What were our medieval kings’ voices like….?

On your knees was the best place around Bluff King Hal

Today I once again heard Henry VIII described as Bluff King Hal. Well, this is usually said almost affectionately, which the Henry VIII we all know does not warrant. He was a monster. I think his voice was probably stentorian. Eventually he was downright nasty and needed to be approached with an excessively long bargepole. But not prodded with it, even accidentally! Heavens, no. Your head would be lopped before you drew your next breath! A frightening and frightful man in every way, he viewed women as disposable, as a few of his wives found out the hard way. And if you were male, being on his wrong side was very hazardous too, but you didn’t have to grace his bed.

King Henry VIII

Of course, there’s more than one way of defining bluff, and if you go to Merriam-Webster, you find that it also equates to surly. Go then to surly, and definition 1 is domineering, haughty, imperious. That suits Bluff King Hal for me. Another definition of bluff is having a good-naturedly abrupt, frank, and outspoken manner. That’s not Henry. Definition 1 does it for me, with dangerous, half-mad and bloody-minded added for good measure.

Well, given this view of him, I began to wonder about how other monarchs of that period, and before, might sound. I don’t mean their accents, whether or not they spoke Norman-French or even if they understood English, just their general sound. I mean, someone hopping around in a French fury is going to sound much like someone hopping around in an English fury, right? The overal impression would be the same.

King Henry VII

So, in reverse order from Henry VIII, I go first to his father, Henry VII. Now I can only imagine him with a soft, measured voice, always with much thought before anything was uttered. Rarely any humour, but when he did laugh, he went for it! Not that the laughter would necessarily be joined by others. Well, not with honesty, anyway. They’d all be too nervous. Henry’s reign was spent in anxiety of being kicked off the throne (after all, he’d stolen it). I think the endless worry affected his health. He wasn’t the most robust of men, and although he died in bed, it wasn’t a pleasant death.

Henry has been defended as doing his best to avoid executing his opponents, but that didn’t stop him scything his way through anyone with the “wrong type” of royal blood, i.e. anyone who could even remotely be described as Yorkist! Great care would be always be needed with him because he was constantly veiled. You really did not know what he was thinking…or what his solution to a problem would be. Except that when push came to shove, you’d be permanently disposed of.

King Richard III

Still going back, I come next to Richard III. He too I always hear as soft-spoken, but not quite as measured as Henry VII because Richard wasn’t forever concealing his inner self. He was more likely to be honest, and had a sense of humour, not least as proved by his dry comment to that gentleman who wished to marry Jane Shore! Now, when Richard wished to be heard, he could command attention without much effort. He wasn’t a big man by any means but he had great presence. No need to shout and wave his arms, a glance would probably say what was necessary. He was royal to his fingertips, and yet approachable. When he made friends, he kept them. Loyalty was a word that meant everything to him; he was loyal and he expected the same from others. The Stanleys must have been a very nasty experience, but by the time they exposed themselves it was too late. Richard didn’t deserve to die at Bosworth, but he couldn’t fend off such low treachery.

Contrary to all the traditional stories, Richard wasn’t hated and resented when he accepted the throne. There was in fact great relief throughout the land because a dangerous minority rule had been avoided—memories of Henry VI and Richard II were still strong. Richard was a reliable man of experience, proven in worth and loyalty, and intent upon improving the lot of his subjects. And he was regarded as the rightful king. Everyone knew how dodgy his big brother’s love life had been, and that Edward IV would indeed have lied to women to get them in the sack. The only ones who resented Richard were those who supported Edward’s offspring whether or not they were legitimate. The thwarted Woodvilles were particularly angered of course, because they’d planned to rule England through Edward V. Richard had out-manoevred them.

So, I stand by my first description of his voice. Whether or not he had a West Midlands accent, a Yorkshire accent, or whatever, he was the very opposite of a bellower. But he certainly spoke English and wrote in it.

