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William Byrd and the Catholics


Until fairly recently the history of Catholicism in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was conceived largely in terms of hagiology. From the first history of the English Jesuits, by Father Henry More, grandson of Sir Thomas, in 1635, to the biography of the Blessed Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh, written exactly 300 years later, Catholic historians concerned themselves mainly with saints and martyrs, men of action and men of vision, with the pious great and the pious poor. They said little about poets and even less about artists or musicians; traditional historians have never been much interested in the arts. No doubt if they had found a Shakespeare among the faithful they would have made much of him. But they did not. They found only the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell; and it seemed rather beside the point to award Father Southwell the laurel since God had reserved for him the vastly greater glory of a martyr’s crown of thorns.

In fact the English Catholic community had among its members a much more brilliant ornament in the field of the arts. William Byrd, the premier figure of Elizabethan and Jacobean music, was also one of the greatest of all European composers of the time and arguably the greatest English composer of all time. But the art of music has been slow to acquire the prestige of poetry; when music did gain it (or something like it) Byrd’s music was no longer well known or easy to come by; and when this music at last became more generally available, the key to its interpretation as a Catholic statement was still lacking. And so Catholic historians have paid Byrd almost no attention.

Music historians, though they have paid more attention, have failed or refused to see the composer clearly enough against the background of his religion. It is not that his religious convictions have ever been in the slightest doubt. He wrote great quantities of Latin liturgical music for Catholic services, and a high proportion of the records of his life that have come down to us concern his Catholic activities and activism. So many, indeed, that in the standard life-and-works by E.H. Fellowes, which has three chapters on the life, one of these chapters is devoted entirely to “Byrd’s Association with the Catholics.” But as the word “association” in this context perhaps already suggests—would one speak of “Milton’s Association with the Puritans”?—Byrd’s Catholicism was something that Fellowes could never take quite seriously. A decidedly stiff-necked Victorian clergyman, the author of a major work on Anglican Cathedral music, he never missed an opportunity of pointing out that Byrd also wrote admirable music for the Church of England liturgy—though to be sure, there was very much less of this than of the Catholic sacred music. In the early part of this century Fellowes performed wonders in the publishing and publicizing of Byrd’s music, but he did this in an ecumenical spirit which seriously obscured its fundamental sectarian nature.

Thanks partly to Fellowes’s work, it is now customary, at least in English and American musical writings, to rank Byrd with the main masters of late sixteenth-century music—with Palestrina, Lassus, and Victoria. He is so ranked, for example, in Howard Mayer Brown’s recent Music in the Renaissance (1976). This is not, I think, a case of mere chauvinism on the part of English scholars and critics, and mere superstition on the part of Americans. A study just published of The Consort and Keyboard Music of William Byrd,1 by Oliver Neighbour, illuminates sharply the greatness of Byrd’s instrumental music; he was the first major composer to devote a substantial effort to music without words. Getting Byrd’s Latin sacred music into correct focus—a Catholic focus—will allow a clearer view of another body of his music which is equally great. And when this music is in its correct focus it also will be seen to illustrate the responses of the Elizabethan Catholic community in a unique way. Resources are available to art and to artists that are not available to even the greatest saints and heroes of traditional Catholic history.


The course of Byrd’s life and the history of Elizabethan Catholicism intersect most dramatically in 1580–1581, at the time of the fateful Jesuit missionary expedition of Fathers Robert Persons and Edmund Campion. These were two very remarkable men, and Campion, especially, who had been the most brilliant figure at Oxford in the 1560s, seemed to have a disquieting success among the country gentry, the clergy, and academics. After about a year he was betrayed, apprehended, interrogated with the help of the rack, and finally condemned to die with two other priests at a great public execution in London. Campion started his final address from the scaffold with words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “Spectaculum facti sumus Deo, angelis, et hominibus,” “We apostles are made a spectacle unto God, unto His angels, and unto men”—but this was brutally cut short. The three men were hanged, drawn, and quartered, and their dismembered bodies nailed to a gate on Tyburn Hill.

This triple execution rocked England and set off a storm of protests from abroad. There had been nothing like it since the days of Mary Tudor. Tracts were written back and forth about the event, and stories began to grow up around it. One of these concerned a young Catholic gentleman named Henry Walpole—“Cambridge wit, minor poet, satirist, flaneur, a young man of birth, popular, intelligent, slightly romantic,” as Waugh describes him. Standing near the scaffold when Campion’s body was being butchered, he saw a drop of blood spurt onto his coat. Profoundly shaken, he went home and sat up that night writing an extremely long, anguished poem about Campion, Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, which caused a scandal. The printer of it had his ears cut off, and Walpole had to flee the country. Eventually he became a Jesuit himself and returned to England to meet the same fate as Campion.

