Medicine, Magic and Music
The Healing Properties of Music
Observed in the Lives of
Mary Queen of Scots & Elizabeth I
Hunter S. Jones
When we think of Tudor England, various images flash through our mind. Kings, many queens, dashing courtiers, spies, and ruthless intrigues enter the mix. Add a dash of Renaissance fashion and religious upheaval and you have a heady, or often headless, concoction of brutality and inspiration. All at the same time. Tudor England was the springboard into The Empire and the seed of the modern world.
We look at the savagery and dogged pursuit of the throne by the ‘long shot’ king, Henry VII. His surviving son, Henry VIII changed the face of Europe forever when he founded the Church of England. His daughter, another ‘long shot’ set the standard for today’s world through industry, exploration and education.
The medical arts were vastly different in the Tudor era than they are today. Due to religious practices of the time, it was unheard of to dissect a human body following death. Because of this there was a limited amount known about the causes and cures for disease at that time. There was little knowledge with regards to how the human body functioned at all. Tudor physicians thought the body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. The humors were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). In a healthy person of the Tudor Era, all four humours were considered to be balanced. However, if you had too much of one of the humours, the body was out of balance and illness manifested.
Personality was affected by the humours. People with too much blood were sanguine-or ardent and hopeful. (In America today, this would translate as hot blooded.) Those with too much phlegm were considered or dull and apathetic. Choler, those who suffered from yellow bile, where peevish and ill tempered. Melancholiacs were the depressed and unhappy. They suffered from black bile. There should be a balance of humours – warm/cold, dry/moist – because a surplus or a deficit of the humours caused sickness. An overabundance of blood caused fever but bleeding the patient could restore wellness. Purging with was common. Physicians would counsel on diets if necessary, since food was considered medicinal if prepared properly.
- Blood was the humour of spring, passion, air and childhood
- Yellow bile belonged to summer, anger, fire and youth
- Black bile was linked to a sluggish personality, autumn, earth and adulthood
- Phlegm was associated with winter, melancholy, water and old age.
The humours had so many characteristics that they became useful for explaining many aspects of daily life. Humoral thinking was linked to astrology, physiognomy and even music.
The English and Welsh belief of the Medieval Mystical Tradition, especially by females, is well known through literature. Think of the tales of Avalon and the importance of women in these stories. So it continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the English Renaissance, ushered in by the Tudor Dynasty. There was a thin veil between Magic and medicine during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. What we see as magic seemed perfectly logical and even scientific to that era. Magic often contained ideas which were accepted practices by all levels of society. Knights told of balms, called “weapon salves” which would protect them and even heal them if they were applied before a battle. Then as now, the belief in the cure often aids the patient in healing. They called it Magic or medicine; now we call it science.
Likewise, astrology was not a form of entertainment. It was a highly respected medical theory taught at the universities. It could be seen by watching the tides, the mating seasons of animals and the growth of plants seeded at certain planetary cycles. In Tudor times, astrology was considered a science. It was considered the most exact science since it revealed the planets as they circled the earth. During the Tudor era, it was believed that the sun, moon and planets circled the earth. With that in mind, the King was the centre of their universe. When Henry VIII was ill, his physicians treated him with herbs, he even kept an apothecary cabinet in his quarters. Astrology charts, or star maps as they were known then, would be drawn to decipher the best medical treatment for his leg or his various other ailments. The same practice was used for any patient which could afford it.
When a patient visited a physician, the visit would begin by asking for your date of birth. From there, your horoscope would be cast via a star map. Then a horoscope would be cast for the exact moment your ailment began, so that the physician could cast the horoscope of the illness and relate it to that of the patient. In prescribing medications, the healer would ask which parts of the body were affected because each area of the body comes under the influence of different planets. You would be treated according to which planet ruled the medicine best suited to your ailment. Astrology had an important placement in Tudor life as well as Tudor medicine.
Herbs were the best known cure for any physical ailment and have been used as cures since ancient times. Those who grew plants for medicine would plant seeds at the new moon and harvest at the full moon to get the greatest benefits from them. It was part of the education of any physician. Young Tudor women learned to mix potions, or ‘simples’ as they were called. These women would have great expertise in the healing properties of different herbs. As a general rule, the wise women were taught with traditions handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. Herbs and the healing chants of the wise woman were the most cost effective medical route for the majority of Tudor households. One Tudor headache cure for a headache was to drink a potion of lavender, sage, majoram, roses and rue. Another cure? To press a hangman’s rope to your head. The physicians, then as now, were considered the most learned scholars yet the average household could not affordable this luxury, hence the need for the wise women in the communities.
