Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Life of Anne Boleyn


Painting believed to be Anne Boleyn

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 king, Henry VII. His surviving son, Henry VIII changed the face of Europe forever when he founded the Church of England. His daughter Elizabeth I, 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’. 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, it was believed that illness manifested.

Personality was affected by the humours. People with too much blood were sanguine-translate that today as hot blooded. Those with too much phlegm were considered or dull and apathetic. Choler made people and ill tempered. Melancholiacs were the depressed and unhappy-they suffered from black bile.  Physicians would counsel on diets if necessary, since food was considered medicinal if prepared properly. The humours had so many characteristics that they became useful for explaining many aspects of daily life. This logic linked health to astrology, physiognomy and 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 might call magic today seemed perfectly logical and scientific to that era. This rational 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 magic, 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 exact 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.

Hans Holbein
Public Domain

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.

Anne Boleyn’s (possibly) Songbook.
Available on Amazon, of course.
Public Domain

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.

Tower of London

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.

Coming soon, PART 2

Mary, Queen of Scots

2 responses to “Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Life of Anne Boleyn”

  1. Reblogged this on Hunter S. Jones and commented:

    Anne Boleyn

  2. Janice Richards Avatar
    Janice Richards

    Hunter, What an excellent article! I remember you saying in your blog that this will be in a book about Tudor women. How exciting! When will that be coming out?

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