King Henry VIII’s sixth wife collaborated with Thomas Tallis to write music to rally her husband for war

Hannah Furness
Katharine Parr and a sheet of music by Tallis

In schoolboy history, she is often portrayed as the kindly wife who nursed Henry VIII through his dotage.

Katherine Parr was in fact a masterful PR who rallied England behind its King on the way to war, an academic has claimed, as he prepares for the first performance of her secret musical collaboration in 470 years.

Dr David Skinner, fellow and Osborn Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is to oversee the 21st century debut of Thomas Tallis’ Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, accompanied by words written in English by Parr herself.

Fragments of the 16th century manuscript, which was used to stuff cracks in the walls of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has huge historical significance

The London performance is the culmination of an extraordinary series of events, beginning in 1978 when three pieces of unidentified parchment were discovered behind plasterwork during renovations at an Oxford College.

They were later identified as fragments of music by Tallis, and Dr Skinner has now published findings showing that the accompanying words, until recently a long-forgotten mystery, were composed by Parr.

Katherine Parr, who was Henry VIII's sixth and final wife

It is now believed to have been performed during a spectacular public service in London, aimed at rallying the troops behind Henry and his continuing wars.

“She was often thought of as Henry VIII’s nursemaid, in his last year - basically looking after him,” Dr Skinner said of Parr’s legacy.

“In fact, she turn out to be an effective PR machine.

The manuscript shows words written by Katherine Parr to music by Thomas Tallis, an academic has claimed

“She was working side by side with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer on this event, and she published her own text anonymously.”

The manuscript, thought to have belonged to 16th century organist Thomas Mulliner, was used to stuff cracks in the walls of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, thought to have been picked up by long-gone builders who did not realise its significance.

A portraiture of Henry VIII by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/1498 - Credit: Niday Picture Library/Alamy

When it was uncovered in 1978, it was identified as being by Tallis, the six-part Gaude gloriosa considered among his greatest works.

A small, stand-alone partbook, it contains only part of the work and was intended for use by a single performer on procession.

The manuscript fragments were then thought to date from Mary I’s reign, studied but eventually filed away with the mystery of who had written the English words recorded as a footnote to history.

Thomas Tallis, who was an English composer  - Credit:  Universal Images Group

“The bizarre thing is that the paper survived,” Dr Skinner said of the manuscript. “You’d expect it to completely disintegrate, but it must have been very high quality paper and certainly good ink.”

The Cambridge Fellow has since come to study it, scouring devotional works of the day before matching it with Katherine Parr’s wartime publication, Psalms or Prayers; specifically her Ninth Psalm ‘agaynst ennemies’.

Her work was a translation from Latin Catholic martyr John Fisher. It reads in part: “Cast them down hedlonge … for they are treatours & raybels agaynst me … let the wicked sinners returne in to hell.”

The siege of Boulogne, 1544. The engraving, by James Basire, shows the battleground, including the English camps of Henry VIII, Lord Admiral Lisle and Sir Anthony Browne during an invasion of France - Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

He has published findings that it was performed in 1544, during an extraordinary procession and service at St Paul’s Cathedral to rally the nation to pray for Henry’s success in France.

Writing in OUP's Early Music Journal, Dr Skinner said: “The 1544 publications of Cranmer, Parr and the five-part Litany presumed to be by Tallis were clearly produced for the war effort and carefully planned to coincide with an event (or events) leading to the king’s French campaign later that summer.”

The work will receive its first London performance in more than 470 years by Alamire choir at the Tenebrae Holy Week Festival in St John’s Smith Square on Good Friday.

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