As the Christmas season approaches it seems a perfect time to enjoy one of the season’s best-loved melodies, Greensleeves, also known as What Child is This? If you are not familiar with this treasured melody listen while you read the text below.
“Greensleeves” is a traditional English folk song and tune dating back to the sixteenth century. It has been described as a tune over a romanesca ground consisting of four chords with a simple, repeating bass. It provides the groundwork for improvisation and variety (1).
To this day, there is still debate as to the actual composer of the piece. The most popular belief is that the words and lyrics were written for Anne Boleyn (1502-1536) by King Henry VIII (1491-1537) during their ruff and tumble courtship. It is suggested that he wrote the piece at her rejection to his attempt to seduce her. This rejection may be referred to in the song when the composer’s love “cast me off discourteously”.
Henry VIII was an accomplished musician who played the organ, lute, and virginals, which was a “feminine” toned keyboard. He arranged music in the French manner of the day (2). Did he write “Greensleeves”? He probably did not as it is written in an Italian style that did not reach England until after Henry’s death (3). This would make it more likely Elizabethan in origin. However, that does not affect the history of its five centuries of transmogrifying life (2).
As noted above, this melody, which was found in many texts during the 14th century also appears in a popular Christmas carol entitled “What Child is This?” The words of this version were written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) (4).
The words accompanying King Henry’s version:
Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and 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.
Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.
I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.
If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.
My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
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.
Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.
The lyrics to What Child Is This are:
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary
The carol was first published on Christmas Carols New and Old in the mid 1800s.
- Greensleeves. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensleeves.
- Church, Michael. The story behind ‘greensleeves’. https://www.tes.com/news/tes-archive/tes-publication/story-behind-greensleeves.
- Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and Hus Court (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002) page 131.