The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
Greensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, is a song which has been a magnet for fanciful claims. This article examines the claims that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; and that the song has Irish origins. This is the first of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology; its true history; and video examples of its musical transformations.
The 7 minute video on the right, Greensleeves Myths & History (click picture to play – opens in new window), is a quick dash through the chief points in this first article countering the Greensleeves myths, with a performance of the song on voice and lute and a summary of the second article giving the true history.
With thanks to Norman Wheatley, who recorded the interview for the February 2016 edition of the online folk and traditional music programme, GentleFolk2.
Anything claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence
In the mid 1970s, when the price of microwave ovens had fallen to the point that they were a viable buy for the domestic kitchen and had become the latest de rigueur technology, there was a spate of oft-repeated stories about pet owners drying their dog or cat by placing it inside a microwave, with the inevitable result of the poor pet being cooked from the inside, often garnished with the detail of an exploded pooch or moggy. If you are beyond a certain age, you will almost certainly have been told such a story yourself.
Did you notice that the teller of this allegedly true story was always telling it second hand, with no direct knowledge of the town where it happened, no name of the person who did it, no name of the pet, no detail of action taken by the law or by the RSPCA, and no respected or reliable source of information? Such baseless but oft-repeated stories today bear the name of ‘urban legends’ (though I haven’t yet understood what is especially ‘urban’ about them).
According to the myth-busting website, Snopes, the microwaved pet legend first made an appearance in 1976 and, though the technology’s wide availability was new then, the story template was not. It appears to be a recycled version of the 1942 tale in which a pet cat climbed into a wood-burning oven, its remains later discovered by the owner; or the Russian story of the mother who left her baby in a tub of warm water on top of an unlit wood stove, then went to speak to a neighbour, was longer than planned, and returned to discover a draft from the back door had rekindled the fire under the child, who was boiled to death. (Surely the Russian story only makes sense if there are embers, rather than the stove being entirely cold and unlit.)
What are we to make of these stories? Are they a sign of our fear of fire and heat, or a fear that we cannot tame wild natural elements or protect those we love from them? Whatever we make of the stories psychologically or sociologically, there is no evidence that the stories ever happened: they’re the equivalent of campfire or Halloween stories, made up to scare, amuse and entertain us.
It is like the oft-repeated but never substantiated idea that we are never more than six feet away from a rat, since rats allegedly outnumber humans. Since it is impossible to count the number of rats in any country, or continent, or the world; and we certainly cannot track all rats to know how close they are to us at any given time; and it appears to assume that rats are evenly spaced and/or follow our own movements; then we have to dismiss the idea as nonsense. Since it is claimed without evidence, it can be dismissed without evidence.
One more example, because it is so important for my point about Greensleeves: the dog-heads. You have probably seen the Egyptian Pharaohic dynasty depictions of Anubis or Anpu, the god with the body of a human and the head of a jackal or dog. You may not have seen that, according to Christian tradition, Saint Christopher also literally had the head of a dog and, not only that, there was a whole race of people with the heads of dogs and human/dog hybrid bodies, the cynocephali. Were they really people? For many mediaeval commentators, this was the crucial question, for people have souls and animals do not, and therefore only people can be saved and go to heaven. So where do hybrids fit in? Such theologians did not seek to question whether the dog-heads truly existed, only to debate religious questions about their salvation.
It was an idea inherited by, not created by, mediaeval Christianity. Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) gave reports of the dog-heads and, as Robert Bartlett documents in The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), the idea was popularised in the medieval period – and survived through the renaissance until the 17th century. Mediaeval European explorers went in search of the dog-heads, and even returned with eye-witness accounts, or so they’d have us believe.
On the other hand, not everyone was convinced. Saint Augustine (354–430) concluded that either that they don’t exist or, since they are descended from Adam like all of us, they are creatures with reason and thus can be saved. Florentine nobleman Giovanni de Marignolli cited Augustine and was not convinced of the existence “of the monstrous creatures which histories or romances have limned or lied about, and have represented to exist in India.” In 1339-1353, he travelled “in all the regions of the Indians … yet I never could ascertain as a fact that such races of men really do exist”. When he questioned the locals, he found that “the persons whom I met used to question me in turn where such were to he found.” In other words, ‘We thought they lived where you came from.’ So where do the dog-heads live? Never here: it is always somewhere else.
