The Lyrics of Henry VIII/Whilles lyue or breth is in my brest, Cornish

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Lyrics  |  Manuscript  |  Authors and Composers
The Lyrics of Henry VIII
Appendix 1: Lyrics by Occasion/Theme  |  Appendix 2: Textual/Musical Witnesses  |  Appendix 3: Bibliography

A robyn gentyl robyn Thow that men do call it dotage

[ff. 54v-55r]

Whilles lyue or breth is in my brest
my souerayne lord I shall loue best
my souerayne lorde I shal loue best
my souerayne lord I shall loue best.

My souerayne lorde for my poure sake:                                       5
vj. coursys at the ryng dyd make.
Of which iiij. tymes he dyd it take:
wherfor my hart I hym beqwest.
And of all other for to loue best:
my souerayne lord.                                                                     10

My souerayne lorde of pusant pure:
as the chefteyne of a waryowere.
With spere and swerdat the barryoure:
as hardy with the hardyest.
He prouith hym selfe that I sey best:                                          15
my souerayne lorde.

My souerayne lorde in euery thyng:
aboue all other as a kyng.
In that he doth no commparyng:
but of a trewth he worthyest is.                                                   20
to haue the prayse of all the best:
my souerayne lorde.

My souerayne lorde when that I mete:
his cherfull contenance doth replete.
My hart with Ioe that I behete:                                                    25
next god byt he and euer prest.
With hart and body to loue best:
my souerayne lorde.

So many vertuse geuyn of grace:
ther is none one lyue that hace.                                                 30
Beholde his fauor and his face:
his personage most godlyest.
A vengeauce on them that loueth nott best:
my souerayne lorde.

The souerayne lorde that is of all:                                              35
my souerayne lorde saue principall.
He hath my hart and euer shall:
of god I ask for hym request.
Off all gode fortues to send hym best:
my souerayne lorde.                                                                  40

W. cornyshe

Textual Commentary

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“Whilles lyue or breth is in my brest” is a song of praise intended to be sung by a lady about her lover. Marginalia (as noted above) and internal evidence (“souerayne lord” [l. 2 ff.], “kyng” [l. 18]) indicate that the subject is Henry VIII. The speaker, praising Henry’s chivalric skills, countenance, and other graces, as well as pledging allegiance and undying love in a lyric intended for such a public forum, can only be Katherine of Aragon.[1] “Whiles lyue or breth is in my brest” is possibly a lyric intended for performance at a tournament (Stevens M&P 406) or, more likely, for a ceremonial “running of the ring” performed by Henry as part of a larger group of entertainments. While chiefly treated more as a practice exercise than a tournament, on occasion running the ring was provided as an entertainment. Such was the case on 17 March 1510, where it was performed for the visiting Spanish diplomatic corps (Hall 514; PRO E36/217 13–14, 25–26). The king made twelve courses, took the ring five times and also “atteyned” it another three times (this lyric has him doing half that, making six courses and taking it four times [ll. 6–7]).

6 coursys at the ryng An act, generally in practice for a joust, wherein a jouster would run as if against an opponent in an attempt to place the tip of his lance such that he would “take” with it a ring hanging from a post; see, also, above.
11 pusant pure Power that is pure.
14 hardy Bold, courageous, daring. sey See.
19 doth no comparyng Has no comparison.
25 Ioe Joy. behete Am promised, vowed (OED “behight” v B.I.1).
26 prest Ready in mind, disposition, or will (OED a 2); cf. “The thowghtes within my brest” (H 20.3).
30 one lyue Alive.
35 The souerayne lorde that is of all A reference to God.
36 principall The first or highest in rank or importance, that is at the head of all the rest, of the greatest account or value, the foremost (OED a I.1.a).
37 hath my hart and euer shall Cf. Henry’s “Grene growith the holy” (H 27.19–20); also see note.
39 fortues Fortunes.

The first stanza of “Whilles lyue or breth is in my brest,” the burden, is through-set for three voices, with the remaining text underlaid. The ascription on the lyric reads “W. cornyshe.” (f. 55r). Music is provided for the burden only. The lyrics may have been sung to a well-known tune (Stevens M&P 127–28, 399), as with “Grene growith the holy” (H 27), “Hey nony nony nony nony no” (H 26), “Blow thi hornne hunter” (H 29), and “Yow and I and amyas” (H 35). Extra-scribal markings to this piece (on f. 55r) identify the subject of the poem as Henry and the composer of the verses as Cornish. Extra-scribal markings include: (a) in the top right corner is written “henr” in ink and in a sixteeth-century hand; (b) the same, “henr,” in the same ink and hand, next to the sixth line of text; and (c) on the same line as the attribution of the piece, in a different hand and fainter ink than the other markings on this page, “William Cornysh” is written in a sixteenth-century hand and rubbed out partially.

This piece is indexed in Robbins Index & Suppl. 2271.2, Boffey, Ringler MS TM1070, and Crum W1850. It is reprinted in Chappell Account 378–9, Flügel Anglia 242, Padelford 90, Stevens M&P 405–6, and Stevens MCH8 40.


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  1. See Chappell Account (379), where it is noted that this lyric is “addressed to the King by some lady for whose sake, she tells us, the King had tilted at the ring,” and he suggests that, though it is set by Cornish, “we may infer that it was given to him by a lady to set to music. A Lady’s production it must be.”