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The Tudors
The Tudors were in power for 118 years between 1485 (when Henry VII was crowned) and 1603 (when Elizabeth I died). Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, victorious in the battle of Bosworth Field, became King Henry VII and started the famous Tudor dynasty.

Music was of great importance in the period, especially in the royal court, with entertainers responsible for providing a suitable musical backdrop for kings and queens. Performers were tasked with privately entertaining monarchs and tutoring their children and were rewarded with extravagant gratuities and even personal praise from the King or Queen.

The Musical Tudors
You can listen to examples of Tudor-period music here. The most famous tune from the period is probably ‘Greensleeves’, but contrary to what some people think, it is unlikely to have been composed by King Henry VIII. He was certainly the most musical Tudor monarch. In fact, all the era’s Kings and Queens were musically minded.

Nearly all Tudor monarchs had an education in music. They patronised music, and most of them could play one or more instruments.

Music was provided both by professional musicians and by the courtiers themselves. Playing, singing and dancing were all essential elements of royal and noble education of the time.

Professional court musicians had their own hierarchy – those who played ‘loud’ bass instruments (for example, trumpets and cornets) were held in less esteem than those who played ‘soft’ instruments (such as stringed instruments and keyboards). These ‘soft’ players were the private entertainers of the monarch and would form part of his privy chamber (presumably behind a modesty screen), often being rewarded with extravagant tips, and even personal praise from the King or queen.

Although music and song lyrics were printed during the Tudor era, they were sold as separate documents. The Tudor composer John Dowland published his ‘First Booke of Songes or Ayres’ in 1597, and it became a best seller.

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Henry VIII
Picture Credit:

Attribution: After Hans Holbein, the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Tudor times, home entertainment such as TV, radio and the internet did not exist, and only a minority of the population could read: people made their own entertainment. And that’s why music became so popular, playing an important role in the lives of both the rich and poor people. The most popular instrument was the English Consort (violin, lute, flute and viol).

Music was an essential feature of elite 16th century culture, playing a part in every aspect of court life: from processions, coronations, funerals, baptisms, fanfares announcing the monarch’s approach, and music for the pageants and masques that entertained the court. Music was also an integral part of religious worship.

The emergence of the ‘Madrigal’
Artistically, the madrigal was the leading form of secular music in Italy and reached its formal and historical zenith in the late 16th century. It was also was taken up by German and English composers, such as John Wilbye (1574–1638), Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623), and Thomas Morley (1557–1602) of the English Madrigal School (1588–1627).

Although of British temper, most English madrigals were a cappella compositions (that is, without musical accompaniment) for three to six voices, which either copied or translated the musical styles of the original madrigals from Italy. By the mid-16th century, Italian composers began merging the madrigal into the composition of the cantata and the dialogue; and by the early 17th century, the aria replaced the madrigal in opera.[1]

Henry VIII
Of his musical family, Henry VIII was probably the most gifted. He played numerous instruments and was very proficient: he mastered the lute, the organ and other keyboards; recorders, the flute and the harp, plus he had a good singing voice. He also wrote a number of compositions, the most famous probably being ‘Pastime with Good Company’.

Visiting ambassadors frequently commented on the beautiful music at Henry’s court. He had 60 musicians at his disposal. As well as being a talented singer, King Henry VIII could dance and was an accomplished musician able to play many instruments, including the lute, the organ, the recorder, the flute and the harp. And, when he was not planning another family execution or marriage, he found time to write his own songs. He composed ballads and church music, but all have been lost to the ravages of time.

Henry VIII didn’t just play several instruments, he had an enormous collection of them: cornets, bagpipes (called drones), viols,[2] lutes, flutes, shawms[3] and more than 150 recorders. He is said to have owned an early type of pianola,[4] although it would have been very different to what we would expect today. Four bagpipes, with ivory pipes belonging to Henry VIII survived, and all are at Westminster.

Music was a pleasure that Henry shared with some of his wives. He and Catherine of Aragon particularly favoured a friar by the name of Dionysius Memmo, who had been the organist at St Mark’s in Venice and brought his “excellent instrument” to England at great expense.

Elizabeth I
The virginals (keyboard instruments of the harpsichord family) seem to have been the instrument of choice for Elizabeth I, who spent regular hours practising. Elizabeth also appreciated the musical performance of others. She may have inherited her talent from her mother, Anne Boleyn, as from her father. One of Elizabeth’s instruments, dated from a tiny inscription to 1594, is now resplendent on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Composers of the Tudor Period
All of the Tudor and Stewart monarchs were musical and took a personal interest in the professional performers at their courts. Some of these court musicians were also well-known writers and performers. Henry VII’s leading musician was Robert Fayrfax (c1460–1521), organist of St Alban’s Abbey and first doctor of music at Cambridge.

Fayrfax continued to serve King Henry VIII, one of his last commissions being music for his meeting with the French King (Francois) at the Field of Cloth of Gold[5] in June 1520.

