Since Greensleeves is a folk tune, it has many different forms. This is one version, but the version Vaughan Williams uses in his "Fantasy" is nearer to the English folk tradition, being in the Dorian mode, i.e., having no F sharps in lines 1 & 3 (Play (help·info))
A broadside ballad by this name was registered at the London Stationer's Company in September 1580, by Richard Jones, as "A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves". 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"). 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.
There is a persistent belief that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consortAnne Boleyn. 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.
One possible interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute. At the time, the word "green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the way that grass stains might be seen on a woman's dress if she had engaged in sexual intercourse out of doors.
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.
In Nevill Coghill's translation of The Canterbury Tales, 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."
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". One of the most popular of these is "What Child Is This?", written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix.
In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice without any explanation 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 that the song was already well known at that time.
The earliest known source of the tune (Trinity College, Dublin ms. D. I. 21, c. 1580—known as "William Ballet's lute book") gives the tune in the melodic minor scale. "Greensleeves" is also often played in a natural minor scale and sometimes in the Dorian mode.
According to one source, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a Fantasia on "Greensleeves" based on the "Greensleeves" melody, in 1934. However, according to others, the 1934 Fantasia is actually an arrangement made by Ralph Greaves from Vaughan Williams's 1928 opera Sir John in Love; 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.
^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.
^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.
^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.
^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).
^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).
^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.