parr’s words, from her Psalms or Prayers. They come from the ninth psalm, Against Enemies. Musicologists reconstructed the music, and had enough to work with that they could confidently say that it was Tallis’ music with Katherine Parr’s words.

Henry and the Salve radix

In 1516 Henry was still in the prime of life. He was handsome, athletic, and the head of a court that, while still quite new, wanted to be as glittering as any of the cosmopolitan ones in Europe. Henry prepared a manuscript that was filled with the most popular European music of the time, written in the Franco-Flemish style. This was the most cultured style, and was very different than the traditional music of the time.

This manuscript was as much about showing off the Tudor court as just as well-bred as any in Europe, as it was about the actual music. Henry prepared this manuscript as a New Year’s gift for his bride, with whom he was still very much in love, Katherine of Aragon. Was it also a coincidence that this is when relations with Spain were starting to go a bit sour after Henry was abandoned during their planned invasion against France? And Wolsey was working on a treaty of perpetual peace – a United Nations concept whereby England would be the arbiter of any disputes that arose in Europe? Perhaps Henry was keen to show off to all of the ambassadors that he was actually just as cultured as their courts were.

The Parker Psalter

In 1567, Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth (the same Matthew Parker that Anne Boleyn implored to watch over Elizabeth when she was a toddler and Anne suspected that she was not long for this world), translated the Psalter into English verse (the original is available to look at through the internet archive). He published it with the inclusion of nine “Tunes,” composed by Tallis, with the idea that with this collaboration the Psalms could be sung rather than merely spoken.

These were designed to bring people closer to the Protestant worship through singing the word of the Lord in English – a cornerstone of the English Protestant belief system was that individuals could (and did) have a close relationship with God directly, through reading the Bible. Here was one more way for Elizabeth to help train up a new generation of Protestants who would be close to God through song.

So there you go – three examples of Tudor propaganda through music. Remember you can follow the playlist on Spotify to listen any time you like!