Posted in Sex, Tudor music

The hidden sexual meaning of the Tudor song ‘Greensleeves’ …

A real Tudor woman would not have been seen dead in a green coloured dress and this is why…

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Greensleeves:

Alas, my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
And I have loved you so 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.

I have been ready at your hand
to grant whatever you would crave;
I have both wagered life and land
Your love and good will for to have

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.

I bought the kerchers to thy head
That were wrought fine and gallantly
I kept thee both at board and bed
Which cost my purse well favouredly.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.

Greensleeves, now farewell! adieu!
God I pray to prosper thee;
For I am still thy lover true
Come once again and love me.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_My_Lady_Greensleeves_(1859) (1)
My Lady Greensleeves

Legend has it that Henry VIII wrote Greensleeves for Anne Boleyn during their courtship. This is unlikely to be true because the lyrics of Greensleeves contain many sexual innuendos about promiscuous women. This would have ruined the reputation of the woman who had became his obsession. Henry wanted to make Anne his second wife and queen of England and he would hardly of written such an insulting song for her. The song is written in an Italian style which did not arrive in England until the Elizabethan age and so it is very unlikely that Henry VIII wrote it or even heard it played.

The word ‘Greensleeves’ refers to prostitutes and women ‘without honour’. In other words an unmarried woman without her virginity intact.

 

The word ‘green’ had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase ‘a green gown’, which referred to the grass stains that might be seen on a woman’s dress if she had engaged in illicit sexual intercourse outside and before she married.

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Oxford professor Nevill Coghill explains in his translation of ‘the Canterbury Tales’ that green has been a sign of promiscuity in women throughout history.

This is could account for the male singer proclaiming that Lady ‘Greensleeves is my delight’. In this sexist and misogynistic age a women’s honour and therefore her value on the marriage market depended on her not experiencing any of the ‘delights’ of sex before marriage. However it was perfectly acceptable and even encouraged for a man to experience the same before his nuptials.

Q2_Title_page_Merry_Wives_of_Windsor
‘Greensleeves’, is referred to twice in Shakespeare’s play. ‘the Merry wives of Windsor’

In the song, the Lady Green Sleeves is, incorrectly assumed by the male singer to be a sexually promiscuous woman because of her green clothes. Her “discourteous” rejection of the singer’s advances supports the possibility that she is not ‘promiscuous’ at all. It could also suggest that he is upset not to experience her sexual ‘delights.’ Sexual double standards were common at this time and he would probably reject her as a life partner if she did ‘foolishly’ accept his ungentlemanly advances.

In the Shakespearean comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ the character Mistress Ford refers twice to “the tune of ‘Greensleeves'”, and Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!

 The sexual connotation of these words would not have been lost on an Elizabethan audience. Below are some Beautiful depictions of women in green dresses that real Tudor women would not be seen dead in:

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Harvey Turnbull: The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present: (1992)

Frank Kidson: English Folk-Song and Dance. Read books: (2008)

Alison Weir: Henry VIII: The King and His Court, New York: Ballantine Books: (2002)

Nevill Coghill: Penguin books: London: (2003)

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I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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