Jul 01, 2022

Minstrels and Music at the Court of Henry VIII

Guest Post


Karen Heenan

While minstrels were considered royal servants, they were a cut above those whose jobs were to make life comfortable for the inhabitants of the court. A minstrel provided both comfort and beauty, and in Henry’s court, it was debatable which of these was more important.

Minstrels were provided with food, lodging, and clothing or livery, as were all court servants, but because they were also frequently in the royal presence, their attire was of better quality, and they were often costumed to take part in masques, or evening entertainments for the court. They were also given gifts of money by their patrons, and many a minstrel left the court with a significant nest egg.

Henry loved music, and before his brother’s death, he had been permitted only two minstrels. When he became Prince of Wales, and then king, he acquired musicians at a speed which would put jokes about his later wife-gathering to shame. The number of musicians in the royal household was generally sixty, but he was always willing to add more.

Some musicians were specialized—playing the lute, harp, or virginals—but there were also general purpose entertainers, acquired each year at the Lenten schools of minstrelsy, who were also acrobats, storytellers, or worked with animals. Court entertainments came in many forms.

England at this point was still strongly Catholic, and in addition to secular musicians, there were also the choristers of the Chapel Royal—men and boys, generally a dozen of each—who sang mass several times each day. There was another, smaller choir, which traveled with the king. There was the Music (the general minstrels) and special musicians, imported—or occasionally lured away—from other countries and courts.

A core group of musicians traveled with the king. They went on progress with him while in England, and, in 1520, when the king and most of his courtiers journeyed to France for the Field of Cloth of Gold, it would have been unspeakable to leave them home. Henry took every weapon in his arsenal to impress the French, and he would have considered the quality of his musicians to be a significant weapon.

He also took the Chapel Royal choir. For a final mass before departing for England, they dud musical gymnastics with the French choir—the English choir singing with the French organist, and vice-versa, in one of those “it sounded like a good idea at the time” performances that no doubt had everyone involved muttering under their breath.

Henry Tudor has come down through history as a petulant tyrant, changing wives, ministers, and religions to suit his fancy, but one fancy that never changed over his years on the throne was his love of music.

Illustration references
#1 Henry VIII, Hans Holbein – Pixabay
#2 The Concert / Wikimedia

For more information about Karen and her Tudor books Songbird, A Wider World and Lady, In Waiting – click the pic below.