(Giovanni de Marignolli’s account is digitised here, from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China Vol. II, London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-16.)
It’s easy to dismiss the widespread and ecclesiastically-sanctioned mediaeval belief in the cynocephali as a symptom of the pre-scientific mind but, as we’ve seen, it wasn’t universally held and we aren’t so very different today. Are we constantly spying these rats that are apparently only six feet away? No, they must be somewhere else, like the dog-heads. Who exactly put their dog in the microwave? Not anyone you or I know: they are always somewhere else, like the dog-heads.
So as in law, as in logic, as in science, as in life, it is always up to proponents of a claim to prove its validity, proven with evidence, verification and substantiation. The onus cannot be on non-claimers to disprove another’s claim. If this were the case, anyone’s unsubstantiated claim would be taken on face value until someone else proves it wrong; and in this case the obligation would be, for example, to prove that the planet is not run by alien lizards; that rock records played backwards do not contain messages from Satan; that Elvis did not fake his own death; and that in the 1970s the Soviet Union were not spying on households by listening through their central heating pipes. A central heating engineer in the 1970s actually told me the last one and, like all people with fanciful fixed ideas not based on any evidence, nothing could dissuade him – not logic about the impossible logistics, nor facts about the radio transmission capabilities of tubular copper piping not connected to transmission equipment. People can be very inventive with their claims and very loyal to them, evidence or not, and so, as in law, as in logic, as in science, as in music, as in history, as in life, anything claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
So here’s my point, and the central tenet of this article: Greensleeves seems to be as much a magnet for mythical claims as dog-heads and cooked pets. People have claimed that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that it is a song about a prostitute; that it was originally an Irish song. For all of these claims there is not a jot of evidence and yet still the stories are circulating widely.
So in part one my aim is to do what, on the principle just given, no one should have to do. Yet in the face of their persistence, I will take these claims seriously in order to show why, with evidence and critical thinking, they fall apart. Then, in part two, I hope to show that the true story of the song is far more fascinating than these fanciful imaginings. Part three is a collection of videos of different versions of Greensleeves in many musical genres, to illustrate its remarkable hardiness and longevity.
Greensleeves words and music
The original lyric is 18 verses long. Here are select verses with a summary of the rest as it appeared in A Handful of Pleasant Delights, 1584, as A new Courtly Sonet of the Lady Green sleeues. To the new tune of Greensleeues. I have modernised the spelling.
Greensleeves was all my joy, / Greensleeves was my delight, / Greensleeves was my heart of gold, / and who but Lady Greensleeves
Alas, my love, ye do me wrong, / to cast me off discourteously, / And I have loved you so long, / delighting in your company.
I have been ready at your hand / to grant whatever you would crave, / I have both waged life and land, / your love and goodwill for to have.
The next 12 verses describe what the singer has used to try and gain the lady’s affection: “kerchers to thy head”, “board and bed”, “petticoats of the best”, “jewels to thy chest”, “smock of silk”, “girdle of gold”, “pearls”, “purse”, “guilt knives”, “pin case”, “crimson stockings all of silk”, “pumps as white as was the milk”, “gown of the grassy green” with “sleeves of satin”, making her “our harvest queen”, “garters” decorated with gold and silver, a “gelding”, servant “men clothed all in green”, and “dainties” (food).
Thou couldst desire no earthly thing / but still thou hadst it readily; / Thy music still to play and sing, / and yet thou wouldst not love me.
And who did pay for all this gear / that thou didst spend when pleased thee? / Even I that am rejected here, / and thou distainst to love me.
Well, I will pray to God on high / that thou my constancy must see / And yet that once before I die / thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.
Greensleeves now farewell, adieu; / God I pray to prosper three; / For I am still thy lover true, / come once again and love me.
Greensleeves myth 1: Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn
The most often-repeated claim about the song is that King Henry VIII wrote it to woo noblewoman Lady Anne Rochford, better known to posterity as Anne Boleyn. I’ve heard people say it, I’ve read it on many websites, I’ve even seen it printed in school text books. I’ve even seen a website where its author attempts to link parts of the song with the story of Henry and Anne, but the song has a non-specific story with no names, dates or places, with nothing to link it to either Henry or Anne, nor to anyone else.
