Greensleeves- one of the most familiar of all English folk songs, has long attracted stories about its origins. The most enduring of these is that it was written by King Henry VIII, the monarch notorious for his love of hunting, his six wives and his break with the Roman church.
Despite his love for divorce and beheadings, Henry was a sensitive and accomplished musician, playing several instruments and writing his own music. The most famous of these, Pastime with Good Company, was written shortly after his coronation, possibly for his first wife Catherine of Aragon. This gives credence to the idea that 'Greensleeves', in turn, may have been written by the King after Anne Boleyn (who eventually became his second wife) refused his attempts to seduce her. The lyrics, which contain the line 'cast me off discourteously,' and the wistful nature of the tune seem to support this.
The case against
Despite this, there is no documentary evidence to support the Henry VIII theory. 'Pastime with Good Company' is found in a 1518 collection of 30 songs and 13 instrumental works ascribed Henry VIII known as the Henry VIII Songbook. 'Greensleeves' is not in that collection. The piece is also an example of a 'romanesca,' a harmonic and melodic formula that originated in the mid-16th century, reaching England only after the death of Henry VIII. This makes the piece more likely to have been Elizabethan and, indeed, the first known publication of it was in 1580 under the name 'A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.' There are several other late 16th-century sources of the tune and it is also referred to twice in Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor,' written in 1597.
What does 'Greensleeves' mean?
The word 'Green' had sexual connotations in Elizabethan times, with a 'green gown' especially implying that a woman had rolled in the grass with a sexual partner, leaving grass stains upon it. So it is possible that 'Greensleeves' refers to a promiscuous woman, an interpretation that lends the song's chorus a bawdy air:
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.
Others, however, have claimed a gentler interpretation, in that 'green' was also considered the colour of 'lightness in love.' This would fit with the some of the more reflective verse lyrics—
Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.
—also allowing us to see that chorus in a different way.
The popularity of Greensleeves has led to to it being widely adapted and covered. There is an especially long history of the melody being associated with Christmas, most notably in William Chatterton Dix's 1865 carol What Child is This.
The most familiar modern version is by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who included the song in his 1928 opera 'Sir John in Love.' This version was then arranged by Ralph Greaves to make the 'Fantasia on Greensleeves':
Gustav Holst also uses the tune as a clever countermelody in his arrangement of 'Dargason' in the fourth movement of his St. Pauls Suite and his Second Suite in F for Military Band.
And in Australia the melody is used by ice cream vans: