In 1978, three fragments of a 16th-century musical manuscript were found stuffed behind the plastered walls of Corpus Christi College at Oxford. Researchers attributed the work to composer Thomas Tallis, but they were not able to identify the author of the lyrics, which were written in English alongside the musical notation.
As Hannah Furness reports for the Telegraph, the question of the manuscript's lyricist was pushed to the wayside for decades. Recently, however, one Cambridge scholar posited that the manuscript’s words were written by Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII.
David Skinner, director of music at Cambridge’s Sidney Sussex College, compared the lyrics of the Tallis’ composition—titled Gaude gloriosa Dei mater—to Psalms or Prayers, a book published by Catherine Parr in 1544. Psalms or Prayers was an English translation of a Latin devotional text by John Fisher, a Catholic Saint. Skinner found that the lyrics of Gaude gloriosa Dei mater matched Parr’s Ninth Psalm, “Agaynst ennemies.” He first published his findings in Oxford Academic last May.
As Skinner writes in the BBC Music Magazine, Parr’s translation is searing and wrathful, “very much at odds with the original devotional nature of the Latin.”
“[C]ast them down hedlonge,” they lyrics read, “for they are treatours & raybels agaynst me … let the wicked sinners returne in to hell’.
Skinner goes on to say that Parr likely collaborated with Tallis the same year that she published Psalms or Prayers. At the time, Henry VIII was in the midst of a bitter campaign against the French. To rally his troops and his people, the king planned a grand public service in London, which would include an original composition by Tallis. But Henry wanted the service to be performed in English, rather Latin.
“Henry wanted the people to rise up and ‘pray’ him into battle, as later that July he was to lead his armies at the Siege of Boulogne,” Skinner writes. “However, Henry was deeply concerned that the traditional Latin litany and processional prayers were proving too extensive and cumbersome for the common man.”
And so, according to Skinner's theory, the king turned to his wife. The devotional texts of Parr's Psalms or Prayers were perfectly suited to Henry VIII's purposes: they were written in English, for one thing, and they were likely intended to promote the king's military excursions. Indeed, the book’s two concluding prayers—“A prayer for the King” and “A prayer for men to say going into battle”—suggest that the its publication was “timed to coincide with Henry VIII’s military expedition against France,” Jane Mueller writes in Catherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence.
Skinner’s findings lend further credence to the the notion that Henry VIII’s sixth and last queen was an astute propagandist. “She was often thought of as Henry VIII’s nursemaid, in his last year—basically looking after him,” Skinner said in an interview with Furness. But in reality, Skinner adds, Parr was likely an “effective PR machine.”
Next month, the Gaude gloriosa Dei mater will be sung by the Alamire choir at a religious festival taking place from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday in London. It was last performed in the city more than 470 years ago, when Henry VIII—and, quite possibly, Catherine Parr—sought to bolster the spirits of a nation at war.