Medicine, Magic and Music: Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I
Coronation Portrait

The last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Her early life went from Princess to being declared illegitimate after her mother was executed. At one point, her sister Mary had her placed in The Tower on charges of treason. Elizabeth was never expected to rule England, but she did. Many would say her reign is unmatched in the history of England. She became Gloriana…Good Queen Bess…The Virgin Queen.

The years of 1558–1603 saw English art and high culture reach a zenith known as the English Renaissance. Elizabethan music experienced a shift in popularity from sacred to secular music and saw an increase in instrumental music. Professional musicians were employed by the Church of England, the nobility, and the rising middle-class. Elizabeth I loved music and was an accomplished musician, noted as played the lute, virginal, and gitterne-an early form of the guitar, along with various other instruments. She believed dancing was a great form of physical exercise and employed musicians to play for her. During her reign, it became a common practice to employee musicians. The interests of the queen were expected to be adopted by her subjects. All noblemen were expected to be proficient in playing the lute and young women in society were expected to be skilled in vocal or musical training as part of their education. Music printing led to a publishing market for those who received permission from the queen.

Even though England broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, English did not become the official language of the Church of England until the reign of Elizabeth’s stepbrother Edward VI. Queen Elizabeth re-established the Church of England following the rule of Mary I, and introduced measures of Catholic tolerance. The most famous composers for the Anglican Church during Queen Elizabeth’s reign were Thomas Tallis and his student William Byrd. Both composers were Catholics and produced vocal works in both Latin and English.

Secular vocal works became wildly popular during the Elizabethan Era with the introduction of works from Italian musicians.The music of Italian madrigal composers inspired musicians who are now known as the English Madrigal School. Thomas Morley, a student of William Byrd’s, published collections of madrigals which included his compositions, and those of his contemporaries. The most famous of these is entitled The Triumphs of Oriana, which was made in honour of Queen Elizabeth.

Gitterne
Courtesy ©Trustees of the British Museum

Instrumental music was popular during the Elizabethan Era. The most popular solo instruments of the time were the virginal and the lute. The virginal was a variant of the harpsichord, and one of Elizabeth’s personal favorites. The lute was the most popular instrument of the era. Lutes could be played as solo instruments or as accompaniment for singers. Compositions of the latter variety were known as lute song. The most popular Elizabethan composer for the lute was John Dowland. Contemporary readers will recognize this name as Elvis Costello included a recording of Dowland’s song “Can she excuse my wrongs” as a bonus track on the 2006 re-release of his The Juliet Letters.

In October 2006, Sting, released an album featuring Dowland’s songs titled Songs from the Labyrinth, in collaboration with Edin Karamazov on lute and archlute. He states that he has been fascinated by the music of John Dowland for over twenty five years. In order to give a feeling of the tension and intrigues of life in late Elizabethan England, Sting recites portions of a letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil in 1593.

Henry VIII’s grandmother and his father (Lady Margaret Beaufort and King Henry VII) were devout Catholics, yet they were highly superstitious. Both kept a retinue of soothsayers and diviners in their employment, along with their physicians. They aimed to be of one accord with the planets and signs from the heavens. Elizabeth I even chose the exact moment of her coronation based on an astrology chart drawn by her physician John Dee. The Tudors believed that “as above, so below”. If the royal humors were balanced within the body, their body would be in tune with the heavenly realm. We see how the love of music shaped the lives of three extremely influential queens during the Tudor era. We may no longer believe that music is needed to balance our ‘humours’ however the importance of music and dance, in all its various forms, continues to shape contemporary society.

Originally published April 2016 by History.Net

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sources for Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Lives of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots & Elizabeth I, Parts 1-3.

Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, page 613.

Buchanan, George. Rerum Scoticarum Historia. Edinburgh, 1582.

Fraser, Antonia. Mary, Queen of Scots. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969.

Hawkins, Sir John, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, Volume 2. J. Alfred Novello, 1853.

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Blackwell Press, 2005.

Page, Christopher. The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. Harper Perennial, 2007.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. Ballantine Books, 1998.

Oxford University, Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera. Special thanks to this site for allowing glimpses into the astrological charts compiled by the Elizabethan astrologers/physicians, John Dee and Simon Forman.

 “500 Years Later” by CR Chalmers and EJ Chaloner, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Royal Society of Medicine Press.

“King Henry VIII’s Medical World” by Dr. Elizabeth T Hurren, Senior Lecturer History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University.

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