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The White Falcon
The song was one of those written for the coronation of Anne Boleyn, and was performed during her progress through the streets of London on 31st May 1533. It has just had what was almost certainly its first performance for some 480 years, as part of Clio’s Company’s contribution to the 2013 Lord Mayor’s Show.
When Clio’s Company was chosen to receive funding to take part in the Show, we decided to base our presence on the coronation of Anne Boleyn. This was because one of the programmes in our flagship arts in education project, in partnership with All Hallows by the Tower, focuses on the weeks in the spring of 1533 when Henry VIII’s second marriage was London’s hottest, and most controversial, rumour. Had the king really married again without waiting for the Pope’s agreement that the marriage to Catherine of Aragon had never really been valid? Now we had the opportunity to research what happened just a few weeks later, and were delighted to discover the wealth of surviving material. The lyrics of “The White Falcon” appear in a volume of “Tudor Tracts” transcribed and published by A F Pollard in 1903 – the original manuscript is in the Royal Collection.
The White Falcon – A Song from Anne Boleyn’s Coronation, edited by Tamsin Lewis, with an introduction by Lissa Chapman and Jay Venn, published by Rondo Publishing.
On 31st May 1533 the whole City of London was out in the streets to watch the procession of their new queen. Anne Boleyn, her long dark hair studded with rubies, her little neck rising from a gown of cloth of gold, passed through the city on her way to Westminster to be crowned. As she went pageants – great platforms, several storeys high, decorated like a theatrical set – rose up to greet her. Prominent among the customary cavalcade of classical images and saints on these pageants was a crowned white falcon, which appeared at the grand finale. From a castle adorned with female saints and mechanical devices a ballad was sung to Queen Anne, casting her as a gleaming white falcon with all the desirable attributes of womanhood – chastity, gentleness, courage and fecundity.
Thanks to the work of early historical music expert Tamsin Lewis this ballad can now be easily accessed, read and sung again – in five-part harmony no less. As part of their research into Anne Boleyn’s coronation, theatre and interpretation company Clio’s Company found the lyrics to the ballad, which Lewis matched to a popular song of the early sixteenth century. Lewis describes the process of recreating music that has gone unheard for five centuries in The White Falcon: A Song From Anne Boleyn’s Coronation with a modest brevity born of long familiarity with early musical sources.
The White Falcon also includes an introduction from Lissa Chapman and Jay Venn of Clio’s Company. This work will be an excellent resource for anyone interested in Tudor entertainment – and Henry VIII’s political spin. As Venn and Chapman make clear Anne Boleyn’s coronation pageant was designed to silence her enemies and impress spectators of all nationalities with her virtues as queen. This ballad and the pageant that accompanied it is a clear example of that agenda. As they rightly say: ‘Political spin is no modern invention.’
‘The White Falcon’ is a lively ballad which I’ve sung myself to the alternative words Lewis mentions (‘And I war a maydn’) on a number of occasions. Any choir or musical group with an interest in folk or historical music would be well advised to take a look at this imagery-laden spin on the Tudor crowd-pleaser. Over a two-page spread the words of the ballad are clearly laid out (with handy glossary for the particularly peculiar Tudor words), while on another spread is the tune and verses to be sung. Being a myopic creature, I appreciated the ease of read this bold A4 layout enabled.
My only criticism of The White Falcon would be that I would have loved more of it. Such an interesting project deserves further attention, particularly the process of reconstructing music from the scraps of surviving material. Here’s hoping we see much more from Lewis and Clio’s Company in the future.