Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Lives of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I | HistoryNet MENU

Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Lives of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I

By Hunter S. Jones
9/1/2016 • HistoryNet

When we think of Tudor England, various images flash through our minds. Kings, many queens, dashing courtiers, spies, and ruthless intrigues enter the mix. Add a dash of Renaissance fashion and religious upheaval and it is a heady, or often headless, concoction of brutality and inspiration all at the same time. Tudor England was the springboard into The Empire and the seed of the modern world.

We look at the savagery and dogged pursuit of the throne by the ‘long shot’ King Henry VII. His surviving son, Henry VIII, changed the face of Europe forever when he founded the Church of England. His daughter, Elizabeth, another ‘long shot,’ set the standard for today’s world through industry, exploration, and education.

The medical arts were vastly different in the Tudor era than they are today. Due to religious practices of the time, it was unheard of to dissect a human body following death. Because of this tradition, there was little knowledge with regard to how the human body functioned at all. Tudor physicians thought the body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. The humours were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). In a healthy person of the Tudor era, all four humours were considered to be balanced. However, if one of the body’s humours was out of balance, an illness manifested.

Personality was affected by the humours. People with too much blood were sanguine, or ardent and hopeful. (In America today, this would translate as ‘hot-blooded’.) Those with too much phlegm were considered or dull and apathetic. Choler, a result from those who suffered from having too much yellow bile, were peevish and ill tempered. Melancholiacs were those who were depressed and unhappy. They suffered from possessing excess black bile. There should be a balance of humours – warm/cold, dry/moist – because a surplus or a deficit of the humours caused sickness. Purging with laxatives, vomitories, and other prescriptions were common remedies. Physicians would counsel on diets if necessary, since food was considered medicinal if prepared properly.

  • Blood was the humour of spring, passion, air, and childhood.
  • Yellow bile belonged to summer, anger, fire, and youth.
  • Black bile was linked to a sluggish personality, autumn, earth, and adulthood.
  • Phlegm was associated with winter, melancholy, water, and old age.

The humours had so many characteristics that they became useful for explaining many aspects of daily life. Humoral thinking was linked to astrology, physiognomy, and even music.

In healing the excess or deficit of humours, the Tudors were skilled in a variety of arts. Generally, people were bled at each solstice and equinox in order to keep them in alignment with the elements (earth, wind, fire, and air) and the seasonal changes. Tudor doctors also thought infectious diseases, like the plague or the sweating sickness, were caused by poisonous, airborne vapours, which were absorbed through the skin. An imbalance of the other humours would be treated by adjusting the patient’s diet – by taking medicines to purge the body of the vile humours. These are only a few examples of the beliefs that Tudor doctors held regarding healing.

The English and Welsh belief of the Medieval Mystical Tradition, especially by females, is well known through literature. Think of the tales of Avalon and the importance of women in these stories. It continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the English Renaissance, ushered in by the Tudor Dynasty. There was a thin veil between magic and medicine during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. What we see as magic seemed perfectly logical and even scientific to that era. Magic often contained ideas that were accepted practices by all levels of society. Knights told of balms, called ‘weapon salves,’ which would protect them and even heal them if they were applied before a battle. Then, as now, the belief in the cure often aided the patient in healing. They called it magic or medicine; now we call it science.

Likewise, astrology was not a form of entertainment. It was a highly respected medical theory taught at the universities. It could be seen in the movement of the tides, the mating seasons of animals, and the growth of plants seeded at certain planetary cycles. In Tudor times, astrology was considered a science. It was considered the most exact science since it revealed the planets as they circled the earth. During the Tudor era, it was believed that the sun, moon, and planets circled the earth. Consistent with that belief, it was considered that the King was the centre of their universe. When Henry VIII was ill, his physicians treated him with herbs; he even kept an apothecary cabinet in his quarters. Astrology charts, or star maps, as they were known then, would be drawn to decipher the best medical treatment for his leg or his various other ailments. The same practice was used for any patient that could afford it.

