A song to die for?

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:

SONY DSC(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.

Select Bibliography:

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).

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New Tudor Partbooks website!

Breaking news! The Tudor Partbooks website is now live – you can find it at http://www.tudorpartbooks.ac.uk. Hope you enjoy reading about what we’re all up to!

Posted in Research, Tudor Partbooks | 2 Comments

A castle, a cathedral, and two rebellious earls

The year is 1569, and in the hallowed surroundings of Durham Cathedral, something earth-shattering is taking place: they are singing Mass. Perhaps this is not especially significant in itself – after all, Mass was sung every day in that cathedral for four centuries. But this is Elizabethan England. For ten years Mass has been outlawed, and now, saying those words, once so revered, is treason and heresy. That such a dangerous act is taking place in one of England’s most ancient and respected churches could spell the end of everything Elizabeth I and her council have ever stood for.

This was the call-to-arms of the Northern Rebellion, a movement that swept across the North of England in 1569, led by the Earl of Westmorland, Charles Neville, and Thomas Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Both were Catholics, and in their lands, two hundred miles from London, the people had yet to be convinced by Elizabeth’s changes to religious policy. Rumours of insurrection in the North reached crisis point in November 1569 and Elizabeth summoned Westmorland and Northumberland to her northern council at York. Seizing their opportunity, the Earls reacted immediately. They and their co-conspirators marched on Durham, replaced the Protestant communion tables with altars, and reinstated the old Catholic services: the Mass, the Office, and the votive Marian antiphon. Immediately, the Catholic public in the North raced to join them. Marching under the ancient banner of the English Crusaders, they besieged Barnard Castle and Hartlepool and sacked the palace of the Bishop of Durham, singing Masses wherever they went. It could have spelt the end for the Elizabethan establishment.

When Northumberland was arrested and questioned he claimed that the rebels had had three aims: to remove Elizabeth’s Protestant council and replace them with Catholics; to reverse the religious settlement of 1559; and to persuade Elizabeth to name her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, who had recently been forced to abdicate and seek refuge in England, as her heir and successor. He insisted that they had never intended treason – they never objected to the Queen’s divinely imposed rule. Rather, they were fighting against her corrupt councillors who had led her astray from the true Catholic Church. The rebels’ rallying-cry to their people had made this the very centre of their claims:

‘Thomas, earl of Northumberland and Charles, earl of Westmorland, the Queen’s most true and lawful subjects, and to all her highness’s people, sendeth greeting: Whereas diverse new set up nobles about the Queen’s Majesty, have and do daily, not only go about to overthrow and put down the ancient nobility of this realm, but also have misused the Queen’s Majesty’s own person, and also have by the space of twelve years now past, set up and maintained a newfound religion and heresy, contrary to God’s word. […] These are therefore to will and require you, and every of you, being above the age of sixteen years and not sixty, as your duty to God doth bind you, for the setting forth of His true and catholic religion; and as you tender the common wealth of your country, to come and resort unto us with all speed, with such armour and furniture as you, or any of  you have. […] God save the Queen.’ (Kesselring 2010: 59)

It wasn’t just fighting and strong words, though, with which the rebels presented their cause. They went further than that: their opinions were presented in music and art as well. I’ll talk about two examples here.

Statements made by many of the cathedral singing-men still survive, and we know the names of many who sang at the newly reinstated Catholic services. We know from John Brimley and Thomas Harrison’s testaments that the Earl of Northumberland and Cuthbert Neville both ordered that the Mass should be sung, rather than said – this would have only enhanced the sensory impact that the Mass created. (Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham, extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth [1845]: 149, 152) One of the prebendaries, George Cliffe, gave even more detail. He said that ‘on Saturdaye, the said thirde day of December, he, this examinate, was at evensonge in Latten, and at singing of the anthem caulde Gaude, Virgo Christopara, upon the said sonndaye [4 December] at night…’ (Depositions: 136). Cliffe was referring to the practice, established long before the Reformation, of singing a Marian antiphon, either Salve Regina or some other devotional text, after Compline as the last service of the day.