So how did the story arise? There may be an implicit, sideways clue in William Chappell’s admirably thorough and meticulously researched Popular Music of the Olden Time, published in two volumes in 1859 (London: Chappell & Co.). Chappell wrote that Everard or “Edward Guilpin in his Skialethia, or a Shadow of Truth, 1598, says: “Yet like th’ Olde ballad of the Lord of Lorne, Whose last line in King Harries dayes was borne.””
King Harry is another name for King Henry VIII, and “th’ olde ballad” is a reference to the broadside, The Lord of Lorne and the False Steward, entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1580, as was Green Sleeves, to which tune The Lord of Lorne was sung. Chappell therefore concluded that, since The Lord of Lorne was sung to Greensleeves in 1580, and since Guilpin claimed that the last line of The Lord of Lorne was dated to Henry’s reign, then “Green Sleeves must be a tune of Henry’s reign.” This is clearly an error, and it raises 5 critical points.
1. Edward Guilpin claimed only that the last line of The Lord of Lorne and the False Steward, not the whole song, goes back to the time of Henry VIII. Guilpin does not even mention Greensleeves. The last line of The Lord of Lorne and the False Steward is, “For God may suffer for a time, but will disclose it in the end.” Guilpin does not state which Henrican song, poem or document he claims has this line, nor does he provide any evidence.
2. Therefore Guilpin makes no claim about Greensleeves at all: not that Henry wrote it, nor therefore that Henry wrote it for Anne Boleyn, nor that the song has any particular antiquity.
3. William Chappell, characteristically thorough, uncharacteristically doesn’t cross-check his facts and jumps to a false conclusion. The Lord of Lorne was entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1580, and not until 1598 does Guilpin claim its last line goes back to Henry VIII’s reign, a claim of hearsay with no evidence.
4. Chappell misunderstands and overstates, taking on trust that The Lord of Lorne goes back to Henry VIII, that it had always been sung to the tune of Greensleeves, and that therefore Greensleeves itself must go back to Henry’s reign, all ideas for which there is no evidence. There is no record of either The Lord of Lorne or Greensleeves before 1580.
5. In his The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick & New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1966), Claude M. Simpson states there is an “earlier version” of The Lord of Lorne with an unspecified tune in the Percy Folio manuscript, without stating its date. This is a mistake: the Percy Folio (British Library Addit. MS 27879) is dated to c. 1650, thus we cannot claim that either The Lord of Lorne or Greensleeves go back further than 1580, or that The Lord of Lorne was ever sung to a tune other than Greensleeves.
Chappell’s uncharacteristic lack of rigour does appear to be a case of confirmation bias, perhaps based on a widespread assumption of Henry’s authorship. It takes a series of confusions, each one completely unsubstantiated by any evidence, to go from ‘the last line of The Lord of Lorne is from the time of Henry VIII’, to ‘the whole song, including the music, is from the time of Henry VIII’, to ‘another song with the same tune is from the time of Henry VIII’, to ‘this other song with the same tune was written by Henry VIII’!
The TV series about Henry VIII, his wives and dalliances, The Tudors, was an object lesson in mangling and re-writing history for popular entertainment. A Henry who increasingly puts on weight doesn’t fit the demands of the svelte-obsessed media, nor do people with ginger hair, apparently (Chris Evans being a laddish exception), so Henry remains young, slim and dark-haired throughout. The stream of regular inaccuracies and historical gaffes are hilariously detailed at thetudorswiki.com.
One such is the scene where Henry sits with a lute, composing Greensleeves, which we then hear being sung in the background. There are several reasons why the song couldn’t possibly have been written until after Henry’s death, as we’ve seen and will see more in part two, but facts like that didn’t bother the writer of the series, Michael Hirst. As he said, “Showtime [a subsidiary of CBS] commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we want people to watch it”, which assumes that the general watching public want to have their fantasies confirmed in drama rather than be told stories based on actual evidence.
