The entertainment in Tudor England

Apart from eating and drinking (and smoking), the Tudors were enthusiastic merrymakers: they liked to entertain and to be entertained. Henry VIII loved not only sport and food, but also music. He played several instruments, including bagpipes, recorders and flutes, and the virginals. His Chapel Royal included dozens of musicians, many of whom used to accompany him wherever he went.  Church music was generally written to be sung unaccompanied, but Henry liked to have trombones to accompany the plainsong of the choir.

Henry composed various ballads including, according to legend, ‘Greensleeves’. His daughter Elizabeth was also a skilled musician, and especially fond of playing the virginals. Most rich girls were taught to play instruments when they were young, and would later entertain themselves and their families, perhaps after their evening meal. Poor people would hear the music in church, and also gather round to listen to travelling musicians or minstrels. Anyone could afford to make a simple recorder or penny whistle; so home-made music was probably fairly widespread.

Henry VIII playing the harp

Henry VIII playing the harp

Some of the Tudor instruments have survived to this days, including the trumpet, recorder, flute, bagpipes, bells and cornet. Other disappeared, including the virginals, the crumhorn, the shawm and the rouschfife, which were rather like oboes, and the dulcimer, which was sort of cross between a trapezoidal guitar and a primitive piano; the player hit the strings with hammers, giving a powerful sound, so that the dulcimer could be played outdoors.

Queen Elizabeth's virginal in V&A Museum

Queen Elizabeth’s virginal in V&A Museum

The Tudor period was remarkable for its array of musical talent, and one of its greatest musicians was Thomas Tallis, who was born in 1505, called to the Chapel Royal by Henry VIII, and remained in royal service for Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. A master of counterpoint, he has been called the ‘father of English church music’, writing anthems, chants and hymn tunes that are still in use today, such as his setting of the Canticles in D Minor.

Thomas Tallis (1505 - 1585)

Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585)

Another member of the Chapel Royal was John Heywood, born near St Albans in 1497. He married Sir Thomas More’s niece, Elizabeth Rastell, and as a result of his great wit and skill became a favourite of both Henry VIII and Mary, although because he was a firm Catholic he was less popular with the Protestant Edward VI. As well as being a musician, Heywood was a clever writer of epigrams and proverbs, of which a great many survive to this day: ‘All’s well that ends well’, ‘A penny for your thoughts’, ‘Beggars shouldn’t be choosers’, ‘Better late than never’, ‘Rome was not built in a day’…

Heywood also began writing plays, and in particular was probably the first playwright to turn the abstract characters of the medieval morality plays into real people. His farces were immensely popular, and may well have contributed to the growing interest in plays as a form of entertainment. Perhaps the Protestants reformation of the Church, which stripped out much colour and ritual – and indeed drama – from people’s lives, increased the appetite for theatrical performances. In a world without cinema or television, theatres would give people a new shared experience.

Minstrels carved on the pillar in St. Mary's church in Beverley, North Yorkshire

Minstrels carved on the pillar in St. Mary’s church in Beverley, North Yorkshire

The first proper theatres in London were built in 1576 at Finsbury Fields in Shoreditch and at Newington Butts in Southwark (where Michael Faraday would be born 215 years later). London was by now the biggest city in Europe, which meant that there were enough people to fill theatres, and so make money for impresarios and actors. These first theatres turned out to be successful, and four more were built before the turn of the century, including the Rose and the Globe, not far apart on the south bank of the Thames.

The Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre

The timing could hardly have been better for a young man called William Shakespeare, who was born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564 and moved to London in his late twenties. He seems to have become an actor around 1591, and began writing at about the same time, although he probably wrote more in the following two years, when the theatres wer closed because of the plague. He became one of the Lord Chamberlain’s company of players, who later became “The King’s Men”. They built the Globe, and he became the partner; this was were all his greatest plays were produced, although in 1613 the Globe burned to the ground when a cannon was let off – as a special effect – and set fire to the roof.

The Tudor theatre

The Tudor theatre

Shakespeare’s command of English was extraordinary, and he gave us a wealth of phrases and ideas that will never fade. He crowned the flowering of dramatic genius in the Tudor period, which saw such other luminaries as Christopher Marlow, Thomas Kyd and Ben Jonson. One of the most significant things the Tudors did for us was to leave an immortal body of drama and poetry.

From the book “What the Tudors & Stuarts Did for Us” by Adam Hart-Davis