Henry VIII: A Machiavellian Musical Monarch

Henry VIII: A Machiavellian Musical Monarch

Contemporary debates on government support of the arts would baffle artists of the past. For centuries, European states saw patronage of the arts as not only desirable but essential. Cultural accomplishments were viewed as measurements of a country or city’s wealth, sophistication, and power. The Renaissance, when well-born and well-educated people were expected to excel in as many areas of life as possible, is perhaps the most significant period with regard to the study of this attitude. It was during the Renaissance that treatises by Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince) and Baldesar Castiglione (The Book of the Courtier) forcefully and elegantly clarified the artistic obligations of the upper classes. No one doubted that the arts were to be treated with respect by governments. In the Renaissance, government meant royalty. Republican forms of government existed in Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, but in general the continent of Europe was dominated by hereditary monarchs and aristocrats.

The absolute monarchs of the sixteenth century faced mammoth responsibilities, unlike anything expected of today’s democratic leaders. Every detail of political life was under their control. Probably the heaviest burden fell upon Holy Roman Emperor Karl V, also known as King Carlos I of Spain, whose dominions included the lands that today make up Spain, the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, parts of Italy, and eventually much of Latin America. Even those rulers whose territories were smaller and more concentrated, such as King François I of France, inherited arduous tasks. However, many of these busy rulers still found time to appreciate, enjoy and patronize the arts. The Renaissance monarch who stands out in this regard is England’s King Henry VIII.

Henry VIII was born in 1491, became king in 1509 upon the death of his father Henry VII, and reigned until his own death in 1547. He is notorious for his six marriages (two of his wives were beheaded), but his reign was remarkable in other ways. He ruthlessly persecuted his political enemies, violently eliminating all opposition. He waged wars against France and the Holy Roman Empire, with mixed results. He created a separate Church of England, dissolving the monasteries and severing the country from Rome despite his personal ambivalence toward continental Protestantism. He greatly expanded the power of the central government. Most importantly to the scope of the present paper, he was an enthusiastic and dedicated patron of the arts, especially music. King Henry VIII’s involvement in music is what most distinguishes him from other Renaissance monarchs; his unique musical activities, when considered along with his political actions, make him the closest of his contemporaries to Machiavelli’s ideal of an absolute monarch and are therefore a logical aspect of his historical role as a tyrant.

The king’s interest in music was apparent from an early age. Indeed, one of the reasons the teenaged monarch cut such an impressive and popular figure at the beginning of his reign was his devotion to the art. He had received a thorough musical education and was accomplished at the lute, organ, and virginals; he could also sing well. The royal court included musicians from the Netherlands and Italy as well as England. One of Henry’s favorite activities was sight-reading songs with his courtiers.1

Henry certainly recognized the importance of government support of the arts. Edward IV had employed only five musicians; his grandson increased the total to fifty-eight. He would devote hours at a time to listening to the most accomplished musicians of his day, such as the Venetian organist Dionysus Memo.2 His staff included "Seykebuds and Shalmeys, The kyng’s trompytts, Chyldryn of the chapell, Mynstrells, Tabretts, and styll shalmes," whose names and wages were dutifully recorded.3 As a young man, Henry somehow found the time to compose a great deal of music. His works included songs ("Pastime with good company," "Helas Madam"), motets ("O Lord, the maker of all things") and masses. There is a legend that he wrote the popular song "Greensleeves" (also known as the Christmas carol "What Child is This"), but there is no evidence to substantiate his authorship of either the melody or text.4 Even so, the fact that he was considered capable of writing such a beautiful and enduring tune suggests that his musical activities have been regarded with esteem in the centuries since his death.

The songbook known as Henry VIII’s Book or Henry VIII’s Manuscript contains thirty-three compositions by the king, as well as works by other composers. Most of this music is vocal. The happy tone of the texts suggests that they date from the early years of his reign.5 Some of the songs appear to have been written for specific royal occasions; many deal with various aspects of love. A glance through the book’s contents reveals that the king was comfortable in a variety of song genres and wrote in French as well as English.