King Edward V

Edward IV’s elder son, Edward V, was a boy, much brought up and completely influenced by his mother’s family, the Woodvilles, who wanted him on the throne and Richard of Gloucester 6’ under it! I hear young Edward as a strident boy who’d been taught to view his Uncle Richard with deep suspicion. Not the boy’s fault, but I shudder to think what his reign would have been had his illegitimacy not come to light. Richard, would have remained Duke of Gloucester and would have come to a swift, very sticky end, of that I’m sure. And the new young Woodville king (I can’t view him as a Plantagenet!) would have rubbed his hands at a job well done. Thank the Lord we were spared the House of Woodville. If only the same could be said of the awful House of Tudor. Anyway, I feel Edward V was a superior, know-it-all, just-about-teenaged prat…er, sorry, brat. And we all know what they sound like – they’re the same today.

King Edward IV

Now we come to Edward V’s father, Richard’s big brother, Edward IV. Hmm, somehow I think his voice was level and imperative at the same time, but never on the strident Richter scale of his grandson, Henry VIII. When Edward wanted to be heard, he upped the volume without ranting, and everyone jumped to attention. Plus, of course, with his great height he simply commanded from above! And as he was prepared to order the execution of his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, I think everyone tippy-toed around him. His sense of humour was very evident, however, especially when he’d had a few. If he hadn’t married a Woodvuille, and proceeded to lavish every possible grace and favour on her numerous and unworthy relatives, he’d have been mourned much more than he was.

Edward IV had always known that he wasn’t legally married to his queen, yet he kept his mouth shout, fully intending his illegitimate son to succeed him. By so doing he made certain of endangering the life of his only remaining brother, Richard, whom Edward knew was his rightful successor, and who had a trueborn son of his own who should have eventually become king as well. Richard was the true line of succession, but Edward sat on his grubby little secret. When Richard finally realised this, he must have been cut to the quick. Loyalty was a quality singularly lacking in Edward IV, and my opinion of him is very low indeed, although not quite as low as Henry VII and Henry IV. I put Edward IV in third place in the Nasty Man Stakes. Edward was unlikeable, I feel, albeit behind an exterior of warm bonhomie.

King Henry VI

Henry VI. Oh dear, rightly or wrongly I always hear him speaking querulously, except when praying, which he did constantly. When addressing God, he was almost cringingly respectful. Now, I don’t mean that as an insult to his piety, merely a statement of fact. My fact, and I may have him wrongly pinned. His long reign was an absolute disaster for England. He would have been better off—and much happier—in a monastery, as I think he might have agreed. It was a relief for England when he was toppled by Edward IV and the House of York. The Lancastrians were all usurpers, although Henry V certainly redeemed them. But, like so many good things, he died to soon and was replaced by his baby son.

King Henry V

Onward—or backward—to Henry V, hero of Agincourt. Well, I have difficulty with him, perhaps because I know so little of him. I too have been indoctrinated, at school by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. But he must have been a very commanding man, almost rivetingly charismatic on the battlefield. His voice? Very clear, with no room for misunderstanding. And no extra words.

King Henry IV

Then his father, the eponymous Henry IV, Parts I and II, who was the first Lancastrian king (and the first to usurp the throne!) One of my least favourite kings—in my estimation he and Henry VII are almost neck and neck, with Henry VII over the line by a short head. Henry IV was an unpleasant man (in my estimation), and I always hear him with a clipped, gruff voice. Like Henry VII, he spent his entire reign needing to justify his usurpation, and his health gradually failed. In his case I hear slight hesitations now and then because he was always on guard. These hesitations Henry VII concealed by being so measured, but Henry IV wasn’t clever enough for that. Also like Henry VII, he was never a happy man. Neither of them was able to relax and be himself. Serves them both right for rising against the rightful king and stealing the throne.

