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This Gentill Day Dawes

For fans of historical music one of the highlights of the reinterment festivities in Leicester earlier this year was “Concert for a King”, an evening with music from the time of Richard III performed by the a capella group Aitone and guest instrumentalist Susan Burns, with contemporary texts read by Dr. Tony Bentley. It took place at the Holy Cross Priory Church and one of the songs performed there under the amazing Tree of Life that sprouted from a nest of planta genista, its branches thick with white roses, was “This gentill day dawes” (also known as “This day day dawes” or “The lily white rose”).

This carol is one of the pieces of polyphonic music preserved in the Fayrfax Manuscript, a collection of own compositions and those by other composers compiled by Dr. Robert Fayrfax, organist of St. Albans and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Henry VII and Henry VIII. Among the other composers are Gilbert Banaster, William Newark and William Cornysh, successive Masters of the Children of the Chapel Royal. Interestingly they’re all considered Renaissance composers, even though Banaster spent most of his time in office serving the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III, who some historians still see as the last warlords of the Middle Ages. He was made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1475 and Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1478 and died in 1487, only two years into Henry VII’s reign.

This association with the Tudors and the Renaissance, as opposed to the supposedly medieval Yorkists, also applies to the carol itself. It is considered too sophisticated to be much older than the end of the 15th century and because Fayrfax enjoyed the patronage of the Tudor court and it sits alongside songs referring to the union of the houses of Lancaster and York and the welfare of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son, it is usually billed as an example of early Tudor music. It even found its way into the soundtrack of “The Virgin Queen”, a TV Series about Elizabeth I.

However, there are some problems with this interpretation. The manuscript has been dated to around 1500, but the carol’s composer is unknown, so it must have been around long enough before that date to become popular despite not being the work of a well-known musician or for its origin to have been forgotten. But its most intriguing aspect are the lyrics:

In a gloryus garden grene
Sawe I syttyng a comly quene.
Among the flouris that fressh byn
She gadird a floure &, set betwene, The lyly whighte rose me thought I sawe. The lyly whighte rose me thought I sawe
& ever she sang:

‘This day, day dawes.
This gentill day, day dawes. This gentill day dawes
& I must home gone. This gentill day dawes. This day, day dawes.
This gentill day dawes
& we must home gone’.

In that garden be flouris of hewe:
The gelofir gent, that she well knewe,
The floure de luce she did on rewe & said, ‘the white rose is most trewe
This garden to rule be ryghtwis lawe’.
The lyly whighte rose me thought I sawe.
& evyr she sang:

‘This day, day dawes.
This gentill day, day dawes. This gentill day dawes
& I must home gone. This gentill day dawes. This day, day dawes.
This gentill day dawes
& we must home gone’.

No doubt Ricardians will immediately notice the “lyly whighte rose” image. This is usually considered a reference to both the Virgin Mary and Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York, while the rest of the lyrics are seen as an expression of courtly love or an aubade, a love song where lovers have to part at dawn. However, when Elizabeth of York married Henry Tudor the white rose of York was merged with the red rose of Lancaster into the bi-coloured Tudor rose to symbolise the union of the two houses and, supposedly, the end of the Wars of the Roses. The white rose of York was instead adopted as symbol of resistance by the Yorkist pretenders Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of York, one of the Princes in the Tower, and Richard de la Pole, who was nicknamed “White Rose” and continued to press his claim to the English throne well into the reign of Henry VIII. Would it be appropriate to use this symbol to describe Henry VII’s queen, let alone opine that it is “most trewe to rule be ryghtwis (righteous) lawe”?

And what about the other flowers in the garden? They’re usually not mentioned or their significance is thought to be lost, but is it? Alison Hanham, who has analysed a number of poems which she believes have been misinterpreted, identifies the “gelofir gent” (gillyflower or clove pink) as the device of Elizabeth Woodville and the “floure de luce” (fleur-de-lys) as that of Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, whose coat of arms contained the royal arms of France. According to her radical reinterpretation “This gentill day dawes” is not an expression of courtly love, but a farewell song sung by Margaret of Anjou, who acknowledges the victory of the house of York and that she “must home gone” to France.

Aitone have come up with yet another interpretation. At their concert in Leicester they suggested that the carol may have been composed for the coronation of Richard III, who unlike Edward IV or Henry VII was already married when he became king and honoured his wife with a joint coronation. In this case the song would be an aubade after all and the queen who is planting the white rose of York next to Elizabeth Woodville’s gillyflower and Margaret of Anjou’s fleur-de-lys would be Anne Neville. Of course, Anne had previously been married to Margaret’s son Edward of Lancaster and the fleur-de-lys also featured in both his and Richard’s arms as well as the royal arms of England. Sadly we will never know, but given how few mementos of Anne’s short life have survived it would be nice to think that this was one of them.

I leave you with three very different versions of this beautiful and mysterious carol. The first is an authentic interpretation by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, which was somewhat confusingly published as part of their Eton Choirbook series.

The others are “Lily White, Comely Queen” and “Gloriana”, two very modern interpretations curtesy of the enchanting Mediaeval Baebes from the soundtrack of “The Virgin Queen”. Enjoy!

Sources:

Aitone & Dr. Tony Bentley: “Concert for a King – music from the time of Richard III”, Leicester, 24 March 2015.

Alison Hanham & B.M. Cron: “Slain Dogs, The Dead Man and Editorial Constructs”, The Ricardian Vol. 17, 2007 http://www.richardiii.net/downloads/Ricardian/2007_vol17_hanham_cron_slain_dogs.pdf

John Stevens: “Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court”, Cambridge 1979.

The Fayrfax MS, GB-Llb Add. MS 5465
http://www.diamm.ac.uk/jsp/Descriptions?op=SOURCE&sourceKey=1237

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4 thoughts on “This Gentill Day Dawes

  1. These are beautiful. It’s lovely to think they might be connected with Richard’s Anne.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if this refers to Anne’s death? As a spirit she must be gone with the light of dawn. She is no longer the queen of the earthly garden where the white rose rules rightfully but she watches over it from the world of the spirit? It certainly seems to apply to a Yorkist queen and would make sense if she is planting her white rose beside the Gillyflower of Elizabeth Woodville and the Fleu-de-Lys of Marguerite of Anjou.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. giaconda on said:

    Reblogged this on Giaconda's Blog and commented:

    Fascinated to find this piece and try to interpret the meaning behind it. I love the idea of the queen referring to Anne Neville and perhaps one interpretation might be that it is her ghost that tends the garden of the white rose. This would explain why she must go home when the dawn comes and why the carol is rather melancholy is flavour.

    Liked by 1 person

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