I’ve read accounts of special pleading where someone concedes that Henry didn’t write the music, but appeal that surely he wrote the original poem which someone else put to music some years later. There is absolutely no evidence for this, that words and music were written separately, nor that Henry wrote the words. Where is the manuscript with the song or just the words in Henry’s own hand or at least with his name attributed? ‘Well,’ they say, ‘you can’t prove that Henry didn’t write it.’ This claim has the same validity as me plucking the name of any contemporaneous historical figure out of the air and claiming he or she wrote it. Dog-heads, microwaves and rats: anything claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Greensleeves myth 2: the meaning of green
The idea is that the very name Greensleeves shows her to be an amorous romper in the grass at the very least and, at worst, a prostitute. The amorous romper claim is not without an element of broad general foundation, but ultimately it doesn’t stand up as the idea is applied inappropriately and indiscriminately, as we’ll see.
An oft-cited song in the general context of the symbolism of women in green clothes is The Gown of Green, by which people often mean The answer to The gown of green, which is a slightly later and different song. No matter here, as both broadside ballads serve to make the same point in relation to Greensleeves. The Gown of Green is an English song about the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783. As English folksong collector and music scholar Frank Kidson pointed out in his Traditional Tunes (Oxford: Chas. Taphouse and Son, 1891), the verses about the war are clearly shoe-horned in, signifying an original older song. The song begins:
As my love and I were walking to view the meadows around, / A-gathering sweet flowers as they sprung from the ground, / She turned her head, and smiling, said, ‘Somebody here has been, / Or else some charming shepherdess has won the gown of green.’
The broadside, The answer to The gown of green, first printed in the late 18th century, ends with the lines:
With our pretty little prattling baby such pleasures may be seen / That you may never regret the day you wore the gown of green.
Frank Kidson commented, “The old English songs have frequent allusions to wearing the “green gown”, just in the same manner the Scotch ones speak of the loss of the snood [a headband, formerly worn by young unmarried women in Scotland], or of the “bonny broom”.” James Henry Dixon, in his Scottish Traditional Versions of Ancient Ballads (London: The Percy Society, 1845), confirms the idea: ““Got on the gown o’ green.” A young female who has acted indiscreetly is, in Scotland, said to have put on ‘the gown of green’. The expression is not confined to Scotland, but prevails in the north of England.”
The colour green stands here as a verbal and visual symbol of fecundity, so to think of a literal gown of green is a misunderstanding: ‘wearing the gown of green’ is a euphemism for the amorous act performed lying down on grass; and ‘winning the gown of green’ is a euphemism for becoming pregnant. This is the late 18th century and mid 19th century, and the cultural currency of words and phrases changes over time. How far back does this idea go?
Song collector and songwriter Thomas d’Urfey published his Wit and Mirth, or, Pills to Purge Melancholy in six volumes between 1698 and 1720. Volume five, 1719, includes Jockey’s Escape from Dundee and the Parsons Daughter whom he had Mow’d, sung to the tune of Bonnie Dundee, which includes the verse:
All Scotland ne’er afforded a lass, / So bonny and blith as Jenny my dear; / Ise gave her a Gown of Green on the Grass / But now Ise no longer must tarry here.
In this case, the grass innuendo is taken further with reference to having “mow’d” the parson’s daughter.
We can trace the idea still further back to the broadside of 1675-1696, THE Shepherd’s Ingenuity: OR, The Praise of the Green Gown, which begins (original spelling and punctuation) …
AMongst the pleasant shady Bowers, / as I was passing on, / I saw the springing Grass and Flowers, / was gently press’d down; / Then streight I thought unto myself, / whoever here has been, / I’m sure some gentle Shepherdess / hath gotten a Gown of Green.
… which certainly appears to confirm the meaning of the phrase back to circa 1675. The final verse leaves us in no doubt:
Now all you little pretty Maids, / that covets to go brave, / Frequent the Meadows, Groves, and Shades, / where you those Garbs may have; / When Floras Coverlid she spreads, / then Bridget, Kate and Jane, / May change their silly Maiden-heads, / for curious Gowns of Green.
Before we examine whether this idea stretches back to Greensleeves and is the intended meaning there, I have sometimes read the claim that Tudor or renaissance prostitutes or courtesans wore green to advertise their services, or perhaps just wore green sleeves (on renaissance gowns, sleeves were detachable) and thus the Lady Greensleeves was such a woman – so not really a Lady, then, in the Tudor sense of a titled noblewoman, at all. This claim has no supporting evidence and is easily dismissed by the portraits of the women below, none of whom were prostitutes.
