Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

04 October 2011

The Spy's Choirbook

Among the manuscripts on display in our Royal exhibition is a sumptuous choirbook made for King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547). Henry's ownership of this book is no surprise, since he had received a thorough musical education and brought the finest musicians in Europe to his court. The scribe who made this choirbook is perhaps more worthy of attention. He was none other than Petrus Alamire (d. 1536), a resident of the Low Countries, who for a short period worked as a spy in Henry's service.

Alamire was not our scribe's real name, being a musical pun on the notes "A-la-mi-re". During his career, Petrus Alamire made similar books for Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (d. 1558), Pope Leo X (1513-1521), and Frederick III, Elector of Saxony (d. 1525). Many of these manuscripts survive in Vienna, Brussels, Munich, Jena and the Vatican, as well as at the British Library, and they are hugely important for preserving the works of the leading composers of the day.



Motet 'Celeste beneficium' by Jean Mouton: Royal MS 8 G VII, ff. 2v-3.

But Alamire also had another string to his bow. A number of letters written between 1515 and 1518 document his career as a spy, keeping Henry VIII informed of the movements of Richard de la Pole, claimant to the English throne, who was living in exile in Metz. Pole was the son of Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister of King Edward IV of England (1461-1470, 1471-1483), and was a constant thorn in Henry's side until he was killed at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

The magnificent choirbook Royal 8 G VII was made in Alamire's workshop for Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), his first queen, and contains twenty-eight motets by Josquin des Prez, Pierre de la Rue and other composers. The opening pages are the most richly decorated, bearing the motet ‘Celeste beneficium’ by Jean Mouton. This motet was composed originally for Anne of Brittany and King Louis XII of France (r. 1498-1515): it calls upon St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to bring forth children, and clearly echoes Henry's pressing desire to father a male heir. This was clearly a manuscript made specifically for the king of England: the marginal flora and fauna common to Flemish illumination are combined here with typical Tudor symbols such as the dragon, greyhound and portcullis.

High-resolution images of the complete manuscript are freely available on the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. We will be publishing similar descriptions of our books in the lead-up to and throughout our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. 

The Royal project team


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