The king’s wordless compositions present a puzzle, since it is not clear for which instruments they are intended. Even the term "instrumental" is problematic, since during the Renaissance some wordless pieces in parts were educational and theoretical exercises, not necessarily intended for performance.6 Most of the pieces are entitled "Consort"; it has been assumed that they were intended for consorts of viols, but there is no proof that viols were popular at the probable time of composition. It is more likely that they were intended for recorders or other soft instruments.7 The form of the pieces imitates contemporary vocal style; however, there are significant distinctions between the "consorts" and the songs. The texture of the instrumental pieces is less homophonic, and the lines contain more scale passages. However, lines are sometimes blurred: one of Henry VIII’s songs uses the same material as one of the instrumental pieces, and another shares the style characteristics of the wordless compositions.8

Not only did the king participate in musical activities himself, he expected his wives to do the same. Anne Boleyn loved music; she counted virginalist and organist Mark Smeaton (who was eventually accused of having an affair with the queen and executed) and a lutenist known as "Master Weston" among her closest friends.9 The queen herself played the lute, harp, flute, and rebec and was said to dance and sing well.10 In contrast, one of the reasons for Henry’s instant distaste for his fourth wife, Anna of Cleves, was her complete lack of cultural abilities. She could not sing or play any instrument and had no interest in others’ accomplishments in the art. Music was so basic to the king’s life that he found her ignorance unacceptable in a queen.11

Musical life in Tudor England, centered in London, was a complicated and lively scene with many and varied participants. Much of it revolved around the court. All royal ceremonies and events were accompanied by music: trumpeters and drummers gave signals, wind players provided background music for meals, and string players did the same for dances. However, only the most accomplished musicians enjoyed personal contact with the royal family. Composers William Cornysh and William Crane successfully appealed to Henry VIII to increase their salaries. Giles Duwes, a French lutenist, was a good friend of the king, whose French tutor he had been, and held several prestigious non-musical posts. Another royal musical favorite was the Italian Giovanni Pietro de Bustis, described as Henry VIII’s "confidential attendant," whose wages were the highest of any English court musician at the time.12

Two of the most prominent keyboard players at Henry VIII’s court, both of whom arrived in 1516, were also foreigners. Benedictus de Opicijs of Antwerp was allowed access to the king’s private quarters, but he was overshadowed by Dionysus Memo (mentioned above). Memo’s public performances did a great deal to enhance the glory of the royal court.13 De Opicijs died and Memo left at about the same time; Englishmen John Heywood and Simon Burton took their places as prominent court keyboardists. Financial records show that these musicians were well paid by the standards of the time.14

The arts were not neglected by Henry’s contemporaries on the thrones of Europe. Probably his main artistic rival, as well has one of his main political rivals, was King François I of France, who was born in 1494 and reigned from 1515 to 1547--almost exactly the same lifespan and reign as Henry VIII. François was devoted to the arts and learning. He was a dedicated admirer of Leonardo da Vinci, who he appointed "First Painter, Engineer, and Architect to the King."15 He collected works by the greatest artists of the time, including Raphael and Michelangelo. The Blois, Chambord, and Fontainebleau palaces built for him were remarkable architectural achievements. Music apparently received somewhat less attention from the king. However, his daily routine included dancing--jigs, pavanes, galliards, country reels--and sometimes concerts with music for viols, spinets, flutes, hautboys, or singers accompanied by lute.16 The king enjoyed composing verse, and may have written music for his poems, although none survives.17 Long after François I’s death it was said of him that "the King loved everything which ennobles the mind, everything which expresses what is greatest in the human soul."18

