Music was an important facet of elite 16th-century culture. It played a part in every aspect of court life: processions, coronations, funerals, baptisms, fanfares announcing the monarch’s approach, music in the privy chamber, and music for the pageants and masques that entertained the court. It was also an integral part of religious worship.


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. Castiglione [an Italian courtier, diplomat and author], in his influential 1528 work The Book of the Courtier, laid great emphasis on the courtier’s need to have an appreciation of music and to play well as an amateur.

Professional court musicians, meanwhile, had their own hierarchy – those who played ‘loud’ instruments – for example, trumpets and cornets – were less valued 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. They were often rewarded with extravagant tips, and even personal praise from the king or queen.

Composers of the Tudor era

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 most important musician was Robert Fayrfax (c1460–1521), organist of St Alban’s Abbey and first doctor of music at Cambridge. Fayrfax continued to serve Henry VIII, one of his last commissions being music for the meeting between the monarch and the French king Francois at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520.

Another well-known composer of Henry VII’s reign, who was also commissioned by Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, was William Cornysh. In Scotland, meanwhile, Robert Carver provided music for the court of James IV and also for the coronation of James V, and in Elizabeth I’s reign two of the most famous English composers of all time, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, reached the heights of their genius.

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Among the duties of court musicians was the tutoring of royal children, who all learned to play at least one instrument. In 1502, Elizabeth of York paid £4 for a pair of clavichords [a stringed keyboard instrument] for herself, while her husband, Henry VII, bought lutes [a stringed instrument] for their daughters, Margaret Tudor and Mary, who also played the clavichord. Mary was sufficiently proficient on it to entertain Philip, Duke of Burgundy, at Windsor when she was just 11 years old, while Margaret’s skill with the lute came in handy when she met James IV of Scotland, whom she later married: the 30-year-old king put the 13-year-old princess at ease by playing and singing with her. Their son, James V, was equally fond of the pastime, but although he was a talented sight-reader, his singing voice was described as “rasky and harske” – that is, raucous and harsh-sounding.

Henry VIII and music

Of his musical family, Henry VIII was probably the most gifted. He played numerous instruments: the lute, the organ and other keyboards; recorders, the flute and the harp, and he had a good singing voice. Henry wrote a number of compositions, the most famous probably ‘Pastime with Good Company’, although, disappointingly, probably not ‘Greensleeves’ which is later in date.

Musical score for a three-part madrigal alleged to have been written by Henry VIII
Pastime with Good Company. Musical score for a three-part madrigal alleged to have been written by Henry VIII. Archived at the British Museum. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

All his life Henry patronised musicians, with at least 60 on his staff at the end of his reign, not including his gentlemen and children of the Chapel Royal. Ambassadors frequently commented on the beautiful music at Henry’s court, making unfavourable comparisons with that of King Francois, whose chief singing master was often drunk!

Henry didn’t just play several instruments, he also owned an enormous collection of them. His throng included cornets, bagpipes (called drones), viols, lutes, flutes, shawms [a double-reed woodwind instrument] and more than 150 recorders. Henry even owned an early type of pianola in the form of a set of virginals that “goeth with a wheel without being played upon.”

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. Henry was so delighted with Memmo that he requested the Pope release the friar from his order so he could join the king’s Chapel Royal.

Henry and Catharine’s daughter, Mary, was equally mesmerised by Memmo – her first recorded words when she was about two years old were “Priest! Music! Music!,” repeated until Henry commanded him to play. Mary grew up playing the regals and virginals [both keyboard instruments] and became a proficient lutenist; she was described in 1553 as “surprising even the best performers, both by the rapidity of her hand and the style of her playing”.

Mary was taught by Philip van Wilder, one of Henry’s chief musicians, who played to the king in his privy chamber. Van Wilder went on to teach Henry’s son, Edward VI, to be “excellent in striking the lute” and led a choir at Edward’s coronation. He is said to have been paid a substantial sum of money for taking care of the young king’s lute cases. Edward’s musicians included 18 trumpeters, seven viol players, four sackbuts players, a harpist, a bagpiper, a drummer, eight minstrels and a rebec player [a type of fiddle, with a bow] and eight minstrels.

Elizabeth I

The virginals seem to have been the instrument of choice for Elizabeth I, who spent regular hours practising. One of Elizabeth’s instruments, dated from a tiny inscription to 1594, is now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Elizabeth rather piqued herself on her skill, and, when informed by the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, that Mary, Queen of Scots played both lute and virginals, Elizabeth was eager to know if she had a rival. She asked how well Mary played, and received the reply “reasonably, for a queen”.

Later that day, Melville was asked by the queen’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, to listen to music with him. Hunsdon took him to a gallery where Melville heard music that “ravished him” – it turned out to be Elizabeth playing. She coyly told Melville that she had not been expecting him, and did not play in front of gentlemen; but, since he had heard her, perhaps he could tell her whether her playing, or that of the Queen of Scots, was better? Melville was obliged to answer that Elizabeth was the superior performer.

Elizabeth also appreciated the performance of others. Before Lord Darnley went to the Scottish court to woo Mary, he often attended upon Elizabeth. He would play the lute for her “wherein it should seem she taketh pleasure, as indeed, he plays very well.”