Magnus Williamson has pointed out that there is only one possible piece answering to Cliffe’s description: John Sheppard’s Gaude, Virgo Christiphera (‘Rejoice, Virgin, bearer of Christ’) (Williamson 2014: 709). You can listen to the whole piece here. Sheppard had died in 1558 and the piece is very much in the style of the first half of the sixteenth century – it would have seemed outdated to both singers and listeners alike, so a performance of it was a very conscious return to the sound-world of pre-Reformation Catholic England. While obviously we should be wary of reading meanings into Latin texts that tend to use highly stereotyped language and themes, the text of this antiphon is unusually graphic:

Ex te semen hoc divinum                                            From you [came] the divine seed             cujus caput serpentinum                                            by whose strength                                   ex contritum viribus […]                                             the head of the serpent is crushed […]

Ergo Sathan mors peccatum                                   Therefore, Satan, death and sin,              hinc videtis procreatum                                             you will see him, born                                 ut vestra habens capita.                                            so that he may have dominion over                                                                                                           your heads.           

The last line translates literally as ‘so that he may have your heads’, but habeo can also mean ‘have’ in the sense of ‘have mastery over’ or ‘possess’ or even ‘enslave’. Capita literally means ‘heads’ but can refer to ‘leaders’ as well. Could the ‘head of the serpent’ and the ‘heads of Satan’ that Christ will overcome be referring to the heretical councillors that the rebels claimed to be overthrowing? And although, unusually, the name Maria is not mentioned, it cannot have been far from the minds of the listeners: the name not only of the ‘bearer of Christ’ in the antiphon’s title, but also of Elizabeth’s Catholic predecessor, and her potential replacement. Just imagine the impact this must have had at the end of a full day of Catholic liturgy, Matins, Mass, Vespers, Compline and the antiphon, all in the most elaborate style, at a time when most of those present would still remember a time when all this was just a matter of course. It must have been at once exhilarating and baffling to see the past – their past – brought before them once again, in sight, sound and smell, with the opportunity not only to witness but also participate in worship in the ways they had learned as children.

In a period when even speculating about the monarch’s death was a treasonous act, a musical performance implicitly connecting her policies with ‘Sathan, mors, peccatum‘ could be political dynamite. And if the performance of a song – a mere pattern of sounds that survives only as hearsay – was powerful, a piece of art that has endured for more than four and a half centuries must be infinitely more so.

Sizergh Castle, near Kendal in the old county of Westmorland, has been the seat of the Strickland family since the fourteenth century. There’s no evidence at the moment that they took part in the rebellion, but we know that they were following it closely. Walter Strickland, the owner of Sizergh who died in 1569, was considered to be a good Protestant, but his son Thomas was a Catholic recusant and later on his descendants supported the Royalist side in the Civil War. Just before he died, Walter embarked on a refurbishment of Sizergh, which includes perhaps the greatest statement of both his, and his son’s, religious and political views at the same time. How can this be? Well, here it is. This drawing room is called the Queen’s Room, and takes its name from the carved overmantel which bears the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth and the date 1569.

395%2F471%2Fqueensroomandreas_thumb_700x0(For this and other pictures of Sizergh, visit the National Trust website here)

(An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Westmorland (London, 1936), p. 104 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/westm/plate-104 [accessed 12/2/15].)

This carving, which was begun by Walter and completed by his son, is a wonderfully ambiguous statement. Created amid rising tension in the North in the months leading up to the Rebellion, it proclaims the Stricklands’ loyalty to the Queen for all their most honoured guests to see. It says that yes, the other families in their area might rebel, but they wouldn’t dream of such a thing. On another level though  – and perhaps this is why Thomas Strickland kept it – it covertly demonstrates support for the Northern Earls. After all, they’d said it wasn’t Elizabeth they were fighting, but her corrupt councillors. They were the Queen’s true loyal subjects, saving her from her treasonous council’s dangerous influence. Of course all these excuses were extremely tongue-in-cheek, but they mean that despite having been first made for Thomas’s conformist father, the overmantel is in no way incompatible with Thomas’s identity as an English Catholic.

In fact, it had the potential to do him a lot of good. The nature of this room means that Thomas could carefully gauge how he presented himself to his visitors. It’s largely inaccessible from the more public areas of the house, so anybody seeing it would have been invited in as a great honour. Anybody who might disapprove of Thomas’s religion could be invited into this intimate space, with great show of deference and respect, and be confronted with what appeared to be Thomas’s assurance of his religious and political orthodoxy.