When a patient visited a physician, the visit would begin by asking for the patient’s date of birth. From there, a horoscope would be cast via a star map. Then a horoscope would be cast for the exact moment the ailment began, so that the physician could cast the horoscope of the illness and relate it to that of the patient. In prescribing medications, the healer would ask which parts of the body were affected because each area of the body came under the influence of different planets. The patient would be treated according to which planet ruled the medicine best suited to the ailment. In addition to Tudor medicine, astrology had an important placement in Tudor life. Physicians believed that different signs of the zodiac ruled each parts of the body. According to Dr Elizabeth T. Hurren of Oxford Brookes University:

Physicians were trained in all the intellectual refinements. They studied astronomy, astrology, geometry, mathematics, music and philosophy. They

provided a holistic approach, treating a patient’s mental, moral and physical needs. They believed that a sickness or canker’s root cause might be in the mind, the organs or the human spirit. Fate, fortune and goodwill might cure when a physic (physician) failed. The Tudors believed strongly in a divine plan in the face of providence. That life was “God given” and could also be “God taken”. From birth, Henry’s astrological lore was minutely examined. Born under the sign of Cancer (28 June 1491), he was governed by the watery and maternal cycles of the moon. (Hurren, n.d.)

Herbs were the best-known cure for any physical ailment and have been used as cures since ancient times. Those who grew plants for medicine would plant seeds at the new moon and harvest at the full moon to get the greatest benefits from them. It was part of the education of any physician. Young Tudor women learned to mix potions, or ‘simples,’ as they were called. These women had great expertise in the healing properties of different herbs. As a general rule, the wise women were taught with traditions handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. Herbs and the healing chants of the wise women were the most cost-effective medical route for the majority of Tudor households. One Tudor cure for a headache was to drink a potion of lavender, sage, marjoram, roses, and rue. Another cure was to press a hangman’s rope to one’s head. The physicians then, as now, were considered the most learned scholars, yet the average household could not afford this luxury, hence the need for the wise women in communities.

To heal a toothache, the wise woman would write ‘Jesus Christ for mercy’s sake, take away this toothache’ three times before saying the words aloud and then burning the paper. Another cure for a fever was for the healer to write ‘Arataly, Rataly, Ataly, Taly, aly, Ly’ on paper, and wrap the paper around the patient’s arm for nine days. Each day, the patient was to say three paternosters to St. Peter and St. Paul. At the end of the ninth day, the paper would be removed and burned (Thomas, 1991).

Balancing melancholia was another important issue during the Tudor era. Music was thought to be the best way to keep the humours in a harmonious state. Three queens during the Tudor era had a great love of music. This led to the downfall of two of the queens, and it possibly enabled the third one to maintain her status and keep her head, both literally and figuratively. Queen Anne Boleyn is the first such notable queen to use music, although with not very positive effects.

Anne Boleyn is the most well-known of King Henry VIII’s wives. Attempting to captivate her became the King’s obsession. For seven years, he pursued her and practically destroyed everyone who stood in his way. This was to change the political and religious landscape of England forever. For Anne, the King was willing to divorce his first Queen, break with the Catholic Church, and establish and make himself Head of the Church of England. What should have been history’s most enduring fairy tale romance became one of love’s most enigmatic nightmares when, after achieving his ambitions and only three years of marriage, Henry VIII had Anne executed on multiple charges of adultery, implicating her brother George Viscount Rochford and the musician Mark Smeaton.

Anne is believed to have been born in the early years of the 16th century in Blickling Hall. In 1513, she became a maid of honour in the household of Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Margaret was famous for her patronage of musicians, and she owned an extensive musical library, which was a rarity for the time. Anne’s father eventually arranged for her to move to the French court, where she attended Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who was to marry Louis XII. She later served the French Queen Claude, staying in France until she returned to England in 1522.

