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King Henry VIII, maniacal

tyrant or a regular


Nadiuska Jourdain
If someone were to step into the Metropolitan Museum of Arts musical instruments section,

they would be amazed by the number of instruments they would find. Some of them look very

familiar to the ones we see today and some of them not so much. One of them is the viol. It

looks smaller version of a cello and it has intricate designs. One may ask, Why is instrument so

important? Well the answer is that this instrument plays an important part of King Henry VIII


Despite popular belief, the viol or the viola de gamba is not the ancestor of the violin.

The two instruments have different playing techniques and were used for different purposes.

They lived happily, side by side, for 200 years. The viol for the most part is bigger and has a

richer sound than the violin. The form of the body and the frets, were taken from the Spanish

"vihuela de mano", which was a precursor of the modern guitar. The origins of the viol can be

found in Spain, at the end of the 15th century, more specifically in the Kingdom of Aragon.

Starting with the reign of King Henry VIII the viol had popularity at the court and among the

English aristocracy. It was very common to find a consort of viols playing at court or in the

homes of the English aristocracy. It was so highly praised that French theoretician Marin

Mersenne said in 1636, If one were to judge musical instruments according to their ability to

imitate the human voice, and if one were to esteem naturalness as the highest accomplishment,

so I believe that one cannot deny the viol the first prize, because it can imitate the human voice

in all its modulations, even in its most intimate nuances: that of grief and joy" Due to its rich

harmonies and subtle inflections, the viol was the perfect imitator of the human voice. It then

became the utmost medium for sophisticated music. The position for playing, would involve the

player holding the viol between their legs, much like how someone would play a cello today. The
viola de gamba came in different size, much like the instruments of today. The sizes were treble,

alto, tenor, bass and great bass.

One may ask, What does that have to do with King Henry VII? The viol was

extremely popular in his court and unbeknownst to many people, Henry was a musician. Henry

VIII wrote music for the viol and employed a consort of Italian players. England at the time was

overflowing with remarkable viol composers like Byrd, Jenkins, and Purcell. Its very difficult to

imagine Henry composing beautiful music, alongside with the image of the extremely obese

tyrant with syphilis who killed two of his wives. However Henry was a young man at some

point, and it was said that he was handsome, charming and athletic. King Henry VIII was a

talented and skillful musician. The ability to play instruments and dance the latest dances was an

essential skills at court. Cultural accomplishments at the time were viewed as measurements of a

country wealth, sophistication, and power. It was even said that he was a great singer. One

courtiers quoted, For the Kynge hime self beinge miche delited to synge, and Sir Peter Carewe

havinge a pleasaunte voyce, the Kynge woulde very often use hyme to synge with hime certeyne

songes they called fremen songs, as namely, 'By the bancke as I lay' and 'As I walked the wode

so wylde'." Henrys love of music encouraged him to make his court the center of musical

culture. Henry VIII was known to have even composed masses, although those pieces have been

lost. Henry is most noted for his rumored composition of Greensleeves. Whether or not this is

true, we will most likely never know. However there is something to be said about his music, if

he thought to be the composer of Greensleeves. Some of his other works were, Pastime With

Good Company, "Green Groweth the Holly","Oh, my heart! and many other pieces.

One of the most important benefits of music at the time was dancing. Music obviously had to be

played during dances. Henry as a young man particularly loved dancing. Music played a huge
part in the court life. The dances of Henrys court were very sophisticated and had intricate steps.

Many of the Court dances were performed as couples. Some of the dances that were enjoyed by

the court were the Pavane, Cinque Pas, Sinkapace, Galliard etc. In a strange way, the dances at

the time reflected the moral climate. One of the more scandalous dances was the Volta. It was a

dance in which Henrys daughter, Elizabeth was very fond of. It included grabbing the female by

the waist and hurdling her up into the air. None of the other dances would even involve touching

your partner, so a dance that entails embracing them and being thrown into the air would have

been extremely unsettling for some people.

Despite the importance and the popularity of the viol at the time of Henrys reign, it like all

things eventually fell out of favor. After the reinstatement of the monarchy, the viol died out as

did the viol consorts due to changes in social practices. The gentry at that time attended the

opera, public concerts or balls. The viol was much too soft to heard in such crowed and noisy

spaces. It was tossed aside for louder string instruments which where need for the ever enlarging

concert halls. However there has been a movement, which attempts at being the viol back into

the mainstream musical world. Who knows, maybe we will be seeing the viol being played once

Work Cited

1. Baker, Paul. "Diabolus in Musica Guide to Early Instruments - Violins and Viols."

Diabolus in Musica Guide to Early Instruments - Violins and Viols. N.p., n.d. Web. 05

May 2013.

2. Constant, K. "Viola Da Gamba - Musicolog.com." Viola Da Gamba - Musicolog.com.

N.p., 1998. Web. 05 May 2013.

3. Jokinen, Anniina. "The Works of King Henry VIII." The Works of King Henry VIII.

N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2013.

4. Henry VIII Music." Henry VIII Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

5. "Viola Da Gamba, Viol, Description, History, Buy, Sell, Viole De Gambe, Jose Vazquez,

Orpheon Consort,." Viola Da Gamba, Viol, Description, History, Buy, Sell, Viole De

Gambe, Jose Vazquez, Orpheon Consort,. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.