Elizabeth I’s love of music and dance is well documented. She was the last Tudor monarch, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and inherited a love of both art forms from her parents. Her early life went from Princess to being declared illegitimate after her mother’s execution. At one point, her sister Mary had her placed in The Tower on charges of treason. Her childhood friend Robert Dudley was imprisoned during the same period, and later released. The two had much in common.
Princess Elizabeth was well educated and she and Dudley, who served as a companion to her brother, Prince Edward became friends at an early age. Fate found them entangled as Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, was involved in the unsuccessful attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the English throne. This led to the Duke’s conviction of high treason and beheading at The Tower of London in 1553. Due to this, the two children shared the stigma of having a parent executed for treason. Roger Ascham and John Dee acted as tutors during their impressionable student years, during which each child had a known musical ability. It is easy to comprehend how they would become life-long friends, having so many bonds during their turbulent youth.
Elizabeth was never expected to rule England, but she did. Many say her reign is unmatched in the history of England. Her “Eyes” or “Sweet Robin” as she called him, was there when Philip II’s envoy to the English court arrived the week before Queen Mary’s death. On the November morning in 1558, the morning after Elizabeth’s accession, he was present for the surrender of the Great Seal to her at Hatfield House. Dudley became Master of the Horse that day. This position kept him close to the Queen. Because of their mutual trust and alliance, he was also given a major role in organizing her coronation activities.
The years of 1558–1603 saw English art and culture reach a zenith known as the English Renaissance. Elizabethan music experienced a shift in popularity from sacred to secular music and saw an increase in instrumental music. Elizabeth was a gifted musician, knew how to play the lute, virginal, and gitterne—an early form of the guitar.
While writing the essay Magic, Medicine & Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Lives of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I in 2016, I was fortunate to discover one of the most remarkable books I have ever found in my entire life. Gitterne or guitar – alternative spellings will include gittern, quinterne and even gyttron. They were highly portable, and relatively easy to learn, therefore guitars became increasingly popular in the second half of the 16th century, vying with other stringed instruments such as the extremely popular lute. Christopher Page’s The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History really gets to the heart of the matter, if you want to find out more.
Dudley and Guitars
Guitars made a their first appearance on an inventory of goods belonging to King Henry VIII. They are found listed as ‘Spanish viol’–yet another name for the instrument during the era. His daughter Elizabeth I was presented with a boxed set of three gitternes on New Year’s Day 1559. The recording of the gifts shows that they were received by Her Majesty’s special request. One portrait of her favorite, Robert Dudley, who was by this time the Earl of Leicester, features a guitar in its detailed border. He was one of the first Englishmen to endorse this strange new instrument as a part of court culture. Roger Ascham, the early tutor of Elizabeth and Dudley cited the gitterne thrived on peace and was a pastime for gentlemen. Soon, the gitterne would become as important to a gentleman as writng letters, conducting business, and whiling away long summer afternoons in the pursuit of love.According to the Tudor guitarist Thomas Wythorne, music enlivened the spirits, bringing a “fors with it lyk unto A heavenly inspirasion”. Guitar players had other advantages. In the hands of an amorous young man, the guitar was a means of courting young ladies who would flock to the player “lyke beez to hunny”. (Modern day translation: like bees to honey). Lovelorn serenaders did “nightly walke the streates before their louers gates, tearing the poor strings of their instruments”.
Is it possible Dudley had early knowledge of the meaning of the gitterne, as did Elizabeth? The romantic in me wants to believe this. Possibly, this was their lifelong secret. Two young misfits brought together by fate, not knowing what the future held, but love of music was their hidden code, and disguised their love before fate made her Queen, and made her forever unattainable. When no one else had seen it, he alone recognized her nobility, and she fell in love with the guitar player..like many contemporary girls.
In the days following his death in 1588, the Queen stayed in her rooms. She couldn’t bring herself to attend official functions or deal with matters of her court. When she died in 1603, a note he had written was found locked away in a cabinet beside her bed, inscribed in her handwriting on the letter were the words…His last letter.
Gittern engraved with the Garter and arms of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester used by special permission of The British Museum.
This image is used by special permission of The British Musuem. It is a Citole, formerly known as a gittern, later remodelled as a violin; wood, silver gilt, glass. The original parts are the back, sides and neck; the new parts are the sound-board with vaulted profile, the finger-board, tailpiece and bridge; a silver gilt plate engraved with the Garter and arms of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, has been placed above the pegbox. The centre part of the trefoil is a replacement.The carved decorative panels with forest scenes comprising huntsmen, foresters, animals, the end terminating in a dragon.
Special thanks to The British Museum.
Magic, Medicine & Music The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Lives of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, on History.Net, and can can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/2cusMst
Hawkins, Sir John. A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, Volume 2. J. Alfred Novello, 1853.
Page, Christopher. The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
University of Cambridge. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Digital rendering courtesy of Serena Topaz. All other artwork is public domain. Detail from a portrait of Robert Dudley (The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge).