"Greensleeves" is a traditional English folk song and tune, over a ground either of the form called a romanesca; or its slight variant, the passamezzo antico; or the passamezzo antico in its verses and the romanesca in its reprise; or of the Andalusian progression in its verses and the romanesca or passamezzo antico in its reprise. The romanesca originated in Spain[1] and is composed of a sequence of four chords with a simple, repeating bass, which provide the groundwork for variations and improvisation. British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in Musicophilia that the melody of Greensleeves was found to be one of the most common and problematic earworms.

A broadside ballad by this name was registered at the London Stationer's Company in September 1580,[2] by Richard Jones, as "A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves".[3] Six more ballads followed in less than a year, one on the same day, 3 September 1580 ("Ye Ladie Greene Sleeves answere to Donkyn hir frende" by Edward White), then on 15 and 18 September (by Henry Carr and again by White), 14 December (Richard Jones again), 13 February 1581 (Wiliam Elderton), and August 1581 (White's third contribution, "Greene Sleeves is worne awaie, Yellow Sleeves Comme to decaie, Blacke Sleeves I holde in despite, But White Sleeves is my delighte").[4] It then appears in the surviving A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) as A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green Sleeves.

The tune is found in several late-16th-century and early-17th-century sources, such as Ballet's MS Lute Book and Het Luitboek van Thysius, as well as various manuscripts preserved in the Seeley Historical Library at the University of Cambridge.


There is a persistent belief that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn.[5] Boleyn allegedly rejected King Henry's attempts to seduce her, and this rejection may be referred to in the song when the writer's love "cast me off discourteously". However, the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry's death, making it more likely to be Elizabethan in origin.[6]

Lyrical interpretation

One possible interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute.[7] At the time, the word "green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the grass stains on a woman's dress from engaging in sexual intercourse outdoors.[8]

An alternative explanation is that Lady Green Sleeves was, through her costume, incorrectly assumed to be sexually promiscuous. Her "discourteous" rejection of the singer's advances supports the contention that she is not.[8]

In Nevill Coghill's translation of The Canterbury Tales,[9] he explains that "green [for Chaucer’s age] was the colour of lightness in love. This is echoed in 'Greensleeves is my delight' and elsewhere."

Alternative lyrics

Christmas and New Year texts were associated with the tune from as early as 1686, and by the 19th century almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain "On Christmas Day in the morning".[10] One of the most popular of these is "What Child Is This?", written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix.[11]

Early literary references

In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (written c. 1597; first published in 1602), the character Mistress Ford refers twice to "the tune of 'Greensleeves'", and Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'!

These allusions indicate the song was already well known at that time.

  • Since 1995, aural examinations in Hong Kong have been broadcast on RTHK, with "Greensleeves" being played before the exam begins.[12]
  • In some parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and areas of the United Kingdom, the "Greensleeves" tune is popular as a standard chime for ice cream vans.[13][14]
  • The tune was used (as "My Lady Greensleeves") as the slow march of the London Trained Bands in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Later the 7th (City of London) Battalion London Regiment, which claimed descent from the Yellow Regiment of London Trained Bands, adopted the tune as its quick march during World War I, replacing "Austria" (to the same tune as Deutschland über Alles), which had been used until then.[15]
  • According to one source, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a Fantasia on "Greensleeves" based on the "Greensleeves" melody, in 1934.[16] However, according to others, the 1934 Fantasia is actually an arrangement made by Ralph Greaves (1889–1966) from Vaughan Williams' opera Sir John in Love in 1928; they point out that the fantasia also incorporates a folk song called "Lovely Joan" in the middle section. There are also several other, later arrangements by various writers, but no version by Vaughan Williams himself.[17][18][19][20]
  • A rendering of the tune, titled the "Lassie Theme" was used extensively in the Lassie television show, especially the ending credits.[21]
  • An episode from the eighth season of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" used "Greensleeves" to parody the odd and morbid tunes sung by a character from The Undead.[22]


  1. Harvey Turnbull, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present (1992), p.31. ISBN 0-933224-57-5. See: "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 June 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2011..
  2. Frank Kidson, English Folk-Song and Dance. READ BOOKS, 2008, p.26. ISBN 1-4437-7289-5
  3. John M. Ward, "'And Who But Ladie Greensleeues?'", in The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry, and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance: Essays in Honour of F. W. Sternfeld, edited by John Caldwell, Edward Olleson, and Susan Wollenberg, 181–211 (Oxford:Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): 181. ISBN 0-19-316124-9.
  4. Hyder Edward Rollins, An Analytical Index to the Ballad-Entries (1557–1709 in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1924): nos, 1892, 1390, 1051, 1049, 1742, 2276, 1050. Cited in John M. Ward, "'And Who But Ladie Greensleeues?'", in The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry, and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance: Essays in Honour of F. W. Sternfeld, edited by John Caldwell, Edward Olleson, and Susan Wollenberg, 181–211 (Oxford:Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): 181–82. ISBN 0-19-316124-9.
  5. "Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 1 of 3: Mythology". Early Music Muse. 2015-07-03. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  6. Alison Weir, Henry VIII: The King and His Court (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001): 131. ISBN 0-345-43708-X.
  7. Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride, Women's Roles in the Renaissance (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 101. ISBN 0-313-32210-4
  8. 1 2 Vance Randolph "Unprintable" Ozark Folksongs and Folklore, Volume I, Folksongs and Music, page 47, University of Arkansas Press, 1992, ISBN 1-55728-231-5
  9. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, revised edition, translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill (Harmondsworth and Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1958): 517, note 422. Reprinted in The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003). ISBN 0-14-042438-5.
  10. John M. Ward, "'And Who But Ladie Greensleeues?'", in The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry, and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance: Essays in Honour of F. W. Sternfeld, edited by John Caldwell, Edward Olleson, and Susan Wollenberg, 181–211 (Oxford:Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): 193. ISBN 0-19-316124-9.
  11. "Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 2 of 3: History". Early Music Muse. 2015-07-06. Retrieved 2017-11-22.
  12. "'Father' of Greensleeves – HKEAA 40th Anniversary". Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  13. Barton, Laura (12 July 2013). "Ice-cream van chimes: the sound of the British summer". The Guardian.
  14. Dorman, Nick (3 Aug 2013). "Ice cream vans, Greensleeves chime and 99s make Brits happier according to poll". Mirror.
  15. C. Digby Planck, The Shiny Seventh: History of the 7th (City of London) Battalion London Regiment, London: Old Comrades' Association, 1946/Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2002, ISBN 1-84342-366-9, pp. 219–20.
  16. Julius H. Jacobson II, The Classical Music Experience: Discover the Music of the World's Greatest Composers (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2003): 221. ISBN 9781570719509,
  17. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on Greensleeves, arranged from the opera Sir John in Love for string orchestra and harp (or pianoforte) with one or two optional flutes by Ralph Greaves, Oxford Orchestral Series no. 102 (London: Oxford University Press, 1934).
  18. Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley, "Vaughan Williams, Ralph", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  19. Michael Kennedy, "Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'", The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised; associate editor, Joyce Bourne (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) ISBN 9780198614593.
  20. "The Halle Orchestra Conducted By John Barbirolli – Fantasia On "Greensleeves"/ Londonderry Air". Discogs. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  21. "Lassie theme".
  22. "Digger Smolken Sings". YouTube. 2011-04-09. Retrieved 2018-04-07.
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