To heal a toothache, the wise woman would write ‘Jesus Christ for mercy’s sake, take away this toothache’ three times before saying the words aloud and then burning the paper. Another cure for a fever was for the healer to write ‘Arataly, Rataly, Ataly, Taly, aly, Ly’ on paper, and wrap the paper around the patients arm for nine days. Each day the patient was to say three paternosters to St. Peter and St. Paul. At the end of the ninth day, they were to remove the paper and burn it.
We have a basic understanding of how medicine worked during the Tudor Era, now let’s concentrate on maintaining the balance of melancholia. Music was thought to be the best way to keep the humours in an harmonious state. Three queens during the Tudor Era had a great love of music. This led to the downfall of two of the queens, and it possibly enabled the third one to maintain her status and keep her head, both literally and figuratively. The first queen we will note is Queen Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn is the most well-known of King Henry VIII’s wives. Her captivation of the King became his obsession. For seven years he pursued her and practically destroyed or denied any and everyone who stood in his way. This was to change the political and religious landscape of England forever. For Anne, the King was willing to divorce his first Queen, break with the Catholic Church, establish and make himself Head of the Church of England. What should have been history’s most enduring fairy tale romance became one of love’s most enigmatic nightmares when, after achieving his ambitions, and only three years of marriage, Henry VIII had Anne executed on multiple charges of adultery, including her brother George Viscount Rochford and the musician Mark Smeaton.
Anne is believed to have been born in the early years of the 16th century in Blickling Hall. In 1513 she became a maid in honor in the household of Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Margaret was famous for her patronage of musicians and she owned an extensive musical library, which was a rarity for the time. Anne’s father eventually arranged for her to move the French court where she attended Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who was to marry Louis XII. She later served the French Queen Claude, staying in France until she returned to England in 1522.
Her early years in the great courts of Europe shaped her later interests in music and fashion. Because of these influences, she developed interests in various segments of the arts-poetry, dance, and literature. Anne Boleyn’s most famous legacies, besides her daughter, are fashion and the games of flirtation. Her greatest pastime by all recorded accounts was music, she was an accomplished lute player.
A songbook believed to have been owned and used by Anne Boleyn has survived. It is housed in the Royal College of Music, London. Its origin is debatable, and the only evidence that the book of 42 songs was ever owned or near Anne Boleyn is an inscription, written in what is described as an early 16th-century English handwriting: “Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus”. This signature is followed by musical notes. She is called “mistress” which indicates this was written before she became queen in 1533; “nowe thus” was the motto of her father, Thomas Boleyn, which would also imply that she was unwed.
There is evidence of the songbook’s connection with Anne Boleyn due to the compositions included. The late historian Eric Ives suggested that some of the book’s contents belong to the period around 1527 when Henry and Anne were openly courting, and making plans for a future together. These musical themes lie within the compositions found in the songbook. Flemish and French musicians who Anne would have known about in her early years in the European courts are included, the most represented are John Mouton and the Josquin Desprez.
One song, Jouyssance vous donneray was extremely popular during the period and the words must have had a significance with Anne and Henry due to the words ‘I will give you pleasure, my dear … everything will be good for those who wait’ – there is a suggestion that this is a song that Anne herself sang to Henry, and this seems completely believable. The song is preserved near the end of the book and noted in a hand writing style of English origin. The lyrics were composed by the French court poet Clément Marot, who gifted Anne Boleyn with a copy of his Le Pastor evangélique, at her coronation in 1533.
The poem included a prophecy that Anne would provide Henry with a son, must have pleased both bride and groom greatly on the day, but as history has shown, proved to be her undoing. Her love of music also played a role in her downfall. Towards the end of April 1536, musician Mark Smeaton was secretly arrested. He initially denied being the Queen’s lover but later confessed, perhaps he was tortured or promised freedom, according to popular legends. During the May Day festivities, it appears the King was notified of Smeaton’s confession and the alleged conspirators were arrested upon his orders.
Henry Norris was arrested on May Day and denied his guilt, and swearing that Queen Anne was innocent. The most damaging evidence against Norris was an overheard conversation with Anne at the end of April. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King’s Privy Chamber. The final accused was Queen Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, arrested on charges of incest and treason.
On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge. By May 17th she was convicted of high treason, incest and adultery. She was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII on the morning of May 19, 1536.
Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart or Mary I of Scotland, was Queen of Scotland from December 1542 to July 1567 and Queen Consort of France from July 1559 until December 1560.
Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie of Guise, a member of the House of Guise, which played a significant role in 16th-century French politics. Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V and she acceded to the throne when her father died. She was six days old. She spent the majority of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents along, and in 1558 she married the Dauphin of France. He became King Francis II in 1559, and Mary was briefly Queen Consort, until his death in December 1560. The young widow returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on August 19, 1561. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but their union was unhappy. In February 1567, his residence was destroyed by an explosion and Darnley was found murdered in the garden.
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was thought to be the master-mind behind Darnley’s death, however he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567. Twelve days later he married Mary. It has always been a question as to whether the marriage was one of force or whether she agreed or not. Another theory is that she was in complete agreement with the marriage.
Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of James, her one-year-old son by Darnley, her deceased husband. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southwards seeking the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics. Unsure of what to do with the capricious Mary, and with many of her counselors perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her confined in manor houses in the interior of England. After eighteen and a half years in custody, Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, and was subsequently beheaded.
Mary remains a controversial figure in history. There are a few things we know for certain. She was tall-citations note anywhere from 5’ 10” to six feet tall, her grandmother was King Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, she was the mother of James I and VI of England and Scotland, and she was considered beautiful in her own time and by our contemporary standards. As an old adage states, someone that beautiful has to be guilty, and Mary Stuart is quite possibly the best example of that statement in history. He married her handsome English cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, a reckless match which she later regretted.
She loved music and was skilled at playing both the lute and viola. Two of her favorite activities were music and dancing, which was shunned by the strict Protestant Calvinist beliefs of John Knox, the head of the Scottish Kirk (Church). The powerful Scottish Lairds (Nobles) were increasingly becoming members of the Scottish Kirk and frowned upon her practices as well. A truce of sorts was reached in which Mary and her court could enjoy their Catholic Masses in private. The young Queen and her entourage, known as the Four Maries, were allowed to enjoy their masquerades and merry making within the confines of the castles at the Queen’s state events. Knox felt that the young queen, and her love of dance and music had turned the royal enclaves into brothels, rather than places for honest women.
The turning point for in Mary Stuart’s life came with the death of David Rizzio. He was an Italian courtier and musician, who rose to become the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, is said to have been jealous of their friendship. Darnley joined in a conspiracy of Protestant nobles, led by Patrick Ruthven, Lord Ruthven, to murder him. This murder became the catalyst for the downfall of Darnley, and it had serious consequences for Mary’s turbulent career.
Rizzio, whose name appears in records as David Riccio di Pancalieri in Piemonte went from Turin, Italy to the Court of the Duke of Savoy, at Nice, France. Finding no opportunities for advancement there, he was employed by the Count de Moretto in 1561, who was leading a diplomatic mission to Scotland. Once in Scotland, Rizzio, found that there were no further opportunities for him and he was dismissed from service. He ingratiated himself with the Queen’s French musicians. James Melville, a personal friend of Rizzio, said that “Her Majesty had three valets in her chamber, who sung three parts, and wanted a bass to sing the fourth part”. Rizzio was considered an excellent singer, which brought him to the attention of the Queen.
Having grown wealthy under her patronage, he became the secretary for relations with France in 1564, after the previous secretary of the post retired. This post attracted a quarterly salary of £20. Ambitious-seeing himself as all but a Secretary of State, Catholic and a foreigner, Rizzio was much too close to the Queen. Rumors swirled that Mary was having an affair with the Italian Fiddler, as some called him and that her child was possibly his.
Jealousy on the part of the vain and arrogant Lord Darnley led to his murder in the Queen’s presence, in her supper chamber in the Palace of Holyroodhouse after the royal guards were overpowered and the palace was turned over to the control of the rebels. Commanded by Patrick Ruthven, they demanded Rizzio be handed over. The Queen refused. Rizzio then hid behind Mary but was seized and stabbed to death in the presence of the Queen. He was stabbed 56 times on March 9, 1566 by Lord Darnley and his co-conspirators. The Queen was seven months pregnant at the time of the murder.
After this violent struggle, Rizzio’s body was thrown down the main staircase, stripped of its jewels and fine clothes. He was buried within two hours in the cemetery of Holyrood. Records state that his body was removed by the Queen’s orders and deposited in the sepulchre of the Kings of Scotland.
Mary’s turbulent life continued. Lord Darnley was dead with a year, and a few years later the beautiful Scottish Queen escaped into England in hopes of being rescued from her own nobles by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. This ended badly as well, with her execution in 1587 on charges of high treason against her cousin. And it all began because she wanted a fourth musician in her chamber. It should be noted that her son was born heathy and although he was taken from her at an early age, he eventually become King James VI and I, the first Stewart King of Great Britain.
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 gittern-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.
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 2019 by History.Net
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.