This simple question came up in the pub quiz last night and everyone immediately thought ‘Henry VIII’ – but then since it was the quiz we thought maybe it was not so obvious, and maybe bluff King Hal, hadn’t written the song for Anne Boleyn, and it was just a myth.
Afterwards we looked it up, and I’m really disappointed that probably he didn’t write it – he argument being that it was in a style of music which wasn’t popular until after his death. However, maybe he wrote the lyric and the melody we know was composed by someone else… The name ‘Greensleeves’ is first mentioned, as far as anyone knows in 1580, which was thirty-three years after his death in 1547… he was only fifty-five when he died, for some reason I thought he was much older… maybe because that’s how he’s represented in films which have influenced my image of him – and also, I guess fifty-five may have been old in Tudor times!
In 1580 there was a flurry of activity by at least three different printers, registering a sing with the name ‘Lady Greensleeves’ in the title, and the dispute continued over the next four years… so it seems that maybe good old Henry didn’t write it… even though he was known as a composer and musician, and he played the lute, organ, and the virginals too. The virginals was a keyboard instrument, probably developed in the fifteenth century, and related to a harpsichord.
The song probably makes us think of a beautiful and elegant lady wearing a dress with green sleeves, but there have been other thoughts on her… maybe she was a prostitute, green, apparently being the colour associated with such, maybe she was Irish (I think that is a modern interpretation) or maybe green was the colour of love, as red is for us today.
I can’t now remember whether we got the answer right or wrong last night, but we did win the second round so hurrah for us!