Music in the Royal Courts

Chapter 2 : Competition

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

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, she 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 which ‘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 others’ performance. Before Lord Darnley went to the Scottish court to woo Queen 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.’

Elizabeth may have inherited her talent as much from her mother, Anne Boleyn, as from her father. Henry VIII’s second wife, according to her biographer, Professor Ives, may have been taught by Henri Bredemers, organist to the Archduchess Marguerite of Austria. Bredemers was music tutor to the Archduchess’ nephew, Emperor Charles V and his sisters, one of whom, Eleanora, 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. For Henry, this was completely unacceptable, music being so central to his life.

Fortunately, it was a taste he 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 seventeenth 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 that Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII had, 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 a boy with an especially ‘crafty descant’ to Henry’s service.