Updating King Henry VIII’s directive on having a good time – “The King’s Ballad”

The lyrics of all the songs on my album “Divan” were inspired by ancient historical documents. This one, “The King’s Ballad”, is my modern take on the Tudor Era ballad, “Pastime with Good Company” (a.k.a. “The Kynges Balade”), which was written by King Henry VIII of England in about 1513. His lyrics express his royal directive about how to enjoy life, Tudor style. It is performed by Ben Alexander. The bass instrumentalist and sound engineer is Luke Garfield. I used most of the original lyrics written by King Henry VIII, translated them into modern English, added some words by William Shakespeare to expand the length, converted the verses into lyrics, and set them to a new composition.

The original is in the style of an English folk song, and King Henry wrote it shortly after his coronation in 1509. It became a popular song in England and other European countries during the Renaissance. Some say the King wrote it for Catherine of Aragon, who was the first (and longest-lasting) of his six wives.

Portrait of Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger (Wikipedia)

How to have a good time without being bad

​It is a quite light-hearted folk song about his preferred activity, which is to socialize with good people, because that prevents all kinds of wicked thoughts and actions. Besides, as the King, later head of the Church of England, says in the lyrics, God approves of it, and therefore, so does he. Whether the lyrics represent the King’s real feelings or stance is unknown. Since the score was probably written down by a court scribe or musician, it is also not certain that the entire composition, every word or note, is by King Henry. Below is an image of the original score of “The Kyngs Balade” in the British Library.

Composition and arrangement

I wanted to write a modern version of this musical oddity, but intended to retain as much of the original lyrics as would make sense today. The beat was tricky – it is a walking rhythm with a swing. That is because of the unusual form of the original lyrics: irregular variations of 7, 8 and 4 syllables per line. In the final mix, Luke Garfield resolved the problem with the rhythm by creating a hemiola: three beats of equal value in the time normally occupied by two beats. Originally, the King’s song could have accompanied a dance, such as the “Quadran Pavan”, which is a partner dance, with stylized steps, turns and hand gestures. The tempo is 135 b.p.m. with the melody at half-speed.

​In the Tudor Era, the most common instruments were the spinet, harpsichord, virginal, flute, bagpipes, harp, violin, and drums. I used the flute, accordion, harp, violins, and the sitar to replace the spinet. Some of these instruments, the lute and the violin, are shown in this painting of the era called “The Concert”, by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1623, below:

Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1592 – 1656 ), The Concert, 1623, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Florian Carr Fund


​Another feature of the original lyrics and composition is the repetition in the verses. As a result, three of the verses start with the same words: “pastime with good company”. While each verse and chorus has the same basic melody, each one varies a little with the instruments used.I added parts of William Shakespeare’s song “Where the Bee Sucks”, from his play “The Tempest”, into the refrain because, for a change from the other source texts, King Henry’s lyrics were not long enough for this modern length of song. “The Tempest” was written about the same time (1610 – 1611) as Henry VIII’s song (1600), so it’s not anachronistic. Some words used in the original score have meanings that have changed over time. I kept them in, because, frankly, they made the lines rhyme.

King Henry VIII’s lyrics (Early MoDern English)

“The King’s Ballad” – Modern English Lyrics

Pastime with good company, 
I shall call for constantly. 
This enjoyment, as it be, 
pleases God, thus pleases me. 

Pastime with good company 
is the Sovereign’s partie*. 
On this pursuit my heart’s set, 
welcoming its good effect. 
*originally French: part, portion, role    

Dance upon this verdant grass. 
Take a bow under the stars. 
Do your confidantes salute, 
to their friendship give tribute. 
Where the bee sucks, there sup I: 
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I sleep when owls do cry. 
On the bat’s back I do fly. 

Come onto these yellow sands, 
And then take each others’ hands: 
Kiss the one who’s with you there. 
In their arms pile fleurs de mer*. 

Pastime with good company, 
after summer, merrily,   
merrily shall I live now 
‘neath the blossom on the bough. 
*flowers of the sea

Pastime with good company, 
I shall call for constantly. 
This enjoyment, as it be, 
pleases God, thus pleases me. 

This good, one should best pursue, 
while one should the worst eschew. 
Virtue always must be used, 
vice always must be refused.

Long ago the world began, 
But now all are fellow man. 
Good pastimes cheer everyone. 
All ends well - our play* is done. 


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