A little while ago I discovered how in Elizabethan England, a musical performance – in that case of a piece by Sheppard in 1569 – could be politically explosive. But in the England of Henry VIII your choice of song and the manner of performing it could be deadly.
The 1570 edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments – otherwise known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ – contains perhaps the only account of a sixteenth-century martyr who died for his performance of a song. Robert Testwood, a singing-man in St George’s Chapel at Windsor, was burned as a heretic in 1543, and one of his crimes was a musical performance that has gone down in history.
He had been admitted to St George’s despite being a known evangelical. During his career there he had been in trouble several times – for denying the Pope’s authority before Henry VIII had broken from the Roman Church, for publicly criticising a group of pilgrims visiting the chapel, for smashing an icon of the Virgin, even for threatening to ‘wipe his tayle’ with a relic of Thomas Becket. But Foxe tells another story – a ‘prety storie’ – about Testwood’s encounter with another singer, Robert Philips, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Foxe implies that he doesn’t quite believe the story, but in one sense that doesn’t matter: what matters more is that he considered it possible. In any case, it’s so detailed that at least some of it must be true. He writes:
Robert Philips was so notable a singing man (wherin he gloried) that whersoeuer he came, the best & longest song, with most counteruerses in it, should be set vp at his cōming. And so his chaūce being now to be at Windsore, against his cōming to þe Antheme, a long song was set vp, called Lauda viui. In the which song there was one counteruerse toward thend, that began on this wyse: O redēptrix & saluatrix.Which verse of all other, Robert Philips woulde sing, because hee knew that Testwod could not abide that ditty. Nowe Testwod knowing his minde wel enough, ioyned with him at the other part: and when he hearde Robert Philips begyn to fetch his oorish with O redemptrix & saluatrix, repeating þe same one in an others necke, Testwod was as quicke on the other side to aunswere hym agayn with Non redemptrix, nec saluatrix, and so striuing togethers with O and Non ,who shoulde haue the mastry, they made an end of the verse. Wher-at was good laughing in sleeues of some, but Rob. Philips wt other of Testwods enemies, were sore offēded. (http://www.johnfoxe.org/index.php?realm=text&gototype=modern&edition=1570&pageid=1427#top accessed 12/2/15)
There’s only one piece called ‘Lauda viui’, and that’s Lauda vivi Alpha et O, by Fayrfax. (It’s certainly very long, as Foxe says. It’s also very lovely – it’s unfortunately not on YouTube at the moment, but if you have Spotify you can listen here) The text is only known from Fayrfax’s setting, and it’s set of rhyming acclamations to the Virgin, which ends with a prayer ‘pro rege nostro Henrico Octavo inclito‘ – ‘for our splendid king, Henry VIII’. But the passage in question, the final address to Mary, is a duet between contratenor and bass, ‘O redemptrix et salvatrix‘ – ‘O redeemer and saviour’. It’s no wonder that Testwood had such a problem with this passage, because it assigns to Mary the role which reformist theologians at the time, around 1540, were saying belonged to Christ alone. Like Martin Luther had in Germany, they promoted the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’: they taught that faith in the power of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross would be enough for believers to be saved, without the need for charitable good works or reliance on the intercession of the Virgin and the saints. When Testwood and Phillips sang this duet, Testwood changed the line ‘O redeemer and saviour’ to ‘Not redeemer nor saviour’, thereby giving his performance a new Protestant meaning. As it happens, each part only sings the line once, so the account in Foxe is somewhat exaggerated, but the idea remains – Testwood was using his musical performance both to argue with his rival Phillips, and protest against the Catholic doctrinal establishment in a public space.
But there was more to Testwood’s performance than just a religious debate between two singers, or even a public protest against the cult of Mary. Firstly, this is where it took place:
(http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/ accessed 19/2/15.)
St George’s College, which included the chapel at its heart, was founded in 1348 as the home of the Order of the Garter. To be a Knight of the Garter is, and always has been, the highest chivalric honour that the English sovereign can bestow, to the extent that after the Northern Rebellion the Earl of Northumberland was expelled from the Order almost before any other action was taken; that enough was sufficient to show that he had seriously erred. Even though it’s called a ‘chapel’, St George’s is of cathedral-like proportions, and as one of the two principal royal foundations (along with the Chapel Royal) it was of crucial symbolic importance in Henry VIII’s reign. The sacred space of the chapel, where Testwood sang, was inextricably linked to the monarchy. For orthodox believers at the time, Testwood’s alteration of the words of the song, and the implied insult to the Virgin, would have seemed not just heretical, but verging on treasonous. St George’s was founded by Edward III as a perpetual chantry, where the priests and singers would pray for the souls of his family. Each Mass, prayer and antiphon sung at the chapel would shorten the family’s stay in purgatory. For the chantry to achieve the full spiritual benefit, the words sung had to be perfect, and so Testwood’s blasphemous performance could have thrown the souls of all monarchs since the college’s foundation into jeopardy.