Politics in the North of England in 1569, then, wasn’t just about marching, fighting, waving banners, or even about treasonous whispers in the dark. It was a time when achieving outward conformity was a matter of life and death, and when a person’s every action betrayed their political allegiance. In such an atmosphere, the liturgical performance of Gaude Virgo Christiphera can be read as a piece of public theatre, communicating the message of rebellion against Elizabeth’s regime in a way that had the power to engage everybody present in every possible way. And an at-first-glance innocuous piece of interior design can be read as both a gesture of loyalty, a last-ditch attempt at self-defence, or a subtle hint to fellow Catholics, whose meaning shifts according to the observer.

Select Bibliography:

Alford, Stephen. The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012).

Kesselring, K. J. The Northern Rebellion of 1569: Faith Politics and Protest in Elizabethan England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Kesselring, K. J. ‘”A Cold Pye for the Papistes”: Constructing and Containing the Northern Rising of 1569’ Journal of British Studies 43 (2004), 417-443.

National Trust. Sizergh Castle, Cumbria (London: National Trust, 2001). (PS. This is the guidebook that you can buy from the Castle!)

Williamson, Magnus. Review: ‘Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities, by Jonathan Willis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010; pp. 294. £55.).’ English History Review 124 (2014), 707-709.

Willis, Jonathan P. Church Music and Protestantism in Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

Depositions and other ecclesiastical proceedings from the courts of Durham, extending from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth (London and Edinburgh: 1845); https://archive.org/details/otherdepositions00churrich (accessed 12/2/15).

‘STRICKLAND, Walter (c. 1516-69), of Sizergh, Westmld. and Thornton Bridge, Yorks.’ http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/strickland-walter-1516-69 (accessed 12/2/15).

Posted in Cumbria, History, Newcastle, Tudors | Tagged | Leave a comment

In which I almost succumb to dressing up as a Tudor…

Historical reenactments get a bit of a bad press. They’ve got an image of being incredibly nerdy (dare I say ‘weird’?) and ever-so-slightly sinister. On Midsomer Murders the members of the war reeactment society rub shoulders with serial killers, devil-worshippers and others of dubious morality (‘Oh dear – I seem to have accidentally loaded my replica musket. Terribly sorry. These things happen.’) But at the same time, surely the very best way to learn about how people in the past behaved and carried out everyday tasks is to try them out yourself. (It’s called experimental archaeology, the ‘Tudor Monastery Farm’ approach, if any of you saw that!) That’s why this week I’ve been experimenting with learning to write like a sixteenth-century scribe.

I’ve been trying to do it fairly authentically, within reason. This means using a dip pen with a metal nib, rather than a quill (though I may experiment with a feather later on!) Pure linen paper, which is what most music manuscripts were written on, is ridiculously expensive now, so I’ve got some thick cartridge paper which won’t make the ink spread. I have, however, got some real ink. Sixteenth-century ink was made by boiling crushed oak apples with ferrous sulphate or iron filings. This creates tannic acid, which clings to the paper and reacts with it over time. This kind of ink is a bluish-grey colour when you first write with it, but over time it fades to brown – you can make different shades depending on the recipe you use. I haven’t made any myself – making medieval ink in the kitchen might not help my relationship with my flatmates – but usefully I do happen to know someone who has.

Using this ink is totally different from using ordinary fountain pen ink. The first thing that hits you is the smell. The recipe I’ve been writing with has wine in it as well, so it smells especially strong, but even without the wine the acidic smell would have been quite powerful. Because of the acid, as well, when you get the ink under your fingernails (easy to do), it stings. It’s also corroded one of my nibs. It used to have a blue galvanised coating – not any more. It’s easy to see why so many medieval manuscripts have been damaged by the very ink they’re written with. Scribes and anybody else who wrote regularly must also have been easy to pick out because even if they didn’t have ink on their fingers, they would have smelled of ink. They would have got used to the smell in the room after a while, but to a person who wasn’t exposed to it all day, it must have been noticeable.

Professional scribes were expected to have mastered several sorts of script. I’ve been practising the type of secretary hand used in legal documents in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and which also appears in the Peterhouse partbooks. It’s the most common kind of everyday handwriting in this period. Here’s an example from Peterhouse.