Indeed, renaissance prostitutes are not known for having the wealth to have their portrait painted, nor are they known to be the sort of women sought after as a love match by such as the moneyed man in Greensleeves. Besides which, where is the internal evidence in the song that the woman in question is a prostitute? More to the point, why would a man of the obvious wealth and social standing of the song’s protagonist bring his entire reputation to ruin by not only consorting openly with a prostitute of a vastly inferior social class, but also showering her with gifts in full view of everyone in order to make her his true love? And what is a woman with the social standing of a prostitute doing in the elevated company and household of the fabulously wealthy nameless songster, being made “our harvest queen” by him? These questions only arise if there were the slightest evidence that renaissance prostitutes made themselves visible by wearing green or that the song contained any sign that the woman being unsuccessfully wooed is a prostitute.
Where did the very idea of the Lady Greensleeves being a prostitute come from? I don’t know, but I can only imagine it was someone running away with the idea of the ‘gown of green’ symbolism and pushing it to the limit without any supporting evidence. And remember that the ‘gown of green’ reference is, in any case, symbolic, a verbal innuendo possibly referring to grass stains and fecundity, not to the literal colour of the fabric.
Like the spread of the ‘urban myth’, it only then needs someone to hear the story and add their own extension, completely without foundation, and for that to be repeated, before someone spreads the extended idea as fact. One such example combines the title of the song with the ‘gown of green’ idea: “Greensleeves” was a nickname for London prostitutes who took their customers to the park, did what they were paid for on the grass and thus had grass stains on the elbows of their sleeves. A moderately inventive story, to be sure, but without considering the serious logistical difficulties of having illegal coitus in a public place. It has the same reliance on evidence as the dog-heads.
But the gown of green symbolism isn’t appropriate to Greensleeves, either. Even if there are references to the ‘gown of green’ innuendo before the broadside of 1675-1696, THE Shepherd’s Ingenuity: OR, The Praise of the Green Gown, and they stretch back in time to the first appearance of Greensleeves in 1580 – which is not impossible, but in my search I have found no evidence – we do not find such symbolism in the song under discussion. While it is true that the author writes of giving his love interest a “gown of the grassy green” with “sleeves of satin”, this is clearly just a description of fine clothing, as it lacks the ‘gown of green’ implications or outright references to sexual activity and/or resulting pregnancy.
If the colour is meant to be significant – the love interest is, after all, given the name of her sleeves and their colour – then we also have the following symbolism of green clothes in the renaissance to choose from:
- love and joy
- youth, especially in the month of May
- most interestingly for our purposes, in the secular sphere … chastity!
(Renaissance colour symbolism from: Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005; Jill Condra, ed., The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, vol. 2, 1501-1800, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008; Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, New York: Doubleday, 1996.)
The Sumptuary Laws
Do we gain any further clues about the song’s meaning from Tudor dress codes? This was not just a matter of taste, but of law. The Sumptuary Laws had been in force since the 14th century, and were several times strengthened during the Tudor reign. The purpose of these laws was twofold: to maintain strict distinctions between social classes; and to protect the domestic wool trade by restricting the importation of foreign fabrics. They dictated, on pain of heavy financial fines and, in some cases, even imprisonment, the type of fabric, how much fabric, and the colours people could wear, all according to their social status and annual income. Half of the fine would go to the monarch and the other half to the informant; and the offending uppity clothes-wearer was legally obliged to forfeit the garment. These laws of social status also applied to food, drink, furniture, and jewellery, and having been given such items as gifts was no defence for breaking the law.
‘Lady’ in the song signifies a titled noblewoman. The gifts of clothing sent to her, set against the statutes of the Sumptuary Laws, would reveal much more to us if she was a man and if she didn’t have a title, since the various Acts made exceptions for some or all women and those with titles. For example, the Act of 1483 exempted all women except the wives and servants of labourers; the Act of 1510 exempted all women; and the Act of 1554 did not apply upwards from the rank of a knight’s son, daughter or wife, or to any women’s girdles or to any aspect of women’s head gear.
The picture is complex but it seems that, in general, it was perceived that the potential power of men could threaten to undo the social order by wearing clothes above their rank; women much less so or, in 1510, not at all. This is the outcome of a milieu where men held practically all the political and financial power and women were expected, in their subservience, to be no trouble (except those in the households of labourers, who were hardly likely to be able to afford the proscribed clothes, anyway).
