Greensleeves is a very popular English folk tune and song which was originally created sometime in the 16th century. The tune makes use of Spanish musical elements and was a veritable innovation in England at the time of its creation. The lyrics of the songs contain numerous references to a lady in greensleeves and they have been variously interpreted over the centuries. According to popular legends, it was King Henry VIII who composed this tune for Anne Boleyn who was formerly his mistress and later his queen. But historical analysis does not support this legend.
There are various theories regarding the origin of the greensleeves song. The song has been attributed to King Henry VIII. It has been said that the King either composed the tune or the lyrics of the song, or both. Different legends further state that he composed this song when he fell in love with queen consort Anne Boleyn. Historically, King Henry VIII had his first wife divorced after a long struggle with the Catholic Church and then married Anne Boleyn who had been his mistress. But there’s no historical evidence to support that he created greensleeves.
As is the case with the origins of the tune, the exact era when it was created is also historically unknown. It was already a registered piece of music by 1580 but the song is believed to have been originally created well before that. Some have attributed its creation to the time of King Henry VIII’s reign while other theories state that the song was originally composed during the Elizabethan era. The latter theory is based on the fact that the song makes use of Italian or Spanish musical elements which, the proponents of this theory say, didn’t reach England until the time of Elizabeth.
The composition of greensleeves is one of the key factors which makes the song and tune very unique. It contributed significantly to the immediate popularity of the song in England. The song is composed in the ground of romanesca in the reprise. This style of composition uses sequences of four chords which are repeated with the help of a simple bass and ultimately, the tune keeps changing around this basic structure. Alternatively, it has been speculated that the song actually incorporated Andalusian progression in verses and a passamezzo antico in its reprise. What is known for sure is that the original greensleeves song was not in sync with the prevalent English music of the 16th century, and its origins could be traced back to either Spanish or Italian music.
Since the origin of greensleeves is a fairly disputed fact, historical sources shed some light on it. According to these sources, the ballad composition of the tune was first registered by Richard Jones in 1580. It was titled “A New Northern Ditty for ye Lady Green Sleves”. Within days of his registering the tune, a number of other individuals also registered ballads with similar music and lyrics. In a year since Jones’ registration, nearly six other individuals had registered similar ballads. The ballad apparently became immensely popular then and can be traced in many musical manuscripts and collections of 16th and 17th centuries.
The lyrics of the greensleeves song make frequent references to the Lady Greensleeves. In the song, the poet beseeches the Lady Greensleeves to not jilt his love and bemoans her disdain for his affections. He also reminds that lady of how he had bestowed his favours upon her. The song opens with the following lyrics:
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously,
For I have loved you for so long,
Delighting in your company
Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves
A number of interpretations exist regarding who was lady greensleeves and what the lyrics of the song mean. As mentioned above, some of the interpretations took this song to be the work of King Henry VIII and believed that the lyrics pertained to Anne Boleyn. This may have been the reason why some interpreters took “green” to have sexual meaning in the lyrics of the song. This was a contemporary view, since green on a lady’s gown was associated with outdoor sexual activities. Based on this, it has been interpreted by some that the lady greensleeves mentioned in the song is a prostitute. This interpretation is disputed by another explanation according to which Greensleeves simply refers to the dress of the lady for whom the song was written. This interpretation states that the lady was not promiscuous and rather, rejected the advances of her lover which can be taken to mean that she had a high character.
One of the earliest literary references to the greensleeves tune exist in the works of Shakespeare. Specifically, he makes an allusion to the song in his play titled “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. The play was penned down by Shakespeare in 1602 which shows that by this time, the tune was already quite popular. In the play, a character Mistress Ford refers to the song and later, Falstaff mentions it in these words, “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves”!
Greensleeves is a very popular English folk song and tune which was composed sometime during the 16th century. There are many theories regarding the origin of the song. Some legends trace it back to the time of King Henry VIII, claiming that he originally composed and wrote the song for his second-queen and former-mistress Anne Boleyn. More historical evidence exists to suggest that the song was actually created in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Actual historical data shows that the song was first registered as a ballad in 1580 and then became a popular tune for musical manuscripts and publications in the 16th and 17th centuries.