Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The Tudor Musicians.

As it was such a hot day on Sunday I decided to wend my way to my summer palace at Hampton Court. Henry VIII and Katherine Howard were in residence. I have to say they both looked remarkably different from how they appeared in January 2011. It was almost as if they were two different people. I suppose that is what marriage can do to you.

I unexpectedly came across the royal couple as they descended the stone steps from the Great Hall to make their way across to the wine fountain in Clock Court. I was not sure as to the exact size of their entourage which seemed at first, apart from the two musicians, to consist of a solitary lady-in-waiting. Later I espied the court chamberlain. More of the court is in attendance on the king during high holidays such as during the New Year festivities and Christmas. I did not have the chance to address them personally but I was able to establish from the lady-in-waiting which of his many queens was now at Henry’s side

For some reason the wine fountain has been moved from Base Court to Clock Court which seems more than a little bizarre. An archaeological dig in the courtyard, prior to the recent laying of the white cobblestones, had unearthed the lead pipes and brick foundations of Cardinal Wolsey’s original fountain underneath Base Court.

Left behind in Base Court and in homage to the painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the original of which can be found within the palace and  upon which the modern day replica of a wine fountain is based, there is a wooden effigy of a Tudor courtier, who has been clearly overdoing the carousing. The same painting has inspired the statue of a seated woman holding out a flagon of wine on the steps of the wine fountain. Out of view of the camera, the lady in the straw hat is holding out a Tudor goblet and asking passers-by if they could spare a groat so she can buy herself a pint of mead.

Although I only popped in to Hampton Court to while away an hour or so, I ended up with a great deal of images, including some taken within the Stuart and Georgian rooms. I shall return to the subject of these rooms anon. In this post I shall concentrate on the three musicians who played Tudor music under the hammer beamed roof of Henry’s magnificent Great Hall.

Between pieces, I commiserated with the musicians for having to wear clothes designed more for a draughty Tudor castle in winter than a blazingly hot summer’s day. But they looked and sounded the part and they remained cheerful despite any personal discomfort. It seems they are not part of a regular trio or quartet (another musician with a lute later joined them) but they do know one another from previous performances. They asked if I was a fellow musician. I decided that playing a concert-level grand piano on BBC television did not quite make me a professional musician. Nonetheless, I said I had played the recorder at school, both the descant and the larger alto. (The thought has just struck me: what on earth happened to my two recorders?)  I was unable to ascertain the musicians’ own names as I did not want to monopolise their time.

I do not know whether or not Henry VIII employed women as musicians, although some of his wives and both his daughters were highly accomplished in music. However I do know he employed one John Blanke, who is described in the official documents of the time (now held at the National Archive) as being “the blacke trumpeter.” John had originally been in the service of Henry’s father, King Henry VII. When the old king died John became part of the household of the young King Henry. The records for 8th November (a day forever celebrated as the birthday of both the Brimstone Butterfly and Mandip) tell us that John was paid the princely sum of 20 shillings a month for his troubles. He would also have received his board and lodgings and the king’s livery to wear. He must have been very gifted  because Henry regarded himself as a superb musician and composer in his own right and would have insisted on surrounding himself with the finest musicians in Europe. I like to imagine John as being not that much older than Henry. If that were the case he too might well have performed in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.
 We know little more about John Blanke. But thanks to his distinctive appearance, he alone of his fellow trumpeters can be clearly identified on the Westminster Tournament Roll dating from 1511. Early in that year, ecstatic at the birth of a son by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the delighted Henry commanded an extravagant two day long tournament to be held. Such momentous celebrations needed to be recorded for posterity. Hence the 60 feet long Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511. John is shown, along with his fellow trumpeters, mounted on horseback.  In fact there are two images of the trumpeters showing them both arriving at and departing from the Tournament. Had Henry’s baby son, also called Henry, lived into adulthood the whole course of English history would have been changed forever. King Henry would not have needed to divorce his son’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in order to sire an heir by Anne Boleyn. Nor would he have broken with the Church of Rome. But the younger Henry died within a matter of weeks of the glorious courtly ceremonies held in his name.  
Phillip the Handsome

Self portrait by Albrecht Dürer
The modern musicians did have time to tell me that the music on my second video is by one Alexander Agricola, who had been a court composer to the Castilian king, Phillip the Handsome. Such a singular epithet piqued my curiosity. The Hapsburgs were notorious for inbreeding, insanity and a distinctly over large jaw. As a consequence, I suspect any relatively lucid monarch who was fairly easy on the eye would pass for handsome. Lest anyone claim ideals of pulchritude vary over time, Phillip the Handsome’s looks are put firmly in the shade by his contemporary, the great German artist Albrecht Durer.
At one point the Tudor musicians’ playing was marred by a 21st century brat complaining about the volume on his headphones. He was quickly hushed by his mortified parent. Even the errant child failed to damped the high spirits of the musicians, one of whom could not help giggling as she realised they had all come slightly adrift at the very end of the movement. I wonder how John Blanke would have responded to the child’s interruption. Perhaps he would simply have got up on his high horse and blown his own trumpet.