This is the key reason why so many of Queen Elizabeth’s adviser’s were keen for her to marry, to restore her ‘unnatural’ ruling role to the ‘natural order’ of an obeying woman, for the assumption all along was that if Elizabeth married she would obey her husband, so a man would effectively be on the throne again. This is why she strung them along with her bogus marital intentions for as long as she could, to keep them quiet and maintain her position as sole monarch (Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen, London: Vintage Books, 2008).
I suggest we can detect something of this gender power dynamic in the words to Greensleeves. After 14 verses describing all the gifts he has lavished upon the unresponsive object of his affections, we have:
And who did pay for all this gear / that thou didst spend when pleased thee? / Even I that am rejected here, / and thou distainst to love me.
Put another way: I’ve spent so much money on you, showered you with all these costly presents, I’ve shown you how rich and manly I am, I don’t understand why you don’t do the womanly thing and obey by loving me. He never seems to take the hint, despite her lack of interest. On the other hand, she did keep all the gifts.
Strict and punitive as the Sumptuary Laws were in statute, they were widely ignored in practice. So many people were tempted by luxurious clothes that fines were rarely imposed. Those that were caught would happily pay the fine and carry on as before.
Judging by the number and quality of gifts Lady Greensleeves’ wooer sent, his status must have been such that the Sumptuary Laws wouldn’t even have crossed his mind. Since she was a Lady, they certainly wouldn’t have bothered her, either. Perhaps his vast riches in the song led listeners to the huge assumptive leap that he must have been a king and, for some unknown reason, a real person, and Anne Boleyn’s real reticence at becoming an adulterer with the married king provided the imaginary and entirely spurious backdrop to the protagonist’s persistent gifts and pleading.
(In the discussion of Sumptuary Laws, I am indebted to: Jasper Ridley, The Tudor Age, London: Constable & Robinson, 1998; Annie Bullen – yes, honestly!, The Little Book of The Tudors, Stroud: The History Press, 2013; Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, London: The Bodley Head, 2012.)
Greensleeves myth 3: an Irish song
The idea that Greensleeves is an Irish song seems first to have appeared in William Henry Grattan Flood, A History of Irish Music (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1905). Flood’s scholarship is infamously wanting, consistently and baldly making claims without any substantiating evidence about the Irishness of virtually everything he cares to mention. He does try to give evidence of a sort, but it is usually vague, general and irrelevant to the point he is trying to prove, making astounding leaps of assumption. Sometimes he just makes it up.
Flood claimed, for example, that John Dowland, arguably England’s greatest composer for the lute solo and lute song, was Irish. Diana Poulton, in her biography, John Dowland (second edition, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), has comprehensively shown Flood’s claims to a mixture of erroneous leaps of faith and complete fabrications.
In the same manner, Flood fabricated quotes to show that John Dowland “enjoyed the intimate acquaintance” of William Shakespeare, when there is no evidence they ever met; that Shakespeare often used Irish music in his plays, when there is only one song Shakespeare cited or used that has any claim to be Irish; that, “as regards Irish music, Dowland and [Edmund] Spenser would appear to be Shakespeare’s chief sources of information”, which is entirely without foundation and based on the false premise that they knew each other; and that, when Dowland was appointed court lutenist to King Christian IV of Denmark in 1598, it “is not at all unlikely that Shakespeare was indebted for many details of his Hamlet to his friend Dowland”, a breath-taking statement of his own speculation founded on his own fabrication.
Flood lists eleven songs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays that he claims are Irish in origin. This is not to suggest that the notion is in any way unlikely or impossible, of course, but Flood’s reasoning is incredible. Greensleeves has three mentions in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but Flood doesn’t even notice in his discussion of the play. Instead, he claims its Irishness elsewhere in the book. A brief look at one of these Shakespeare songs will give you a flavour of the paucity of his reasoning.
“Yellow Stockings is an undeniably Irish tune. The very name has a reference to the saffron truis of the mediaeval Irish. Shakespeare introduces it in Twelfth Night, and the air dates from the sixteenth century, being known by the natives as Cuma liom, It is indifferent to me, or I don’t care.” The clothing Flood is referring to is the Irish truis, troos, trews or triubhas, which combined dyed saffron pantaloons and hose, like close-fitting trousers. According to Michael John Sullivan (The prince of the lake, or O’Donoghue of Rosse, a poem, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1815), the Elizabethan Irish were known for dressing in yellow and, when Irish chieftains came to make terms with Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Lieutenant, they arrived in saffron uniforms.