Add to this the fact that Lauda vivi itself invoked Henry VIII by name, and it becomes clear that Testwood’s performance didn’t just represent a spiritual threat, but a highly politically-charged attack on royal policy and even the king himself. Henry is notorious for his equivocal approach to religion but he never really abandoned his Catholic beliefs, including his belief in the need to pray to the Virgin. (The Ten Articles of 1536 had affirmed this.) To express views that the king would have called heretical, in a piece that prayed for the king by name, was suicidal. It threatened the king’s spiritual health and insulted his beliefs. If Testwood wanted to become a martyr, then he chose a good way of going about it.
It seems, though, that there might have been an even deeper link than this between Lauda vivi and the Tudor royal family. This is a hypothesis that I’m exploring based on Fayrfax’s biography and connections with other pieces that he wrote.
Here’s the evidence. Firstly, Fayrfax was a singing man at the Chapel Royal by 1497 and remained there till he died in 1521. He therefore served both Henry VIII and his father, Henry VII. Nick Sandon has suggested that due to the close geographical proximity between Fayrfax’s family home and Maxey, home of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, Fayrfax may have known members of the royal family personally as well as professionally. He certainly exchanged gifts with Henry VIII on more than one occasion. (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9089?docPos=1 accessed 18/2/15.)
Fayrfax had written personal pieces for the royal family before. In 1502, during Elizabeth of York’s progress through St Albans (where Fayrfax also had a connection), she paid him 20 shillings for the antiphon Eterne laudis lilium – this is an acrostic forming the phrase Elisabetha regina Anglie – ‘Elizabeth, Queen of England’. He had also been paid by Margaret Beaufort for a new mass in 1507.
We don’t know for certain why or even when Lauda vivi was written, and we probably never will, but because the text was only set once it seems likely that it was written for a particular state occasion. The poem is very closely modelled on Ave Dei Patris filia (which was written much earlier, probably around 1500), using exactly the same grammatical and sentence structures. If we compare the first stanzas of the two poems side-by-side this becomes quite clear:
Ave Dei Patris filia nobilissima Lauda vivi Alpha et O filia supernissima Dei filii mater dignissima vivique verbi mater splendidissima Dei spiritus sponsa venustissima vivique flaminis sponsa immaculatissima Dei unius et trini ancilla subiectissima vivique trinitatis et unitatis ancilla exaltatissima
The repeated words at the beginning of each line and the superlative ‘-issima‘ endings are common to both poems, as are the four nouns ‘filia‘, ‘mater‘ ‘sponsa‘ and ‘ancilla‘: ‘daughter’, ‘mother’, ‘bride’ and ‘handmaid’. These titles would have had great resonance for Henry VII in particular as he sought to secure his dynasty by marrying Elizabeth of York – the daughter, mother, and bride of a king, whose personal motto was ‘humble and reverent’ (Loades 2009: 78), apt qualities for a handmaid. Ave Dei Patris filia, at the time of its composition around 1500, could well have been read as a reference to the queen’s role as a dynastic agent. Perhaps it was composed for Elizabeth herself, or for the marriage of one of her children, either that of Arthur to Katherine of Aragon in 1501, or of Margaret to James IV of Scotland in 1503. Given all these possible layers of meaning and allusion, it is unsurprising that it was later chosen as a model for a ceremonial piece for Henry VIII.
So Testwood’s protest could not have achieved its aim more perfectly, nor could it have been more deadly for him. By choosing as his medium a piece that was inextricably linked to the king both explicitly and implicitly, and by making his statement in St George’s Chapel, a public platform where even if the king was not present, he would certainly have known what was going on, Testwood signed his own death warrant as a martyr for the reformed faith – a martyr who died for a song.
Blackburn, Bonnie J. ‘For Whom Do the Singers Sing?’ Early Music 25 (1997), 593-610.
Foxe, John. ‘The trouble and persecution of foure Wyndsore men, Robert testwode, Henry Filmer, Anthony Person, and Iohn Marbecke, persecuted for righteousnes sake, and for the Gospell.’ Acts and Monuments, 1570 edition, book 8. http://www.johnfoxe.org/index.php?realm=text&gototype=modern&edition=1570&pageid=1425&anchor=testwod#kw , last accessed 9/3/15.
Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors (Oxford: OUP, 1993).
Kesselring, K. J. The Northern Rebellion of 1569: Faith, Politics and Protest in Elizabethan England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Loades, David. The Tudor Queens of England (London: Continuum, 2009).
Sandon, Nick. ‘Fayrfax [Fairfax], Robert (1464–1521), composer and church musician’ Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9089?docPos=1, last accessed 9/3/15.
Starkey, David. The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London: Vintage, 2002).