I’m struggling with others, though, like the ‘bastard’ scripts in the Lambeth choirbook and Harley 1709. These date from the 1520s-30s, and the styles of handwriting are derived from textualis script, or what we think of as ‘Gothic’. Although they’re easier to read than secretary, the ways of forming the letters are even more different than the way we write now. More practice needed, I think. I’m also hampered by being left-handed, since most scripts are based on the pen moving from left to right – easy for a right-handed person but really hard for a leftie. You can’t push a dip pen nib, only pull it, or it will scratch the paper. I have a left-handed calligraphy nib, which helps, but it doesn’t completely solve the problem. A lot of the angles and types of stroke seem to be possible only for a right-handed scribe, which I’d anticipated would be the case, but I didn’t realise to what an extent.

When I’ve mastered enough of the letter forms the next stage is to try and make a manuscript, on the right sort of paper, ruled and folded properly, and see what the process is like. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. After that – well, I guess I’m on the slippery slope. I’ve already found a Tudor dress pattern on Etsy and was more tempted than I’d care to admit! Historical reenactment may be social suicide (and my family might disown me!) but as long as it tells us something about how people in the past lived their lives, I’m in.

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A sixteenth-century showoff?

Happy New Year! It’s back to work for me. The dark mornings and post-Christmas torpor aren’t exactly doing very much for my morale at the moment – so to keep myself motivated for all the stuff I’ve got to do this term, I’ll tell you about something else I found on my trip to the Bodleian last month. I just need a little reminder that yes! this is fun!

While I was looking at microfilm pictures of Tenbury 1464 I came across this inscription:

Proper snip of T 1464

My first thought was ‘Wow, look at the handwriting!’ It’s beautiful and at first glance absolutely nothing like the rest of the book, which is scruffy to say the least (the very first page opens with a horrible crossing-out). But this changed very quickly to feelings of angst – my Latin is rusty, I couldn’t find a translation anywhere, and I was hindered by the fact that some of the words were hard to read. ‘Haec nota’ obviously referred to the note F that was starred. But what on earth is the first letter of the second line, for example? And the penultimate word, it seemed, could be any combination of m’s, n’s and i’s.

This is what it looks like in the flesh. It’s not much of an improvement in legibility:


What became clear, though, as I leafed through the manuscript, was that the ink of this inscription was exactly the same as the notation and the rest of the text. So it was probably added very shortly after the music was written. What’s more, this wasn’t the only text that used this handwriting. Someone had gone through the whole manuscript, adding little comments: ‘examyned trewe’, to show that they had checked and corrected the music, and in one case, ‘dignum doctore fayrfax’, ‘worthy of Dr Fayrfax’. The d in this inscription, which is unusual, is very similar to the first letter of the second line here. So all of these comments are by the same person, who’s possibly (but not definitely) the person who notated the manuscript.

Time to start translating, then. After a lot of tearing of hair and despairing over the apparent lack of verbs (any classicists reading this who are probably ten steps ahead, please don’t mock!) I realised that the penultimate word had to be ‘memini’ – ‘I remember’ – which makes the whole passage read:

‘This note ought to be put in the gamut [the standard range of notes available in medieval and early Renaissance music; this F is one note outside it]; otherwise, the composition is excessively difficult and contrary to the laws of music: I do not remember having seen this [i.e. the F] anywhere.’

What unreasonable pedantry! This person, whose only comment up till now has been positive, now writes in their best Latin and Italic handwriting (which signals their new, humanistic, Continental learning) that Fayrfax has broken the time-honoured rules in a way that has never been seen before by writing a note that lies outside the gamut. (In fact this low F is pretty common in music of this time). At least they have the grace to suggest that rather than change Fayrfax’s music to fit the gamut, they change the gamut to fit the music…

This manuscript probably dates from about 1570, by which time both Fayrfax’s music and the concept of the gamut were pretty old-fashioned. So why mention it now, and in such a self-conscious way? Could it be that the person who wrote the inscription had an interest in scholastic music theory, and rather than checking the manuscript for copying errors, they were checking the music it contained for compositional errors? That could be why O Maria Deo Grata is described as ‘dignum doctore Fayrfax’ – it’s not the copying that’s worthy, it’s the piece itself – good enough for a man with a DMus degree to put his name to it. In any case, we can take so much from this about the person who created this manuscript and the use they put it to. This wasn’t a pet project carried out just for entertainment. Nor was it intended for show, or more care would surely have been taken over the presentation. It looks as if this manuscript was created for the personal edification of whoever wrote it – and once they’d acquired their learning, they wanted a lasting reminder of it.

