MADNESS & MAESTROS - Murderers and Sanctioned Killers: HENRY VIII

Murderers and Sanctioned Killers: Princes & Kings - HENRY VIII

Although categorized under Madness & Maestros, this feature on King Henry VIII of England will focus less on the popular history of the family Tudor and the King’s well known relationships with his Queens and more on how the boastful King (and his unmistakable vanity) relates to Classical music itself.

There is a seemingly endless supply of Tudor-related material, in particular that of Henry VIII both in print and on screen that you may peruse at your own disposal should you need a back story or reference on this enigmatic Ruler.

For accuracy's sake, I do recommend for any students new to the 
House of Tudor a starting point in non-fiction, biographical works. While there is a vast selection of mainstream film and much literature in the form of historical fiction available on this subject, many of their authors do not fully adhere to historical fact and may take excessive liberties in order to tell (and sell) their own artistic vision. While there is nothing wrong in doing so, and indeed, many such movies, tv spots and novels can provide a very rewarding source of pleasure, reading historical fiction before non fiction history may leave the reader/viewer quite confused.

For a good starting ground, I would suggest the works of David Starkey and Simon Schama, both excellent and highly credentialed historians of the first degree, whose works on this subject can be found in both television media and in print.

by perusing my Tudor archives on *(Henry VIII - Elizabeth I)


Murderers & Sanctioned Killers: Henry VIII 

...divorced, beheaded and died; divorced, beheaded, survived.. 

Any student of history will have heard this famous sonnet of Henry VIII, from over and up the coasts of Wales and Scotland and across the North Atlantic and back.

They will know it to be a rather ribbing poem on England’s King Henry VIII and the fates - some untimely, most unseemly - of his infamous six wives: one of whom he would divorce and dethrone, one who he would divorce for being too "homely" (so aghast at the sight of her ugliness was the King, he would wind up executing the man who brought them together in the first place!) another who would die (naturally) shortly after childbirth, two who were publicly beheaded on charges (some of which were widely believed to be trumped up charges) of treasonous adultery, leaving only one - out of six - wives, who would survive.

But there was more to Henry VIII than just an insatiable lust for women, power, and seemingly endless rolling heads.

Manuscript of Henry VIII containing his compositions.
In his twenty four years on the throne in what is now part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, King Henry VIII would contribute to classical music as his own court composer creating many works (some, such as “Pasttyme with Good Companye,” detailing the comforts and spoils of Princely life, penned while still a Prince, others likely during his Reign as King), most of which have been lost in the annals of music history (with the exception of some 20 known songs & 13 instrumental pieces he had published in a manuscript in c. 1518, with all of his pieces duly and nominally ascribed to “The Kynge H. viii").

So beloved a Composer was the King, that his music would escape from the confines of the Royal Court and into the streets and valleys of England, where they could be heard being sung by both noble and peasant alike. Legend and myth would begin to form: traditional English folk songs of true staying power, the likes of such gems as “Greensleeves” (a delightful sonnet incorrectly believed to have been written for then-mistress Anne Boleyn in his frenzied pursuit of her) were falsely attributed to the rotund Ruler.

King Henry VIII also was an accomplished singer and musician, learning from a young age to master the lute, organ, flute, recorder and harp.

Henry VIII plays a harp.
He kept his own carefully selected band of musicians, each a virtuoso on their respective instruments, close at hand at all times to play from his collection of songs and arranged instrumental music. So impressed was Henry by his own talents, he ordered his compositions played and sung ad continuum - at feasting, festivals - even in the background during intimate dalliances!

But then, posterity already knows Henry Tudor to have been egocentric, especially when it came to women - if a bit gauche in his application.

It should be no surprise to any student of Tudor history to know that Henry VIII was just as vainglorious in music and almost all other areas of character, ability and environment as well.

I at first intended to place this feature under the Obsessions: Love Struck Composers section of this blog, but it is my position that, when it comes to his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, although obsessive in nature, his emotional and princely unraveling was based more out of a heightened state of narcissism (one that would soon see him declare himself to be the Supreme Head on Earth of his self-created Church of England and declare his tenure on the English throne as one that would be ruled under the ordinances of the Divine Right of Kings[1]) than it was out of any form of love.

While King Henry VIII may have taken away much from the families and paramours (both real and alleged) of his ladyloves, Councillors, and friends when he made slain any and everyone who dared cross him, betray him (according to his own standards) or otherwise got in his way - this troubled and narcissistic leader would leave much behind in turn: a religion and church, an infamous son and two daughters, one of whom would lead England into a period of glorious architectural and social revolution, and a masterful collection of delectable music that continues to captivate even to this day.

More on Henry VIII :

image at right: The vain King even changed the traditional Oath of newly crowned Kings to defend the church. In handwritten amendments, the Tudor Prince swore not to preserve the rights and liberties of the ‘holie church’, but instead to the ‘holy churche off england...nott prejudyciall to hys Iurysdyction and dignite ryall..’ - an early indicator of what was to come when he made himself Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. This later event would see his good friend trusted advisor, Councillor and Lord High Chancellor of England Sir Thomas More executed for failing to comply with the Act of Supremacy, an Oath declaring allegiance to the same.

An early portrait of Henry VIII
image at left: The ever robust King wasn’t always so. Indeed, at the time of his Coronation in 1509 (not pictured), he was considered to be quite the catch: “His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick..." 
and later:
"His Majesty is twenty nine years old and extremely handsome. Nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom a great deal handsomer than the King of France, very fair and his whole frame admirably proportioned..." - contemporary depictions of a young Henry VIII. It has been recorded that upon hearing of the great comeliness of the King of England, the King of France at once began to grow out his beard in the style and manner of Henry.

image at right: a near-contemporary depiction of the execution of former Queen of England Anne Boleyn.

Here Henry did show some modicum of gentility: as per her request, Anne was executed by the sharp sword of a finely dressed french gentleman, as opposed to the traditional brute yielding a dull axe. She never saw her death coming, as the sword lay buried underneath a spreading of straw. Boleyn had fully expected a reprieve from the King, which never arrived.

So swift was the swing of the sword, it is said the disgraced Queen's lips continued to recite a prayer for her absolution after her head had been so unceremoniously sliced off. 

The Famous "Pastyme with Good Companye" :

[1]An edict declaring the Head of State (the ruling Monarch) as answerable not by any law or legal jurisdiction on earth, but only by God.


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