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BLOG: Karen Heenan/Music in the Tudor Era

Updated: Apr 20

As a professional musician, I have eclectic tastes for ear-candy. Surprising as it may sound, my favorite music to listen to is Early Music--from the late Medieval Period through the Baroque. I'm a recorderist, and hearing the sweet sound of a recorder ensemble simply makes my day.


Author Karen Heenan wrote a compelling historical romance on the court of Henry VIII and a young girl who becomes a court musician. I took great pleasure in reading this book and was delighted that Karen featured no ordinary chamber maid, but a musician. So when I had the opportunity to have Karen blog on my website, I jumped at the chance to hear more about Music from Henry VIII's time.


Let's jump back into the 16th century and join Karen Heenan to learn more about King Hal's ear candy!


Music in the Tudor Era


“King Henry takes a keen interest,” Master Cornysh said. “His Majesty is more than competent on the lute and plays other instruments. He sings and writes music as well.” He raised a hand to smooth his thinning hair, then dropped it to the writing table, where it met and clasped his other hand. He looked at me earnestly. “In other words, if he were not a king, he would be a more than adequate minstrel. You must bear that in mind when performing. He knows your job as well as you ever shall.”

Songbird, Chapter One


It would be thought that Henry Tudor, as a prince, would have lived a life of privilege and, indeed, he did—but not as privileged as his brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Much was expected of Arthur, but Henry was intended for the church, and his education and life were arranged with that future in mind.


Music was not crucial to the life of a future churchman, and Henry was allowed only two minstrels for his personal entertainment. When his brother died in 1502, one of the first things Henry did as Prince of Wales was to increase the number of musicians in his household. As king, he acquired musicians from all over Europe to make up for his earlier lack, including Dionysio Memmo, an organist lured away from St. Mark’s, Venice, who arrived in England with an exceptional instrument.


Being very devout (his religion was not yet up for debate), Henry also sought out choristers for the Chapel Royal. It was this aspect of Henry which inspired the writing of Songbird—I read in a biography that he was so enamored by the voice of a child singing in a London street festival that he had a purse thrown to the boy’s mother and the child was put up on the back of a horse and taken away to become a member of the choir.


What did that do to the child? To the mother? I did not use this set of facts for Bess, my main character, but they are the back story for Tom, a chorister-turned-minstrel who is her first friend at court.


Throughout Henry’s life, the Tudor court was a place of music and entertainment. The King’s Music was the name given to the royal minstrels who lodged with the court and who performed at the king’s beck and call—whether publicly, at planned evening entertainments, or in private rooms when the king or queen had need of music. At the beginning of the reign, there were only a handful of minstrels at court, but that number was expanded to almost 60 later on, not including the private choir which attended the king, or the more formal Chapel Royal choir.


William Cornysh was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. He was also a composer in his own right, one whose religious works were contained in the Eton and Caius Choirbooks, and whose secular works (including popular songs sung in Henry’s court) were included in the Fayrfax Book. He remained at court until his death in 1523, only recently having been granted land by the king as a reward for his years of service.


Henry Tudor was no mean composer himself, even if he likely didn’t write Greensleeves, the work for which he is arguably best known—and which I chose to credit him in Songbird, because plausibility is key in historical fiction. The Henry VIII Songbook, compiled in 1518, lists 20 songs and 13 instrumental pieces composed by the king.


His appreciation for music, and his talent, was passed down to his daughters; both Mary and Elizabeth were skilled musicians, noted for playing the virginals, an early version of the harpsichord, along with their father’s favorite, the lute.


Henry Tudor accumulated many titles over his life: Prince of Wales, King of England, Defender of the Faith, Head of the Church of England. Husband—both good and bad—must be included, as well as father. As should music lover.


Henry’s love of music was a constant in a life that tended toward the inconstant. Despite his many wives and public break with the Catholic church (which made it easier for him to change his wives, and also to shutter England’s monasteries, while pocketing their land and money), he was also involved in the founding of Christ Church, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge, both of which are foundations of English music to this day.



Author Bio


Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams—which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing. She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is always hard at work on her next book.


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