On that note, it’s probably time I acquired some learning of my own… Maybe practising my Latin wouldn’t be a bad idea?

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On graffiti in books

So I was in Oxford all of last week, in the (rather wonderful) new Weston Library in the Bodleian, and indulging my nerdiness to the full. In particular I was looking at two very important Elizabethan manuscripts, Tenbury 1464 and Tenbury 1486. The numbers don’t do them justice, and in fact Tenbury 1486 does have a well-deserved, much more memorable name, the Braikenridge Manuscript. Tenbury 1464 may have just a dull number now, but once upon a time it was part of someone’s prized music collection, and of course it’s that personal factor that makes it so inspiring. Words can’t describe how it feels to lift a manuscript out of its little cardboard box and open it up for the first time. Each time I do it I hyperventilate slightly, even though I know exactly what I’m going to see, precisely because of the sense that here, in this one book, there’s a direct line to all the people who’ve held it in the past, ever, for centuries. I hope that feeling never gets old.

All manuscripts, by their very nature, are unique and personal to their owners. But some owners leave their marks more clearly than others, which means that the sense that by holding them we’re partaking in centuries of history is stronger than ever. Especially when their attitude to old books was quite clearly not as reverent as we would perhaps like now!

When my hands weren’t shaking with excitement too much, I took this picture of the Braikenridge Manuscript. It was copied by John Sadler, a retired Northamptonshire schoolteacher and priest, in 1591.


The Braikenridge Manuscript is absolutely packed with illustrations, but this one is unique. If you look closely you’ll see that while the creature on the right is drawn in the same black ink as the rest of the notation and text, the one on the left is in much paler ink. It’s also not drawn nearly so well. So after whoever did the illustrations in the rest of the book had also drawn the bird-man on the right, someone else drew the one on the left, copying the one already there. Perhaps they were trying to learn how to draw – like a child now might colour in black and white illustrations in a book, or trace over them. There’s probably no way we can find out who this person was, but we know that they existed – thanks to the fact that they (as we might say) graffiti-ed their book. I wonder what made them choose to draw this particular creature? There are all sorts of wonderful beasts elsewhere in the book that they didn’t touch. Like this quirky cockerel-lobster combination.


Learning to draw from manuscripts seems to have been quite popular. I haven’t got photos of this one I’m afraid, but the Carvor choirbook, from early sixteenth-century Scotland, has tracings in later ink around some of its illuminations – and later on in the manuscript, whoever did the tracings tried some rather inept illustrations of their own.

Our only clue to these people’s existence is that they had what we’d call a rather cavalier attitude to their books. Today, some people refuse to even break the spines of their paperbacks. It seems a little ironic that it’s the people who apparently love their books the most who’ll leave no trace of their presence in a hundred or more years’ time. Of course, as a well-behaved researcher I’d never dream of suggesting that we go around writing and drawing in books. Of course not. Never, ever. But wouldn’t it be kind – a really generous gesture – to give future academics a helping hand? And save our own memories from oblivion at the same time?

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Searching for Thomas Hyllary; or, This research lark’s not as easy as it looks

Among those studying and writing about Tudor manuscripts it seems there’s an expectation, even an obligation, in every piece of writing they produce to unveil the identity of a person hitherto unknown. It’s rather like peeling off a disguise, and it’s got more than a little aura of romance about it. What was previously a name on a page becomes a real live composer, performer or scribe, with a job, a home town, dates of birth and death that outline their lives – a living, breathing person, one of us. It’s where the humble musicologist gets the opportunity to become a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Frankenstein.

There’s a reason for this mania for detection work: when trying to date and place a source, it’s the ‘little people’, the people that only appear in that one source, that can help, far more than the famous ones who can be found just about anywhere. To give a couple of examples, two sources of polyphony, Tenbury 1464 and the so-called ‘UJ’ set, have both been traced to Norwich because certain composers who only appear in these manuscripts happen to have worked in Norwich. UJ, what’s more, was signed by a ‘Launcelot Prior’ who has been identified as Lancelot Wharton, a real prior working in monasteries near Norwich.

