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So this tune was written by Henry VIII, wasn’t it? Well, not unless he wrote it posthumously as Henry died in 1547 and the first mention of the song is not until 1580, when it was registered as “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves”. This haunting melody has been on the minds of the British ever since and is easily recognised, even when used as a jingle for ice-cream vans or a ring tone for door bells.
The tune has undergone many variations in its time and is more often found as a dance tune than as a song. As a dance tune, it is found throughout the English Morris world, with many minor variations, and was often used for the dance “Bacca Pipes”, a solo dance over crossed clay churchwarden pipes. The trick here is to do intricate stepping over the pipes without breaking them, which would inflict on the dancer the punishment of buying a round of drinks for his fellow dancers.
As a song, the original words did not survive in oral tradition, but many one verse version sprang up. Many of these started “Some say the Devil’s dead” and he is usually found “buried in Cold Harbour” but also Killarney or Fowey Harbour. The tune also appears at the end of several Cotswold Mummer’s plays, as “Greensleeves and yellow lace”. An Oxfordshire play ends:
Green sleeves, yellow lace,
Pretty boys dance apace
For the fiddler is in great distress
For the want of a little money.
Whilst William Hathaway, the Morris fiddler, told Cecil Sharp that the Morris squire, or Tomfool, would run about, singing:
Greensleeves and yellow lace Boys and girls they work apace They earn some money to buy some lace To lace the lady’s greensleeves.