Greensleeves (song)

Greensleeves (song)

Greensleeves is a famous traditional medieval English love song of the sixteenth century, dedicated to Lady Greensleeves (a mysterious “lady with green sleeves”).

The portrait of Queen consort Anne Boleyn (Lady Greensleeves) circa 1550, wife of King Henry VIII of England, Condé de Chantilly museum
The portrait of Queen Consort Anne Boleyn (Lady Greensleeves) circa 1550, wife of King Henry VIII of England, Condé de Chantilly museum
Name Greensleeves
Release date 1580 (printed version)
Composer King Henry VIII of England (presumed attribution)
Duration 2:39
Genre Medieval song, ballad, popular ballad, British music
Dedicatee Anne Boleyn (Lady Greensleeves)

History of Greensleeves

King Henry VIII of England and his wife Anne Boleyn, in their grounds at Windsor Castle (1903)
King Henry VIII of England and his wife Anne Boleyn, in their grounds at Windsor Castle (1903)

British popular legend attributes this song to King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) on the theme of his unrequited love feelings for his second wife and Queen of England Anne Boleyn (1501 or 1507-1536) at the time of the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the English Renaissance “Alas, my love, you do me an injustice by pushing me back into a quarrel, For so long I have been faithful to you, full of happiness by your side. Greensleeves was all my joy, Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves was my heart of gold, and who else but Lady Greensleeves?…”. This song then became very well known during the Elizabethan era of Queen Elizabeth I of England (daughter heiress of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn).

This popular ballad probably circulated in manuscript form, i.e. a “manuscript copy”, like most popular music of that time, long before it was finally printed for the first time in 1580 at the Stationers’ Company in London, under the title A New Northern Ditty of the Lady Greene Sleeves. There is no original copy of this print, nor any trace of its real songwriter.

Revivals and adaptations

The English author William Chatterton Dix adapted this music in 1871 with Christmas carol lyrics, under the name What Child Is This ?, translated into French by Quel est l’enfant ?. He takes up the original music with a pastiche (spiritual, of Christian inspiration) that is to say a text different from the original text, without any idea of caricature. Similarly for the song of the Angelus: Behold the Angel Gabriel.

The song

There are different interpretations and variants, depending on the region. The song of course appears in different keys. The first two notes are often given as examples of a minor third interval, easily memorable.

The fifth note is usually flattened (minor key) but depending on the version and tradition it is sometimes natural (major key), or varies within the same piece giving chromatic accents in the tradition of musica ficta.

It is based on the passamezzo antico, a stubborn bass (called ostinato in Italian, ground in English) which is a chord progression stubbornly repeated from one end of an instrumental piece to the other. The passamezzo was popular during the Italian Renaissance and known throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, as the Romanesca, very close.

Greensleeves is called Payssanos in the codex of Santiago de Murcia (Mexico City, c. 1730).

Greensleeves original lyrics

This is the version of 1584, reported by Francis James Child in 1860 (in Elizabethan English):

Alas, my love, ye do me wrong
To cast me off discurteously,
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold.
And who but Ladie Greensleeves.

I have been ready at your hand
To grant what ever you would crave ;
I have both waged life and land,
Your love and good will for to have.
Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

I bought thee kerchers to thy head
That were wrought fine and gallantly ;
I kept thee both at boord and bed,
Which cost my purse well favouredly.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

I bought thee peticotes of the best,
The cloth so fine as fine might be ;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
And all this cost I spent on thee.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Thy smock of silke, both faire and white,
With gold embrodered gorgeously,
Thy peticote of sendall right,
And this I bought thee gladly.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Thy girdle of gold so red,
With pearles bedecked sumtuously,
The like no other lasses had,
And yet thou wouldest not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Thy purse, and eke thy gay guilt knives,
Thy pincase, gallant to the eie,
No better wore the burgesse wives,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Thy crimson stockings, all of silk,
With golde all wrought above the knee,
Thy pumps, as white as was the milk,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Thy gown was of the grassie green,
Thy sleeves of satten hanging by,
Which made thee be our harvest queen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Thy garters fringed with the golde,
And silver aglets hanging by,
Which made thee blithe for to beholde,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

