My Lady Greensleeves

An old tradition attributes the beautiful Greensleeves tune to King Henry VIII, but this has been successfully exposed as nonsense. This is a pity; the thought that the old lech was capable of creating rather than just destroying things is an attractive one. Although it has received a warm a welcome in other nations, it is truly English music and likely Elizabethan, called originally A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves, from 1580. In the late medieval mind, green was the colour of romantic flippancy, inconstancy and infidelity. My Lady Greensleeves was very likely a courtesan or prostitute, which may be confirmed by the Northern Dittye’s lyrics:

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.


If you intend thus to disdain,

It does the more enrapture me,

And even so, I still remain

A lover in captivity        ….and so on.

On Thursday afternoons, between the Bible Studies and visitors’ calls, I have been known to practise the tune on piano and organ. Some might startle to think that a melody associated with a lady of loose morals should be sounding in so strait-laced a chapel. I suspect that other songs, however, with godlier words, also have tunes of questionable moral, though not artistic, provenance. Yet consider this:

A good hymn with a poor tune is pity;

a poor hymn with a good tune is a calamity.

A poor hymn with a poor tune is soon forgotten;

a good hymn with a good tune is the very gift of God.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. 1 Chronicles 16:23