Anne Boleyn

Elizabeth may have inherited her talent as much from her mother, Anne Boleyn, as from her father. According to Anne’s biographer Eric Ives, Henry VIII’s second wife may have been taught by Henri Bredemers, organist to the Archduchess Marguerite [or Margaret] of Austria. Bredemers was music tutor to the archduchess’s nephew, Charles V, and his sisters, one of whom, Eleanor – later queen of France – was noted as particularly skilled. Whoever Anne learnt from, she was described as “[knowing] perfectly how to sing and dance…to play the lute and other instruments”.

One of Henry’s objections to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was that she had no musical abilities. Apparently in Germany, unlike most of Europe, it was not considered proper for great ladies to have any knowledge of music. With music being so central to Henry’s life, for him this was completely unacceptable.

Fortunately, it was a taste Henry could share with his sixth wife, Katherine Parr. They jointly patronised a family of Italian musicians, the Bassanos, who continued as court performers into the 17th century.


Music was a vital component of worship before the Reformation. To have an accomplished chapel of singers was an important mark of status, and the finding of suitable men and boys was something that occupied the minds of the highest. There is correspondence relating to the friendly rivalry between Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII regarding the singers in their chapels: both men sought to recruit talented choristers, and even arranged a competition to see whose choir was the better. Henry gave the victory to Wolsey’s men, so, tactfully, Wolsey released to Henry’s service a boy with an especially “crafty descant”.

c1550, Tudor musicians in church
c1550, Tudor musicians in church. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Another young musician who began his career in Wolsey’s chapel was Mark Smeaton. Smeaton played the lute, the virginals and the regals, and was an accomplished singer and dancer. Henry was so pleased with Smeaton that he was given a position as a musician in the privy chamber. He was thus often in the company of Anne Boleyn, and this proximity of the queen to a low-born man (Smeaton was the son of a carpenter) was used to blacken the queen’s name. Smeaton confessed to adultery with her – a charge she strenuously denied.

Another queen whose downfall was her music master was Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. When she was no more than 12 or 13, Henry Manox, her teacher was caught kissing and fondling her. Later, when she was Queen, the incident was used as evidence in the charges of adultery for which Queen Katherine was executed.

The procuring of musicians for each other, and the sending of minstrels to entertain friends and family, was a way of demonstrating affection. Katherine Parr, who kept musicians, including a consort of viols, sent a musician to her stepdaughter, Lady Mary, with the words “[he] will be…most acceptable, from his skill in music, in which you, I am well aware, take as much delight as myself.” In 1561, Edward, Earl of Hertford, found a flautist for Elizabeth I in France after her previous player died.


Both Mary I and Elizabeth I were fond of dancing. A rather priggish nine-year-old Edward VI sent a message to his stepmother, Katherine Parr, asking her to “beseech” his “dear sister, Mary…to attend no longer to foreign dances and merriments, which do not become a most Christian princess”. This reflected the rather more censorious view of music being taken by the radical religious reformers. Lady Jane Grey’s tutor, John Aylmer, requested the Swiss reformer, Bullinger, to prescribe a suitable length of time for Jane to spend on music, for “in this respect, people in this country (England) err beyond measure”.

For all Edward’s personal fondness for music, this increasing puritanism meant that it was no longer considered so appropriate for religious ceremonies, and the 1552 Prayer Book significantly reduced the amount of music in the service. Music returned to the church under Mary, and this was one of the Catholic practices that Elizabeth was happy to retain. While the English church thus kept much of the choral music of earlier days, the more stringent reform in Scotland swept away the vast majority of pre-Reformation sacred music.

Well into her sixties, Elizabeth could still dance the energetic galliards she had excelled at in her youth, and rebuked any of her ladies-in-waiting who did not dance to her satisfaction while she tapped out the rhythm with her foot. Elizabeth’s love of music was so well known that on her deathbed her anxious councillors summoned her musicians, perhaps to rouse her from the stupor into which she had fallen, or perhaps to comfort her.

The Scottish court

Music was just as important at the Scottish court as at the English. While there were bagpipes at the English court, there is no mention of them at James V’s court, but there were trumpeters, whistlers and drummers, clad in the red and yellow livery of the king. These ‘loud’ musicians were used in war and for ceremonial purposes, such as greeting James V’s two queens, Madeleine and Marie, on their arrival in Scotland in 1537 and 1538 respectively. The Scottish monarchs also enjoyed hearing and playing ‘soft’ music: James V and Marie of Guise each had a ‘consort’ of Italian viols. James V’s own principal instrument seems to have been the lute, for which his yeoman frequently bought new strings. European influences, particularly Flemish and French, were strong at the Scottish court, which also had its own Italian family of musicians – although they took the Scottish name Drummond.

Following the deposition of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, music was less central to the Scottish court. Her son, James VI and I, was described in 1584 as “[hating] dancing and music in general…”. This changed as he matured, however, and, influenced by his wife, Anne of Denmark, the court he presided over – first in Scotland and later in England – was as sophisticated in its musical tastes as any in Europe.

Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015