My gayest gelding I thee gave,
To ride where ever liked thee,
No ladie ever was so brave,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee ;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

They set thee up, they took thee downe,
They served thee with humilitie ;
Thy foote might not once touch the ground,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

For every morning, when thou rose,
I sent thee dainties, orderly,
To cheare thy stomack from all woes,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing
But stil thou hadst it readily ;
Thy musicke still to play and sing,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

And who did pay for all this geare,
That thou didst spend when pleased thee ?
Even I that am rejected here,
And thou disdainst to love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Wei, I wil pray to God on hie
That thou my constancie maist see,
And that yet once before I die
Thou will vouchsafe to love me.
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Greensleeves, now farewel, adue !
God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am stil thy lover true ;
Come once againe, and love me !
Greensleeves was all my joie, etc.

Notable interpretations

This song has been covered and adapted by many performers, including:


  • 1958: Ramsey Lewis Trio, album Down To Earth
  • 1958: Coleman Hawkins, album Soul
  • 1959: Paul Desmond, album First Place Again
  • 1961: The John Coltrane Quartet, Africa/Brass album.
  • 1964: Kenny Burrell, (Guitar Forms)
  • 1965: Vince Guaraldi Trio (A Charlie Brown Christmas)
  • 1975: George Shearing, My Ship
  • 1978: Isao Suzuki, String Band (featuring Isao Suzuki)
  • 2008: Bob James, featuring Hilary James


  • 1960: The Brothers Fouren make a worldwide hit in a folk version
  • 1965: Marianne Faithfull, on the album Marianne Faithfull (bonus track on the CD version)
  • 1968: Jeff Beck, on the album Truth
  • 1968: Elvis Presley, on the album Almost In Love (released in 1969) under the title Stay Away
  • 1974: Leonard Cohen, on the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (he renamed the song Leaving Green Sleeves)
  • 1974: Neil Young, in concert, on the pirate record Neil Young Solo, Bottom Live, NYC, 16/5/1974
  • 1975: Rainbow, on the album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and in 1977 on the album On Stage
  • 1976: Olivia Newton-John, album Come On Over (Olivia Newton-John album)
  • 1991: Loreena McKennitt on the album The Visit
  • 1994: Timo Tolkki (Stratovarius), on the album Classical Variations & Themes
  • 1997: Blackmore’s Night, on his debut album Shadow of the Moon.
  • 2000: Lynyrd Skynyrd, on the album Christmas Time Again
  • 2002: Alan Price in his album Based On A True Story
  • 2003: Jethro Tull, on the album The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
  • 2006: The Caretaker: Memory 07 on the album Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia
  • 2008: McCoy Tyner on the album Guitars
  • 2009: Moriarty, for the soundtrack of The True Story of Puss in Boots
  • 2012: Steve Hackett, opening the song Dancing with the Moonlit Knight on the album Genesis Revisited II.
  • 2014: Katey Sagal & The Forest Rangers in the series Sons of Anarchy
  • 2016: August Burns Red


  • Jean-Yves Lozac’h (Pedal Steel Guitar, Banjo ), Album Banjo Paris Session (volume 1, 1975: Pony/Musigrass P 001, then Cezame 1005).
  • David Nevue (piano), in the album Sweet Dreams & Starlight.
  • La Primavera, in the album English Renaissance Music.

