Of all the courtly arts practised by King Henry VIII, music was undoubtedly his greatest passion. As well as being a talented harpist and composer, Henry was one of the greatest patrons of the musical arts in Europe, and his reign heralded a golden age in English choral music. Henry employed 58 full-time court musicians, more than any other monarch before or since, including a chapel choir that was said to be ‘more divine than human’. Many of today’s great English musical institutions such as the choirs of Christ Church, Oxford and King’s College, Cambridge were founded during his reign.
Several manuscripts survive to testify to Henry’s love of music, but the most important is the Royal Choirbook, now British Library Royal MS 11 E XI. This magnificent collection of motets was presented to the 27-year-old Henry and Catherine of Aragon in 1518. It is exceptional for the sheer size and luxury of its production, its exquisite and ingenious heraldic illuminations, and not least, its personal significance to Henry.
A magnificent visual tribute to the Tudor Dynasty
The Royal Choirbook was commissioned and designed by Petrus de Opitiis, an Italian merchant, and his son Benedictus, a talented organist who hoped to gain a position at court. Together they created a magnificent large-format volume of six motets or choral pieces. Composed by Benedictus and a musician named Sampson, these motets were written to appeal to the king on the deepest possible level, reflecting both his royal status and his dearest wish: the birth of a male heir.
The Choirbook opens with a sumptuous frontispiece, rich in symbolism carefully chosen to celebrate Henry’s lineage. It depicts a rose bush with three large blooms. One is the red rose of Lancaster, while the red-and-white rose depicts the union of the houses of York and Lancaster. The crowned rose represents King Henry himself. A pomegranate tree, shown blooming in the garden of England, is the symbol of Catherine of Aragon, while a daisy and a marigold represent Henry’s two sisters, Mary and Margaret. As well as being a breathtaking piece of heraldic art, the frontispiece ingeniously incorporates the texts of the first two motets, Salve radix and Psallite felices, with Henry’s name highlighted in gold leaf.
"By the grace of god the sons will follow"
On 18 February 1516, Queen Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary. The king was disappointed, but still hopeful of a male heir, remarking to the Venetian ambassador, ‘We are both young: if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow.’ Three months later, Henry’s sister Margaret, Queen of Scots, paid a ceremonial visit to England, her first in over a decade. Their royal reunion was a further reminder of the importance of the dynasty. Written in 1516, the Royal Choirbook is thought to commemorate this reunion, as well as being a prayer for the perpetuation of Henry’s line.
A musical text rich in personal symbolism
Rather than using sacred texts, the two opening motets refer specifically to King Henry. Salve radix, the ‘Rose canon’, is a song of praise to the root and flower of the Tudor dynasty – ‘a scarlet rose, where peace and justice stand enclosed’ – written in a distinctive circular form. Psallite felices also praises the king: ‘Sing, fortunate ones, protected by the crown of the scarlet rose, which God himself gave from heaven to the English.’ Two hymns to the Virgin Mary, Sub tuum presidium and Hec est preclarum, praise the mother of God and request her intercession.
The motets conclude with Psalm 128, Beati omnes: ‘Your wife will be like a fruitful vine ...your sons will be like olive shoots around your table ... And may you see your children’s children.’ Together these hymns convey prayers for a male heir that Henry would have taken devoutly to heart.
There is every reason to believe that Henry was delighted with the Choirbook. Benedictus de Opitiis was appointed Henry’s chief organist on 1 March 1516, and kept this eminent position until the end of his life.
Parchment, with royal arms impressed and dated 1757.
- Images courtesy of the British Library