William Byrd, court composer to Elizabeth 1, lived and worked in Lincoln and left his mark on the world of music.
Walk round Lincoln Cathedral to its East end and, across the grass that separates the building from Priory Gate (the road that runs past it), you will see a row of fine period houses – brick built, pantile roofs, sash windows – all typical of the architecture that attracts people to the city and its Cathedral Quarter.
It’s quite likely that visitors give the houses no more than a passing glance. This is a shame. Take a closer look at them and you will find a plaque attached to the front elevation of one which commemorates the fact that it was once the site of the home of William Byrd, organist, composer and one of the finest musicians English church music’s golden age.
Byrd’s date of birth is uncertain. In his will (dated 1622), he refers to being in his “80th year of age”, though there is an earlier reference in a document from October 1598, in which he says he is “58 yeares or ther abouts” (sic). His birthdate is therefore taken by most to be around 1540. It’s also not clear where he was born though it’s assumed to be London, where his father had moved to from Essex. The story of his life becomes clearer with his appointment as organist and choirmaster at Lincoln in 1563. It was a post he was to hold for 9 years before he returned to London and an important job in the Chapel Royal.
Byrd was a key figure in the English Renaissance, a period during the 16th century which, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, produced gorgeous works of art, music and literature that are now steeped in British history. It was the age of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, of the miniaturist Nicholas Hillyard and of Drake and the Armada. To my mind, the crowning glory of that age was the church music written especially by Byrd and his contemporary and mentor, Thomas Tallis. Their music, like Shakespeare’s plays, is regularly performed – mostly by early music groups like The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars, providing a constant reminder of its beauty.
When you listen to a work by Byrd, it should be remembered that he was alive at the time of the Reformation which saw the establishment of the Church of England. Prior to this, the UK had been a Catholic country and most music being written – outside that for or commissioned by wealthy patrons for their own amusement – were settings of Latin texts, to be performed in monasteries and churches to the glory of God.
Byrd may well have been brought up as a Catholic. As a pupil of Thomas Tallis who had worked for Henry V111, Edward 1V, Mary 1 and Elizabeth 1, he would be very familiar with the care that had to be taken not to offend the authorities, once Catholicism was abandoned. Both he and Tallis appear to have kept their Catholic faith throughout their lives and in Byrd’s case, he did so openly during Elizabeth 1’s reign. Even though Elizabeth seems to have tolerated this, the number of Catholic-inspired plots to assassinate the Queen and restore Catholicism led to anyone associated with the faith risking being accused of sedition. Byrd would have had to tread very carefully, especially as he was kept under close observation for a while. His unwillingness to leave the Catholic faith seems to have got him into trouble in his later years and the records show he appeared in court charged with recusancy and was heavily fined.
The reason he kept largely clear of trouble may have been partly because he was writing music in English – something likely to have gone down well with the government – as well as in Latin and partly because Elizabeth (who seems to have been very aware of people’s loyalty to the ‘old religion’) shrewdly realised how much Byrd meant to her politically. His increasing fame and association with the court would undoubtedly have reflected well on her. In 1575, he and Tallis were jointly awarded a patent – effectively a monopoly – on the printing of music and music paper for 21 years. No-one hands out such economic favours without good reason.
Besides his church choral music, Byrd wrote extensively in other forms. He produced works for organ and virginals (a form of keyboard), consort music for groups of stringed instruments and a collection of English songs. His output was prolific – some 470 works – and he left an everlasting mark on music. He mentored other well-known composers of the time and his compositions can be found in some of the music sung in church services today.
When he died in July 1623, having navigated his way through one of the most turbulent and dangerous periods of British history and emerged wealthy and unscathed, the Chapel Royal noted his passing and his influence, calling him “A Father of Musick.” You might think Lincoln would want to commemorate such a significant figure with more than just a plaque on a wall – perhaps a festival of music from the period – but strangely they seem to ignore him completely. Perhaps next year – the 400th anniversary of his death – that will change.