Celtic music

  • Around 1970, Eliane Pronost, version in Breton language, under the title Luskadenn (Berceuse), on the album Melodies with harp and hymns with organ, production Mouez Breiz
  • 1979: Eliane Pronost, version in Breton, with the vocal quartet of Léon, under the title Luskadenn (Berceuse), on the album Musiques et chants du vieux monde, produced by the choir of Saint-Mathieu, 29, Morlaix (France)
  • 1995: Jean-Luc Chevalier (member of the group Tri Yann), instrumental version (guitar) on CD Guitares Celtiques Editions Pluriel
  • 2001: Brobdingnagian Bards, on the album Songs of the Muse
  • 2008: Hélène Ségara, on the album Mon pays c’est la terre, song D’Ici
  • 2010: Nolwenn Leroy, on the album Bretonne
  • 2011: Eve McTelenn, on the album Lullaby & Butterfly
  • 2013: The Rogues, on the album Hellbound Sleigh
  • 2020: Fiddler’s Green, on the album 3 Cheers For 30 Years

Early and classical music


  • 1730: Santiago de Murcia, Codex n4 (Mexico 1730) for baroque guitar, Payssanos.
  • 1907: Ferruccio Busoni, Turandots Frauengemach (Turandot’s Ladies’ Room), in Elégies, BV 249, No. 4 Intermezzo, 1907.
  • 1911: Gustav Holstl uses as the second theme of the finale of his Second Suite in F major for military orchestra (1911), to form a melodic contrast with the more rhythmic theme of the “Dargason”. This movement was transposed for a string orchestra for the finale of the Suite St Paul (1912).
  • 1934: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves for orchestra, premiered 1934, and harmonization for mixed choir (Adrian Boult (1971) EMI/Odeon Records ASD 2750)


  • Jordi Savall (2001)
  • Lily Laskine, (Harp) (1982)
  • Dimitri Bouclier, (2008)(accordion version arranged by W. Semyonov)


  • Aafje Heynis (1960)
  • Alfred Deller, (Haute-contre)
  • Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois ( 1977) : Bébé Dieu (English Christmas)
  • The King’s Singers (1989)
  • Patricia Petibon (coloratura soprano): New World (2012)
  • Marie-Des-Anges, Greensleeves Quartet


  • Vanessa Carlton: an unreleased song
  • Richard Anthony: Far away (“I hear the sea and the wind singing…”)
  • Fernand Gignac: Au pays de l’espoir (song on his Christmas album)
  • Forestella: Moonlight (from the album “The Beginning: World Tree”, 2022)

Francophone music

  • Jacques Brel: the melody of Amsterdam, created in 1964, is inspired by the traditional tune of Greensleeves
  • The Champions: The song Loin is a cover of Greensleeves with instrumental rock accents.

Electronic music

  • Two Deejays featuring Medieval: Greensleeves (Cyber Music, 1997)
  • Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss: Ex-Wives (passage of the musical comedy SIX (2017))

Greensleeves in film

  • 1962: The Conquest of the West, directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall, with John Wayne, performed by Debbie Reynolds as A Home in the Meadow.
  • 1962: Almost Angels, by Steve Previn
  • 1993: The Secret Garden, by Agnieszka Holland
  • 2005: Pride and Prejudice, by Joe Wright
  • 2010: Un poison violent, by Katell Quillévéré, performed by Barbara Dane.
  • 2014: Naruto the Last, the movie, by Tsuneo Kobayashi, prologue composed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
  • 2015: Jun, the Voice of the Heart, by Tatsuyuki Nagai.

Greensleeves was also the theme of the Quebec soap opera Le Survenant, between 1954 and 1960.

Video games

It can be found in some video games, including the King’s Quest series, Overlord (released in 2007) (The Inn of the Seventh Heaven in The City of Paradise Peak), The Settlers (Blue Byte – 1993), Anno 1602, Pilgrim, Heroes of Might and Magic II where it can be found in the theme of the witch’s castle and more formerly in Jimmy Business released in 1985 on Amstrad platform of which it is the main theme, as well as in The Apprentice the following year on the same computer.

Tributes to the song Greensleeves

The asteroid 19631 Greensleeves, discovered in 1999, is named after the song.

References (sources)