A queen’s message delivered after 473 years

attributed to Master John, oil on panel, circa 1545

If you listen carefully on Good Friday, when Thomas Tallis’s Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater is performed at St John’s Smith Square in London, England, you may hear the sound of Micheline White in Ottawa clapping.

White is a professor of English at Carleton University and she has accumulated considerable expertise on the writings of Catherine Parr, the last Queen of Henry VIII.

The words accompanied by Tallis’s music were written by Parr in 1544 and performed in public in that year at St Paul’s Cathedral on May 23. The performance was a celebration of a victory over the Scots, including the burning of Edinburgh, and in preparation for an English invasion of France that summer.

The story of this simple psalm paraphrase was lost to history however until, in 1978, some scraps of parchment were found behind plaster inside Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.

The notation was soon determined to be by Tallis, one of the leading composers of the Tudor era. But no one knew who wrote the words until recently.

It has been determined that the psalm paraphrase comes from Parr’s book of Psalms or Prayers; specifically the psalm Against Enemies.

The spadework to determine that Parr was the author was done by Cambridge University music historian Dr. David Skinner. His Alamire choir will sing the psalm on Friday.

But he did compare notes with White and she shared information abut what she has gleaned in her own extensive study of Parr’s writing.

Skinner has told British media that, “we also have new insight into the role of a Tudor queen in Henry’s court politics.”

White’s interest in Parr flows from her overall investigation of the writings of women during the Reformation.

“I discovered that the prayer for the king still in use today in the Book of Common Prayer was originally translated into English by Catherine Parr from a prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor into a prayer for Henry VIII.”

White published a description of her finding in the Times Literary Supplement and it caused a stir in Britain. This led Skinner to her.

“We were working on different projects, he was more focussed on the music. But we did work together to figure out how this all works. I’m a literary scholar and I have worked very closely on what she did to her source text (for the psalm paraphrase). There are 12 psalms in the book that Parr produced.

“In the 16th century translators had a lot more license that we have today. She really took advantage of that.”

White believes that Parr picked up on language used by Henry himself to describe the foes he was fighting, and introduced the phrases into her text for the public performance. Parr had created a classic exercise in wartime propaganda.

“I looked at Henry’s diplomatic correspondence with his enemies and these are exactly the words he is using. She knows how he has been talking about these wars.” And so Parr reflected his words back to him; a canny move given that Henry was a dangerous husband for his wives.

White believes that Henry would have signed off on the psalm before it was performed publicly.

“It’s impossible (however) to determine how much his fingerprints are on this,” she says. White believes that he entrusted this project to her and wanted her to translate this particular psalm.

Parr was a well-known protestant reformer and was under fire from more conservative and catholic members of the king’s court. By wrapping herself in the flag during wartime, she may have given herself some cover, White believes.

The performance of this work, White says, put Parr’s words into the public sphere. Parr is known as a writer of private religious texts. This shows a new side of her writing appearing in a prominent public space. Her printed books were generally read in private homes not in a church service.

“What is noteworthy about her is that she had this opportunity as Queen consort to exert a lot of influence and she went for it. She published three books. She collaborated with Thomas Tallis. She didn’t just hide her talents.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.