Her early years in the great courts of Europe shaped her later interests in music and fashion. Because of these influences, she developed interests in various segments of the arts—poetry, dance, and literature. Anne Boleyn’s most famous legacies, besides her daughter, are fashion and the games of flirtation. Her greatest pastime by all recorded accounts was music; she was an accomplished lute player.

A songbook believed to have been owned and used by Anne Boleyn has survived. It is housed in the Royal College of Music, London. Its origin is debatable, and the only evidence that the book of forty-two songs was ever owned or near Anne Boleyn is an inscription, written in what is described as an early 16th-century English handwriting: ‘Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus’. This signature is followed by musical notes. She is called mistress, which indicates this was written before she became Queen in 1533. ‘Nowe thus’ was the motto of her father, Thomas Boleyn, which would imply that she was unwed at the time.

There is evidence of the songbook’s connection with Anne Boleyn due to the compositions included. The late historian Eric Ives suggested that some of the book’s contents belong to the period around 1527 when Henry and Anne were openly courting and making plans for a future together. These musical themes lie within the compositions found in the songbook. Flemish and French musicians who Anne would have known about in her early years in the European courts are included. The most represented are John Mouton and Josquin Desprez.

One song, ‘Jouyssance vous donneray’, was extremely popular during the period and must have had a significance with Anne and Henry, due to the words ‘I will give you pleasure, my dear … everything will be good for those who wait.’ There is a suggestion that this is a song that Anne herself sang to Henry, and this seems completely believable. The song is preserved near the end of the book and noted in a handwriting style of English origin. The lyrics were composed by the French court poet Clément Marot, who gifted Anne Boleyn with a copy of his Le Pastor evangélique at her coronation in 1533.

The gifted poem included a prophecy that Anne would provide Henry with a son. This must have pleased both bride and groom greatly on the day, but as history has shown, proved to be her undoing. Her love of music also played a role in her downfall. Towards the end of April 1536, musician Mark Smeaton was secretly arrested. He initially denied being the Queen’s lover but later confessed. Perhaps he was tortured or promised freedom, according to popular legends. During the May Day festivities, it appears the King was notified of Smeaton’s confession and the alleged conspirators were arrested upon his orders.

Henry Norris was arrested on May Day and denied his guilt. He also swore that Queen Anne was innocent. The most damaging evidence against Norris was an overheard conversation with Anne at the end of April. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King’s Privy Chamber. The final accused was Queen Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, arrested on charges of incest and treason.

On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge. By May 17th, she was convicted of high treason, incest, and adultery. She was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII on the morning of May 19, 1536.

Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart or Mary I of Scotland, was Queen of Scotland from December 1542 to July 1567 and Queen Consort of France from July 1559 until December 1560.

Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie of Guise, a member of the House of Guise, which played a significant role in 16th-century French politics. Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V and she ascended to the throne when her father died. She was six days old. Mary spent the majority of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents. In 1558, she married the Dauphin of France. He became King Francis II in 1559, and Mary was briefly Queen Consort until his death in December 1560. The young widow returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on August 19, 1561. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but their union was unhappy. In February 1567, his residence was destroyed by an explosion and Darnley was found murdered in the garden.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was thought to be the mastermind behind Darnley’s death; however, he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567. Twelve days later, he married Mary. It has always been a question as to whether the marriage was one of force or whether she agreed or not.

Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favour of James, her one-year-old son by Darnley, her deceased husband. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southwards, seeking the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics. Unsure of what to do with the capricious Mary, and with many of her councillors perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her confined in manor houses in the interior of England. After eighteen and a half years in custody, Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and was subsequently beheaded.

Mary remains a controversial figure in history. There are a few things we know for certain. She was tall—citations note anywhere from five foot ten to six feet tall—her grandmother was King Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, she was the mother of James I and VI of England and Scotland, and she was considered beautiful in her own time and by our contemporary standards. As an old adage states, someone that beautiful has to be guilty, and Mary Stuart is quite possibly the best example of that statement in history. She married her handsome English cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, a reckless match, which she later regretted.