The Hapsburg monarch whose dominions were so vast that he cannot adequately be described with one name was born in Ghent in 1500. He became King Carlos I of Spain in 1516 upon the death of his grandfather Fernando V and was elected Holy Roman Emperor Karl V in 1519 following the death of his other grandfather Maximilian I. Exhausted by 1556, he abdicated and spent the last two years of his life in a monastery. Charles, as English-speaking scholars generally call him, spoke many languages and was an avid writer and historian, even dictating an autobiography (unusual for a monarch). He recognized the genius of the painter Titian, who created the most famous and insightful portraits of the Emperor. According to his principal modern biographer, music was his favorite of the arts.19 But the same biographer found that while Charles traveled extensively in Italy, he "derived little real pleasure" from the culture of the Italian Renaissance.20 He certainly did not participate in the arts to the extent that Henry VIII and François I did. "In spite of his many contacts with Renaissance culture, he never became a true man of the Renaissance."21 Unlike François I, the Emperor’s chief passion was upholding Roman Catholicism, not devotion to beauty.

Perhaps surprisingly, those two concerns were combined far more equally in the person of Pope Leo X, who reigned from 1513 to 1521 and gave Henry VIII the eventually ironic title of "Defender of the Faith." Born Giovanni de’Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, he had been well-educated in music, perhaps receiving instruction from the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac. A contemporary observer wrote that the Pope’s interest had inspired many young people to become musicians, in hopes of gaining favor with him.22 A five-part arrangement of a Colinet de Lannoy chanson melody by the Pope is competent and demonstrates the influence of Isaac.23 Leo X’s love of music was widely discussed by ambassadors, with one going so far as to say that the Pope "values nothing except to sound the lute."24 Leo’s generosity to musicians sometimes drew criticism; he once appointed a Gabriel Merino to be Archbishop of Bari even though Merino’s only qualifications seemed to be that he was a good singer and also shared the Pope’s interest in hunting. Even more controversial was his appointment of a Jewish lutenist, Gian Maria, as ruler of Verrucchio.25 Leo participated in discussions of theory with some of the most learned musicians of his time, including Adrian Willaert. Several decades after the Pope’s death, he was summarized in this way: "Leo decimus musicos in primis amavit" --"Above all, Leo X loved the musicians."26

In a culturally focused comparison of Henry VIII, François I, Carlos I/Karl V, and Leo X, only the Hapsburg monarch seems relatively uninteresting. This leads to the question of what makes the English king special, since Leo X was equally enthusiastic about music and François I was no philistine either. The answer is that Henry VIII, in addition to giving encouragement, attention, and support to the acknowledged artists of his time, strove to be a musician in his own right. The French king did all he could for the visual arts, but did not paint his own paintings or create his own sculptures. The Italian Pope was a great friend to musicians, and enjoyed singing, but was not an instrumental performer and did not compose much (if any) original music. But Henry possessed the desire and the ability to learn at least three instruments, in addition to singing, and produced many original compositions, probably a good deal more than survive today. Henry VIII’s musical efforts were hardly the dominant feature of his reign. Not surprisingly, the major musical achievements and activities of the time were by people who were not also responsible for governing countries and waging wars. For the most part, the many sources on Tudor music when examined individually seem to assign a rather minor role to the king. Together, however, they contribute to a picture of a monarch who was more personally and intimately involved with music than any other European monarch of the sixteenth century.

Political and social philosophers of the Renaissance seemed to be in agreement that involvement in the arts was obligatory for monarchs and members of the ruling classes. Two of the most influential such writers were Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529). Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513 and dedicated it to Lorenzo de’Medici. The most famous book on politics ever written, it describes the actions which a ruler must take and the qualities he must possess in order to be successful. Most of it has little to do with the arts. However, in the passage which deals quite concisely with the topic, Machiavelli’s views are quite clear: "A prince should. . . show himself a lover of the virtues, giving recognition to virtuous men, and he should honor those who are excellent in an art."27 Machiavelli does not elaborate, or give an explanation. Perhaps he did not deem it necessary to do so, considering it obvious that a ruler who did not honor the artistic achievements of his subjects could not be expected to be taken seriously.