So it’s become a matter of pride to me that at some point or other I’m going to do the same: I’m going to find the person behind a name. When a few weeks ago, in studying the manuscript Harley 1709, I found the sentence ‘Unfortunately, the only… composer in Harley 1709 who might have helped us to trace its provenance, Master Thomas Hyllary, appears to be totally unknown,’ (Sandon 1993: 360) it was like a red rag to a bull. Searching for more recent information about Master Hyllary drew a total blank. It seems no one else has been able to find him either. So I decided to have a go.

Why Harley 1709? It contains a copy of Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia which, according to the variants it shares with other sources, was copied from a version very close to Fayrfax’s original. In particular it’s very similar to the version in the Baldwin partbooks, which we know were probably copied at the Chapel Royal at Windsor and could even have been copied from a version dating from Fayrfax’s time as a royal singing-man. This makes it a very important source and suggests, tantalisingly, that it could originate from the Chapel Royal circuit or somewhere very close by. Other composers in the manuscript, Ludford, Pygott, Ashwell, and Cornysh, have links to Westminster, Ludford especially, so this could be evidence for a Westminster provenance, but it doesn’t constitute proof. You can understand why finding Thomas Hyllary becomes so important. Finding him could tie the manuscript down, and explain the mysterious links with other sources.

Well, I tried. One problem is the sheer number of places that he could appear – it’s absolutely impossible to check all of them, especially since I’m in the frozen North East and most of the sources are a couple of hundred miles away, so you have to have a pretty strong conviction that you’re going to find him in order to merit making the journey to check one in particular. The other is what historians call ‘random survival’: there’s no guarantee that the one page on which he appeared hasn’t been lost or reused or eaten by rats (I’m serious about the rats – it’s a very real problem!) At this stage I have to rely on what’s online, in the National Archives databases, or in books. My starting point was the date – he has to have been composing around the 1520s in order to fit with the other contents of the manuscript. So far I know that he didn’t work at the Chapel Royal, he didn’t graduate from Oxford or Cambridge, he didn’t make a will, he’s not mentioned in the wills of two possible family members both called Thomas Hillary (and in fact the one that could be his father only mentions one son, Roger), he wasn’t a member of the Guild of St Nicholas (the fraternity of singers in London) and if he was a layman as seems likely from his title, he wasn’t in Westminster. Or rather, I know that there’s no surviving evidence that he was in any of these places. The rats have made sure that we can never know for certain.

What are my options now? There is still hope that we can find him, just perhaps not yet. What’s clear is that I have been going about my search the wrong way. Rather than relying on Thomas Hyllary to lead me to where Harley 1709 was copied, I need to let wherever the manuscript was copied lead me, if possible, to Thomas Hyllary. This means using some other means to place the manuscript. Westminster is still a possibility, but I don’t think I can rely on finding him there. There are strong similarities between the handwriting of Harley 1709, which is very unusual, and certain manuscripts copied at Arundel – a place with links to both Westminster and the Chapel Royal – and a family called Hyller feature heavily in the 1524-5 lay subsidy rolls in that area. The Arundel manuscripts and Harley 1709 are definitely not by the same person, but they share stylistic features. In order to be certain of this I need to get a lot more familiar with the handwriting, so that I can decide what the significant similarities and differences are. I’m also analysing the relationships between copies of pieces in Harley 1709 and copies of the same pieces elsewhere. This is ongoing, and it’ll take a long time to build a complete picture. ‘Random survival’ (the rats again!) means that this is harder than it seems, because Harley 1709 is just a single partbook, so you’re relying on this single part surviving in other sources as well in order to compare like with like.

I’m becoming rather fond of Harley 1709. I’ve always liked a good mystery. However, I’ve learned that research isn’t all about performing magic tricks, the bit at the end of the film where the moustachioed Belgian detective gathers all his suspects into the room, points to one of them and proceeds to dissect both their true identity and their entire family history. It’s long-winded, repetitive, and totally unromantic. But I can’t wait for the moment when I can draw aside the curtain and let Thomas Hyllary step out.

Reference: Sandon, N. ‘The Manuscript London, British Library Harley 1709’ in Rankin, S. and Hiley, D. (eds.), Music in the Medieval English Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

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