King Richard II

Richard II. Ah, one of my favourites, and although I don’t see him as angelic by any means, I do think he’s had a shabby rap from history. He was still a little boy when he succeeded to the throne, and was quite cruelly controlled and ordered around by his royal uncles. His voice when he reached maturity? Crisp, often hasty, and as his reign went on, increasingly nervous and suspicious as well as swift to turn to anger, which is hardly surprising, given the political mayhem all around him. Like Richard III, he has been and continues to be the target of Lancastrian/Tudor spite and their need to justify their illegal actions. Henry IV murdered Richard in cold blood, probably by starvation, and I hope had nightmares about it ever afterward.

King Edward III

Edward III, the last king I intend to consider. He was Richard II’s grandfather, his father, the “Black Prince” having predeceased Edward. Well, Edward was quite some king, and for two thirds of his reign was the great monarch and saviour of England. He was much loved, by his subjects and his aristocracy, and I always hear him talking to the latter on the level. He was amenable, but always in charge, and seldom raised his voice. He knew how to keep things on an even keel, and was a very open, approachable man who was deeply in love with his queen. When Philippa died, Edward was desolate. He’d needed her, and was caught (on the rebound, so to speak) by one of her ladies-in-waiting, the infamous Alice Perrers. This coincided with his gradual deterioration, mentally and physically.

Toward the end of his life Edward was a shadow of his once great self, and seemed to only listen to Alice and her cohorts (“evil advisers”). It was a very sad close to an illustrious career, and I hear his once amiable voice becoming weaker, more confused, puzzled even. Sometimes he was lucid and had moments of ability, but mostly he was incapable of withstanding Alice’s machinations. She, of course, had to make hay while the Edwardian sun shone, because when he died, so did her power. She needed to amass what she could while she could as the vultures were waiting to strip her bones bare. Whether or not she resorted to the services of a necromancing friar is another matter.

So there you have it. This is how I imagine these kings to have sounded. I doubt if everyone will agree with some of my opinions, maybe any of them, but I’ll be interested to learn how others have always imagined the voices of monarchs of the medieval period.

8 comments

  1. Of course, any opinions contained herein are purely subjective. But we do have a objective, near-contemporary report about Henry VIII. It was said of his oldest surviving child, Queen Mary I, that ‘her voice was as low for a woman as his was high for a man.” So I hear H8 as a high, or’Irish’ tenor, Dennis Day’s voice in heldentenor Lauritz Melchoir’s body. (I’m dating myself with these references, aren’t I?)
    As for his father, I ‘hear’ him as the opposite – Day’s body and Melchoir’s voice, a sort of low or mezzo-tenor, if there is such a thing.
    Richard: probably a mid-range baritone. Maybe I have Laurence Olivier imprinted on my ear in spite of myself, or maybe this is the voice quality my late husband had.
    The others – haven’t given it much thought.
    BTW, who is the artist who should be credited with the cartoons?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know why, but I’ve always imagined that Henry VII would have sounded something like the actor Alan Rickman (maybe it has something to do with the dry, sarcastic characters he usually plays; or maybe it’s just because I equate Henry VII with Professor Snape and the Sheriff of Nottingham lol).

    In my imagination, Henry VIII would have sounded something like a menacing Santa Claus (I guess that would be considered a deep baritone?). Interesting to hear that he actually had a high pitched voice for a man though! Maybe part of his desperate need to prove his masculinity had something to do with having an effeminate voice? Just a random thought.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, the high-pitched voice is a surprise. I have this vision of the great royal hulk entering the room, and then squeaking!
      😄

      Like

  3. I believe I read somewhere (Virgil?) that H7 had a very slow and deliberate way of speaking, but I don’t know if that was natural or part of the persona he wanted to present.

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  4. Could be either, I think. But yes, slow and deliberate. He was a very careful man, which I suppose is how he survived on the throne for so long. He trusted no one and examined everything more than once. One thing’s clear (to me!) – he wasn’t very likeable.

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