Some composers of the era

  • Thomas Tallis – Tallis was one of the most influential composers of sacred music in the 16th century.  He usually composed simple reformation service music. He was also the one to introduce the influence of Continental polyphonic music in English music. He served under several monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I.
  • John Downland – was an English or possibly Irish Renaissance composerlutenist, and singer. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as “Come, heavy sleep“, Come again, Flow my tears, “I saw my Lady weepe and In darkness let me dwell, but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and with the 20th century’s early music revival, has been a continuing source of repertoire for lutenists and classical guitarists[6]. John Dowland’s First Book of Songs was a best seller and made him a lot of money[7].
  • William Byrd – another very important composer and organist of the 16th century. He is best known for his composition of the English madrigals. His virginal and organ music helped to develop the English keyboard. He was a student and protege of Thomas Tallis.
  • Robert Fayrfax – one of the early Tudor composers mostly known for his masses and motets. He differed from his contemporaries in various ways, and therefore, he was special. Fayrfax was unique in incorporating voices in a composition and his usage of the imitative counterpoint. He was awarded the doctor of music degree twice at Cambridge and Oxford. He also composed some excellent secular music.
  • Philip van Wilder – also one of the chief musicians at Henry’s court. He played at the King’s privy chamber. He was also the teacher of Henry’s son, Edward VI, who became a brilliant lutist.
  • William Cornysh – another notable composer who was also hired by Henry VII. Cornysh brought a different style of musical composition to the Tudor court.
  • Dionysius Memmo – when the Venetian friar and organist at St Mark’s, Dionysius Memo, visited England, Henry and Catherine of Aragon were so enraptured by his playing that Henry petitioned the pope to have him released from his order so he could join the Chapel Royal[8].

Other famous Tudor composers included, John Bull, Thomas Campion, Orlando Gibbons, George Kirbye and Vincenzo Galilei.

Once their status was established as veritable artists, musicians in Tudor England were usually categorised based on their skill in playing different instruments. Typically, a musician who could play the trumpet and other loud instruments was less valued than musicians who played softer instruments such as stringed instruments and keyboards. Similarly, choir boys and singers were valued and paid based on their singing prowess[9].

Facts about Tudor Music
The Primary Facts website[10] some interesting facts about music in Tudor times, including:

  • Tudor music was important in both everyday life and religious life. Musicians were often supported by the Church or the city, and were in demand at palaces and castles.
  • Travelling musicians in Tudor England needed to have a licence to perform.
  • Tudor music for the poorer people was often played at markets and village fairs, as well as at the theatre.
  • There were several popular Tudor musicians and composers. Some are listed above.
  • Several Tudor Kings and Queens were skilled musicians, and Royalty was expected to take an interest in music and songs. Most Tudor kings and queens practiced dancing each morning.
  • King Henry VIII was a skilled recorder player and he wrote several songs. He may have written the popular Greensleeves. The song was probably written for Anne Boleyn during the often-troubled courtship.
  • Musicians who played Tudor music in towns and cities were known as waits. They played high pitched music on a pipe instrument, which was also used to sound the alarm.
  • Many rich people employed musicians to play in their houses, and families often played instruments as well.
  • Several new musical instruments were invented in the Tudor period, and they were often played together to create different sounds. The most popular combination was the 4 piece English Consort, consisting of the violin, flute, lute and viol.

Church Music
Music remained a vital part of worship in Tudor England. As chapel music mostly relied on vocal finesse, ecclesiastical authorities were frequently on the lookout for the best of men and young boys who could contribute an excellent voice to the church choir. This sometimes led to an interesting but usually friendly rivalry between Tudor monarchs, who similarly sought good choir singers and the leading cardinals.

Some of the musicians who originally began in chapels during the Tudor period eventually found themselves in royal service once their talent caught the eyes of a Tudor monarch. A notable example of this is Mark Smeaton, who originally sang in a chapel before being hired by Henry VIII[11].

Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading

  1. Source:
  2. The viol, viola da gamba, or informally gamba, is any one of a family of bowed, fretted and stringed instruments with hollow wooden bodies and pegboxes where the tension on the strings can be increased or decreased to adjust the pitch of each of the strings.
  3. Shawms were loud double-reed instruments – the ancestor of the oboe. By the end of the Middle Ages they were the most important loud instrument in use.
  4. The term ‘Pianola’ was originally a trademark, first used about a hundred years ago, but in more recent times has become a generic reference to the self-playing piano.
  5. The Field of Cloth was a summit meeting between King Henry VIII and the King of France, held at Balinghem, in the English Pale of Calais, arranged to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings following the Anglo-French treaty of 1514. 
  6. Source:
  7. Source: (where you can listen to some of Dowland’s music)
  8. Source:
  9. Source:
  10. At:
  11. Mark Smeaton came to a sticky end. He, and the Queen’s brother George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford)Henry NorrisFrancis Weston and William Brereton were executed for alleged treason and adultery with Queen Anne. Source:


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