Castiglione covered the issue more substantially in his 1528 etiquette guide The Book of the Courtier, which describes conversations at the court of the Duke of Urbino in 1507. Music is frequently discussed. One character, a count, seems to be an authority on the characteristics of a good courtier. "The Count began again: ‘Gentlemen, you must know that I am not satisfied with our Courtier unless he be also a musician, and unless, besides understanding and being able to read music, he can play various instruments.’"28 The count goes on to vigorously refute an assertion that music is suitable for women but not for "real men" by pointing out the view of ancient philosophers that the world and the human soul are musical in nature.29 Later in the book there is a discussion of what kind of music is best; lute songs are singled out for special praise. Simplicity is favored over complexity. However, the main point is that music is considered by knowledgeable men to be an integral and essential part of aristocratic life.

It is not known whether Henry VIII read either The Prince or The Book of the Courtier. He possessed Machiavelli’s History of Florence and was advised by a friend to read The Prince, so it is likely that he was familiar with at least the former work.30 In any case, his love of music seems to have been too sincere and substantial to be merely the result of advice from a book. Henry probably would have participated in the arts even if no contemporary author had advocated that rulers do so. Whether or not Henry had read The Prince, his reign certainly reflects its ideas. Machiavelli advised that rulers of states whose dynasties are new make sure "that the blood line of their ancient prince be eliminated."31 Accordingly, several of Henry’s Plantagenet relatives were executed in the early years of his reign, removing any possible rival claimants to the throne. Machiavelli had written that "men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony;" this belief was substantiated in Henry VIII’s life when the son of a man Henry had had executed became one of the king’s most loyal friends and supporters.32

Machiavelli and Castiglione differ considerably in their goals, beliefs, and styles. Machiavelli is concerned with the political power of absolute monarchs and displays pragmatic cynicism; Castiglione artfully and idealistically describes the traits of a perfect courtier. It is interesting that the subject on which the two writers converge is the proper royal and aristocratic attitude toward the arts. Here the leading Renaissance masters of politics and etiquette are agreed: the high-born must honor and emulate musicians, artists, and writers. Undoubtedly both would have approved of at least this aspect of the careers of Henry VIII, François I, and Leo X, and may have found Karl V/Carlos I unsatisfactory by comparison. Surely Henry, with his unique activities as a composer, put the most effort into following the advice of Machiavelli and Castiglione, regardless of whether he was familiar with it.

Henry VIII is not a generally popular or respected figure in English history. His cruel treatment of his wives was inexcusable, even by the sexist standards of the time. His political actions were generally motivated by selfishness; he was devoid of loyalty to his friends and in many ways lacked genuine concern for the English people. His paranoid ruthlessness foreshadowed modern totalitarianism. The well-known portraits of the king in middle age reflect his gluttony and resulting obesity, making him an even less attractive figure. Against this backdrop the king’s benign interest in music may seem to modern readers a strange exception to his character, an anomalistic single redeeming quality.

The well-documented proof of Henry VIII’s musical talents and patronage certainly serves to humanize him a bit, preventing the king from being seen as a completely repellent person. But when taken in context, the existence of this admirable side of Henry is neither surprising nor illogical. Machiavelli, in the same slim volume which instructs would-be rulers to "honor those who are excellent in an art," also advises them to lie and kill if necessary. An ideal prince might be cultured, but he is expected to cultivate fear as well as love, with a preference for the former if the two goals seem to be in conflict. Therefore The Prince makes sense out of Henry VIII, the notorious tyrant who liked nothing better than to sing or play the lute. In the Renaissance, glorious cultural achievements coexisted with horrific political violence and cruelty. Both were integral components of the time period, which explored the full range of the human soul. King Henry VIII, by virtue of his personal involvement with music, outshone all his contemporaries with regard to support of the arts. Music, far from being a historically irrelevant royal pastime, brings Henry VIII closest to the Machiavellian ideal and is essential to an complete understanding of his fascinating and complex character. This is why he is a supreme figure of the Renaissance.