Mary loved music and was skilled at playing both the lute and viola. Two of her favourite activities were music and dancing, which was shunned by the strict Protestant Calvinist beliefs of John Knox, the head of the Scottish Kirk (Church). The powerful Scottish Lairds (Nobles) were increasingly becoming members of the Scottish Kirk and frowned upon her practices as well. A truce of sorts was reached in which Mary and her court could enjoy their Catholic Masses in private. The young Queen and her entourage, known as the Four Maries, were allowed to enjoy their masquerades and merry making within the confines of the castles at the Queen’s state events. Knox felt that the young Queen and her love of dance and music had turned the royal enclaves into brothels, rather than places for honest women.

The turning point in Mary Stuart’s life came with the death of David Rizzio. He was an Italian courtier and musician who rose to become the Queen’s private secretary. Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, is said to have been jealous of their friendship. Darnley joined in a conspiracy of a few Protestant nobles, led by Patrick Ruthven, Lord Ruthven, to murder him. This became the catalyst for the downfall of Darnley, and it had serious consequences for Mary’s turbulent career.

Rizzio, whose name appears in records as David Riccio di Pancalieri in Piemonte, went from Turin, Italy to the Court of the Duke of Savoy at Nice, France. Finding no opportunity for advancement there, he was employed by the Count de Moretto in 1561, who was leading a diplomatic mission to Scotland. Once in Scotland, Rizzio, found that there were no further opportunities for him. Thus, he was dismissed from service yet again. He ingratiated himself with the Queen’s French musicians. James Melville, a personal friend of Rizzio, said, ‘Her Majesty had three valets in her chamber, who sung three parts, and wanted a bass to sing the fourth part’ (Buchanan, 1582). Rizzio was considered an excellent singer, which brought him to the attention of the Queen.

Having grown wealthy under her patronage, he became the secretary for relations with France in 1564 after the retirement of the previous secretary. This position attracted a quarterly salary of £20. Ambitious—seeing himself as all but a Secretary of State, Catholic, and a foreigner—Rizzio was much too close to the Queen. Rumours swirled that Mary was having an affair with the Italian Fiddler, as some called him, and that her child was possibly his.

Jealousy on the part of the vain and arrogant Lord Darnley led to his murder in the Queen’s presence, in her supper chamber in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, after the royal guards were overpowered and the palace was turned over to the control of the rebels. Commanded by Patrick Ruthven, they demanded Rizzio be handed over. The Queen refused. Rizzio then hid behind Mary but was seized and stabbed to death. He was stabbed fifty-six times on March 9, 1566 by Lord Darnley and his co-conspirators. The Queen was seven months pregnant at the time of the murder.

After this violent struggle, Rizzio’s body was thrown down the main staircase, stripped of its jewels and fine clothes. He was buried within two hours in the cemetery of Holyrood. Records state that his body was removed by the Queen’s orders and deposited in the sepulchre of the Kings of Scotland.

Mary’s turbulent life continued. Lord Darnley was dead with a year, and a few years later, the beautiful Scottish Queen escaped into England in hopes of being rescued from her own nobles by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. This ended badly as well with her execution in 1587 on charges of high treason against her cousin. And it all began because she wanted a fourth musician in her chamber. It should be noted that her son was born healthy and although he was taken from her at an early age, he eventually become King James VI and I, the first Stewart King of Great Britain.

The last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Her early life went from Princess to being declared illegitimate after her mother was executed. At one point, her sister Mary had her placed in The Tower on charges of treason. Elizabeth was never expected to rule England, but she did. Many would say her reign is unmatched in the history of England. She became Gloriana…Good Queen Bess…The Virgin Queen.

