1 January 2019 Susannah

King Henry VIII & ‘Green Groweth the Holly’

Green Groweth the Holly, King Henry VIII

Everyone knows about King Henry VIII’s six wives and his destruction of the English monasteries, but did you know that the King was also a poet? And quite an accomplished one too. This is his poem, Green Groweth the Holly:

Green groweth the holly,
So doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been,
Unto my lady true.

As the holly groweth green
With ivy all alone
When flowers cannot be seen
And greenwood leaves be gone,

Now unto my lady
Promise to her I make,
From all other only
To her I me betake.

Adieu, mine own lady,
Adieu, my special
Who hath my heart truly
Be sure, and ever shall.

The poem was actually written as a carol for Christmas and King Henry composed music to go with it. We do not know the exact date he wrote it, but it was published in The Henry VIII Book of 1522 (compiled by an unknown courtier), which means that the King was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, at the time. The musical version of the words is more religious, whereas the written version above is more of a love poem.

Holly and ivy are evergreens – they do not change with the seasons, and the poet is arguing that his heart will be the same. The poet’s faith in the lady is compared to the sturdy holly bush which will still be green and flourishing at the end of winter. We all know that Henry’s track record when it came to women was not a good one, but here he is presenting himself as a true and adoring lover. He uses strong words – ever, promise, blasts, betake.

The King had been well educated. Evidently, by the time he was twenty-three, he could play three musical instruments, speak four languages and read music “by the book” – he was an intelligent man and was highly aware of the role of the writer in the Tudor courts. He also composed music throughout his life and there are thirty-four pieces attributed to the King.

Listen to the carol being sung:


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Featured image credit- Green Groweth the Holly, King Henry VIII. Manuscript: https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/page/38/; Portrait of Henry VIII of England,Hans Holbein at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13359000

Comments (6)

  1. Mary Jordan

    This was very beautifully done. Many years ago, I sang in a Madrigal group and this reminded me of that music. I wondered if the tempo is always performed the same or if it is some times faster. So many madrigals are quite peppy.

  2. Yvonne McDonell

    The music sounds quite beautiful, but I am worried about “Adieu my lady” and wonder whether the lady in question lost her head in the days following the poem.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, unfortunately King Henry’s adieus were terribly terminal!

  3. Elna Estcourt

    Thanks Susannah for a new perspective on Henry! At least he started out with good intentions with his first wife. The recording of the sung carol was most interesting and I am impressed with his poem.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad you enjoyed it, Elna. We do not tend to think of royals writing poems, but Henry was very learned and talented in many ways. Had his first wife had a son, history would have been so different. Happy New Year.

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