However, this does not mean that any general reference in Shakespeare or in any other contemporaneous English work to yellow stockings is necessarily a specific reference to Irish clothes. The cross-gartered yellow stockings in the context of the play are a ruse to make Malvolio look ridiculous in front of Olivia to comic effect, as she detests both cross-gartering and yellow stockings, so there is nothing specifically Irish about that. There may be, as Flood claims, a 16th century Irish song called Cuma liom, but Shakespeare does not refer to it because, though the phrase “yellow stockings” appears in Act 3, Scene 4 …
Malvolio: Remember who commended thy yellow stockings.
Olivia: Thy yellow stockings!
Malvolio: And wished to see thee cross-gartered.
… this is not a reference or inference to a song or tune any more than there is a song called Cross-gartered, not in Shakespeare nor in any contemporaneous reference, and thus the very basis of Flood’s claim disappears.
It is true that one of the very earliest surviving written versions of the Greensleeves tune, perhaps the very first, is in a lute manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, but we cannot claim that, because the manuscript is in Ireland, it is an Irish manuscript or has Irish musical content, any more than standing in a garage makes me a car. Trinity College houses three late 16th and early 17th century handwritten lute books, which are:
MS 410/1, the Thomas Dallis lute book, c. 1583-85, which belonged to a Cambridge lute student of Thomas Dallis and was compiled over a few years from 1583.
MS 408/1, the William Ballet lute book, c. 1590 and c. 1610, which must also be English, due to its universally English contents (except perhaps one piece, the possibly Scottish Peg a Ramsey).
MS 408/2, an amateur anthology, c. 1592–1603, written anonymously in three hands, with almost universally English contents. This manuscript is particularly valuable for those interested in both early music and folk music, as it is the earliest source for many broadside ballad tunes, written in lute tablature in a straightforward fashion, without the complex divisions and variations so typical of the late Elizabethan period – and it is all the more valuable for this melodic clarity. (John M. Ward, ‘The Lute Books of Trinity College, Dublin’, The Lute Society Journal, Volume X, The Lute Society, 1968.)
One of the broadside tunes in MS 408/2 appeared as greene sleues. Around the same time, the tune also appeared for cittern as Green Sleeues in Matthew Holmes’ hand-written cittern book, Dd.4.23, c. 1595, now in Cambridge University Library; and again for lute as Greene sleves Is al mij Joije in the Dutch lute book, Het Luitboek van Thysius, c. 1595–1620, now in Bibliot heca Thysiana, Leiden, western Netherlands, in South Holland Province.
Though MS 408/1 (the William Ballet lute book) and MS 408/2 are completely unrelated, in the 18th century they were bound together and remain so, and thus are often mistakenly referred to collectively as ‘the William Ballet lute book’. This is an error Flood makes, giving a list of the “many Irish airs” it (both together) contains, but he does not include Greensleeves in this list. One of them, Callino Custurame, is the one piece of music Shakespeare cites (in Henry V) that has any claim to being Irish, and also the only piece in Flood’s list that has any such claim. (Even the case of Callino Custurame is not at all straightforward, as this article explains.)
The only reference Flood makes to Greensleeves in A History of Irish Music is: “In a manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin … Under date of 1566, there is a manuscript Love Song (without music however), written by Donal, first Earl of Clancarty. A few years previously, an Anglo-Irish Song was written to the tune of Greensleeves.” That’s it. The obvious questions are: Why doesn’t Flood give a reference for the alleged Trinity College manuscript? Why doesn’t he give a citation – a shelf mark, a title, an original geographical location, a date, an author – for the alleged manuscript with the words to the tune of Greensleeves? On what basis is the song described as “Anglo-Irish”? Why hasn’t anyone else ever seen this song, supposedly written down more than fourteen years before any other known reference to the song? The answer to all these questions is the same, and the same as most other questions in relation to Flood: he made it up.
Anything claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. And yet still the stories persist of the song’s Irish roots.
A distantly-related idea I have come across is that slieve in Irish is mountain in English, that slieve sounds like sleeve, and that therefore Greensleeves is an Irish song. Just for the sake of thoroughness, let’s take this idea seriously for a few seconds.