The years of 1558–1603 saw English art and high 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. Professional musicians were employed by the Church of England, the nobility, and the rising middle class. Elizabeth I loved music and was an accomplished musician, noted as playing the lute, virginal, and gittern—an early form of the guitar, along with various other instruments. The virginal was a variant of the harpsichord, and one of Elizabeth’s personal favourites. However, the lute was the most popular musical instrument of the era. The Queen believed dancing was a great form of physical exercise and employed musicians to play for her. During her reign, it became a common practice to employ musicians. The interests of the Queen were expected to be adopted by her subjects. All noblemen were expected to be proficient in playing the lute and young women in society had to be skilled in vocal or musical training as part of their education. Music printing led to a publishing market for those who received permission from the Queen.

Even though England broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, English did not become the official language of the Church of England until the reign of Elizabeth’s stepbrother, Edward VI. Queen Elizabeth re-established the Church of England following the rule of Mary I and introduced measures of Catholic tolerance. The most famous composers for the Anglican Church during Queen Elizabeth’s reign were Thomas Tallis and his student William Byrd. The two composers were Catholics and produced vocal works in both Latin and English.

Secular vocal works became wildly popular during the Elizabethan era with the introduction of works from Italian musicians. The music of Italian madrigal composers inspired musicians who are now known as the English Madrigal School. Thomas Morley, a student of William Byrd’s, published collections of madrigals that included his compositions and those of his contemporaries. The most famous of these is entitled The Triumphs of Oriana, which was made in honour of Queen Elizabeth.

Instrumental music was popular during the Elizabethan era. The most popular solo instruments of the time were the virginal and the lute. The lute was the most popular instrument of the era. Lutes could be played as solo instruments or as accompaniment for singers. Compositions of the latter variety were known as ‘lute song.’ The most popular Elizabethan composer for the lute was

John Dowland. Contemporary readers will recognize this name, as Elvis Costello included a recording of Dowland’s song ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs’ as a bonus track on the 2006 re-release of The Juliet Letters.

In October 2006, Sting’s album Songs from the Labyrinth featured Dowland’s songs. It was recorded in collaboration with Edin Karamazov on lute and archlute. He states that he has been fascinated by the music of John Dowland for over twenty-five years (Sting, 2007). In order to give a feeling of the tension and intrigues of life in late Elizabethan England, Sting recites portions of a letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil in 1593.

The Tudor Dynasty has intrigued the public’s imagination for centuries. Through their beliefs, they moved England from the Middle Ages and closer to modern advancements both in medicine and the arts (Chalmers and Chaloner, 2009). Henry VIII’s grandmother and his father (Lady Margaret Beaufort and King Henry VII) were devout Catholics, yet they were highly superstitious. Each kept a retinue of soothsayers and diviners in their employment, along with their physicians. They aimed to be of one accord with the planets and signs from the heavens. Elizabeth I even chose the exact moment of her coronation based on an astrology chart drawn by her physician, John Dee. The Tudors believed that ‘as above, so below’. If the royal humours were balanced within the body, one’s body would be in tune with the heavenly realm. It is evident that the love of music shaped the lives of three extremely influential queens during the Tudor era. We may no longer believe that music is needed to balance our ‘humours’, however, the importance of music and dance, in all its various forms, continues to shape contemporary society.



Buchanan, George. Rerum Scoticarum Historia. Edinburgh, 1582.

Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 1, 1547-63, editor Joseph Bain. Originally published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1898.

Chalmers, C.R. and Chaloner, EJ. 500 Years Later. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Royal Society of Medicine Press. December 1, 2009 vol. 102 no. 12, pages 514-517.

Fraser, Antonia. Mary, Queen of Scots. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969.

Hawkins, Sir John. A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, Volume 2. J. Alfred Novello, 1853.

Hurren, Dr Elizabeth T. King Henry VIII’s Medical World, Senior Lecturer History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University.

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Blackwell Press, 2005.

Oxford University, Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera. Special thanks to this site for allowing glimpses into the astrological charts compiled by the Elizabethan astrologers/physicians, John Dee and Simon Forman.

Page, Christopher. The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. Harper Perennial, 2007.

Sting. Songs from the Labyrinth. Great Performances. February 26, 2007, PBS.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England. Penguin Books, 1991.

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