The Music of Henry VIII
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

The Music of Henry VIII

Perhaps, when many of us imagine the figure born from the name “King Henry VIII”, we think of a familiar picture: a corpulent, corrupt tyrant with a penchant for womanizing, debauchery and decapitation. It’s not a pleasant picture. And while that legacy is very much deserved, it wasn’t how the man himself was born. There is another side to Henry, and perhaps the best way to see it, is to hear it – in the music of Henry VIII.

The music of Henry VIII
(Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.)


Yes, Henry VIII was a composer. A songwriter of the 16th century, if you will. All in all this ostensibly heartless, soulless monster penned over thirty pieces of music (not Greensleeves, that’s likely a myth). But what music would a heartless, soulless monster create? Given his reputation, what sort of music would you expect from him? Well, here’s an example.

Perhaps not what you were expecting. But why did he pen that? To maintain a kingly image? Hardly – it wasn’t expected for a king to compose at all, much less about dancing and springing. In order to explain the disconnect, it helps to step back to the history of Henry himself.


As a boy in the dawn of the 1500s, Henry was well educated and a promising prince. He was tutored and excelled in such subjects as language and literature – and most famously music. Likely exposed to a broad palette of instruments and a score of court musicians at Eltham Palace, Henry’s music had already begun – and blossomed. In fact he remained musically inclined from his youth to the end of his life – a rare quality that did remain unchanged. And those qualities? Young Henry was passionate, clever, and athletic.

From an early age, King Henry VIII was a lover of music
(Henry at 18.)

By his coronation as king at the age of seventeen in 1509, he was already widely regarded as a model monarch and renaissance man, his reign to usher a new golden age. The mood at court in his earliest years was not one of fear and death but culture and mirth. The 6 full-time musicians employed in the royal household grew to 58, with both a royal and a personal chapel choir. The man himself could play strings, keyboards, the harp and the lute. Henry could even sing and sight-read. He was over six feet tall with an abiding love too of games and sport – especially when he was taking part. He cut a figure not of a fat but a fit and dashing, if intense young man.

By his early 20s, Henry the VIII was a songwriter and composer of music.
(A likely portrait of Henry VIII in his 20s, by Mostaert.)


Yet it was his most gregarious qualities that first began to unmake him. One day in 1525 he decided to pole-vault over a muddy ditch to impress his friends and fell, nearly drowning. Soon after followed migraines and insomnia. But it was his love of jousting that would do the most harm. In 1524 he was jabbed in a joust, knocked off his horse and dazed. Then, in 1536 – two years after ending a 24 year marriage to his first wife for lack of an heir and breaking from the Catholic Church to do it – he was wounded jousting once more, falling off his horse, his horse falling on him. An ulcerated leg left the athlete lame, a likely brain injury leaving a warped mind.

Slowly losing his health and mind, an excessive ego turned to paranoia and rage. Unable to procure an heir from wife after wife, an unchecked passion turned to lust. It was then he became the monster to execute many a friend and courtier and two of his wives, rule with his rage, wage war and grow obese. These dark, infamous aspects of his character are even themselves subtly tinged in his lyrics. He did, after all, ‘follow sensual appetite’.

The Music of Henry VIII LIves On

But even so, tragic relics of the young man of Henry still remain. His music, perhaps, the most potent of all.

Do you think King Henry VIII was a tyrant or gentle philosopher and lover of music and good company? Let us reflect and read more in Music is a Mirror.

For more on fascinating musicians throughout history, check out this composer’s video content.

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