It is by no means unknown for songs to mix languages. The Irish song tradition has a song in this macaronic style, Siúil a Rún or Shule Aroon, with verses in English and chorus in Irish; and it was common for medieval songs to mix English lines and Latin lines, as in The Salutation from the 15th century.
However, it’s not entirely clear that slieve for mountain always does sound like sleeve. In modern pronunciation, slieve can be sleeve or slay-eve, and the equivalent word sliabh is pronounced schlee-u. I cannot comment on 16th century pronunciation of the word, or even if the word existed in 16th century Irish. This, at least, I have in common with anyone making the absurd claim that the chorus of the song could be ‘Greenmountain was all my joy’.
But to go into these arguments is to give the original idea a credence it doesn’t deserve. Where is the macaronic text of Greensleeves indicating the Irish spelling of the word for the English mountain? Where is there just one single example of a macaronic song entirely in one language except for a single word in another? Where is the indication that the song, first published as a broadside ballad in England, has Irish origins? How does ‘Greenmountain was all my joy’ make any sense?
Greensleeves myths 4: a miscellany of mythology
To finish off, and purely for completion, here are four more brief baseless circulating myths about Greensleeves.
The song name is a corruption of a surname such as Greenleaf or Gildersleeve, indicating she was a real person. Why must a name in a song with no biographical details link to an actual person? Where is the evidence for a previous form of the name Greensleeves?
A wandering minstrel fell in love with a woman who rejected him. She was a field worker and, as such, she wore the field workers’ long-sleeved white blouse to protect her arms from the sun. After a day’s work, her sleeves would be green, hence the song title. The idea of the wandering minstrel is a modern romantic invention. Minstrels were employees. The song calls the woman Lady Greensleeves, one of the nobility, so the notion that she’d be working in the fields is clearly nonsense. And have you ever noticed your sleeves going green through labouring outside? Mucky and sweaty is more likely. Baseless fantasy.
Anne Boleyn had scars on her arms and wore green blouses with long sleeves to hide them, hence the title. Tudor women never revealed their bare arms or legs in public (though oddly an amply visible bosom was perfectly acceptable for unmarried women), so who would know? And why would Anne need to take any special measures, since women covered their arms, anyway? And from whence did she get the alleged scars, never documented? (The one exception to women baring arms or legs in public was the legs of the washerwoman, trampling clothes in a tub of lye, who was in any case on the bottom rung of the social ladder.) This fabrication is an extension of the fabrication that Henry wrote it for Anne.
Greensleeves was originally a waits carol. The waits were musicians, municipal employees who played at official occasions, and a carol was originally a round dance that was partially danced and partially sung. There is no evidence that Greensleeves was ever a carol and it doesn’t fit the criteria for being one.
And yet …
The mythology around Greensleeves will continue unabated. People like their cherished beliefs, even about something as seemingly innocuous as a four centuries old song. In such cases, people rarely let the evidence get in the way of a story they’ve already decided on and told to others: instead, folks tend to selectively grasp at – or make up – anything to justify what they already believe. It’s like turning up at a quiz, giving your answers while ignoring the questions, making up your own questions, then declaring yourself the winner. William Henry Grattan Flood based a whole career on it.
This article, then, is the equivalent of King Cnut on the shore, commanding the waves not to advance, knowing his words are futile. I suppose no harm is done from believing unsubstantiated and false ideas about a 16th century song – no one will become ill or suffer an injustice as a result. However, I think standards of truth, accuracy and evidence are important for their own sake, whatever the pursuit of whichever branch of knowledge. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your heart surgeon to work to the same methods as William H. G. Flood and his fellow myth-makers, or be a dog-head.
And so, if you remember only a few things from this article, please let them not be that …
… the late 1970s was regularly interrupted by exploding pets in microwaves;
… you’re never more than six feet away from a rat;
… Henry VIII wrote Greensleeves for noblewoman Anne Boleyn, who wore green sleeves to show she was a gardener, to hide her scarred arms, and to show she was doing a bit of prostitution on the side;
… the TV series The Tudors was a faithful historical documentary;
… anything claimed without evidence must be true.
In part two, we’ll look at the real history behind Greensleeves, and it’s much more interesting than the mythology – plus it has the distinct advantage of being verifiably true.