Byrd set this notorious poem to music, and the setting certainly did not escape notice. Another future Jesuit, Thomas Fitzherbert, remarked that “one of the sonnets [on Campion’s death] was presently set forth in music by the best musician in England, which I have often seen and heard,” and no doubt Fitzherbert heard it before 1582, when he too left England. Also, at around this same time, Byrd wrote an extended Latin motet, Deus venerunt gentes, which must also rage and lament for Campion under the cover of some blameless verses from Psalm 79:

O God, the heathen have set foot in thy domain, defiled thy holy temple and laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have thrown out the dead bodies of thy servants to feed the birds of the air; they have made thy saints carrion for the wild beasts. Their blood is spilled all around Jerusalem like water, and there was no-one to bury them. We suffer the contempt of our neighbors, the gibes and mockery of all around us.

We have here the unburied bodies nailed to the gate, the blood that spurted on Walpole, the protests from “our neighbors” abroad, and even an allusion to Campion’s speech from the scaffold: for the last verse begins in Latin “Facti sumus opprobrium vicinis nostris” and I do not think it can be a coincidence that this comes so close to Campion’s “Spectaculum facti sumus Deo, angelis, et hominibus.”

It is likely enough, I suppose, that Byrd too stood in the rain and the mud at Tyburn to witness Campion’s martyrdom. It seems very likely that this affected him much as it affected Walpole. Not that he ever went abroad to become a missionary; Byrd was one of those who stayed at home, and prospered, and made his uneasy peace with the system. But after 1581 his religious commitment hardened decisively. Whether it is technically correct to speak of a “conversion” in his case, as in Walpole’s, is not clear. But with Byrd as with Walpole we cannot fail to detect a profound new sense of devotion to the Catholic faith and the Catholic cause.

Born in 1543, Byrd was just old enough to have been brought up as a choirboy under the old religion—the old religion which Mary Tudor restored, between 1553 and 1558, with special zeal. His first position was in the new Anglican disposition; he was appointed organist-choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral in 1562. The personality that we are able to glimpse from Lincoln records is not distinguished by any unusual spirituality, but rather by a certain contentiousness and a precocious talent for the great Elizabethan art of applying influence—a talent that obviously stood him in very good stead during his later, intransigently Catholic years. Lincoln appointed him at a higher salary than his predecessor, with a lease of land thrown in to sweeten the contract, and when he left for the Chapel Royal in 1572 he pulled strings from London so that he actually continued to draw a salary from Lincoln for nearly ten years more.

In London Byrd’s star rose rapidly. He made connections with powerful lords such as the earls of Essex and Northumberland, and acquired more leases. He was appointed joint organist of the Chapel Royal, sharing the post with his master Thomas Tallis, who was then around seventy years old. With Tallis, too, he secured a patent from the Crown for music printing—a trade with little history in Britain up to this time. The monopolists’ debut was a joint publication of Latin motets, the Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur of 1575, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and designed to show the world what excellent music Britain could produce. So at least we are told by the elaborate prefatory matter, which goes on for six pages. And influential persons were enlisted to fill these pages: a courtier and dilettante composer named Sir Ferdinando Richardson, and the important educator Richard Mulcaster. One has the feeling it was Byrd, not the aging Tallis, who did the enlisting.

So far it had been a worldly career, with scarcely any signs of Catholic leanings. In 1577, however, Byrd’s wife was first cited for recusancy, that is, for refusing to attend Church of England services as required by law. It was a common pattern for Catholic wives to stand on principle while their husbands, who had much more to lose, attended the required services as “church-papists.” After 1580 the signs multiply. Clearly the authorities were now more vigilant, but clearly also Byrd was more engaged.

His house was watched and on one occasion searched. His servant was caught in a raid. His one surviving letter, dated 1581, sues on behalf of a beleaguered Catholic family. In 1586 he was one of a small group assembled to welcome two notable Jesuits to England, Fathers Southwell and Henry Garnet. Byrd must have been highly regarded among the Catholics to have been summoned on this occasion. He himself was cited for recusancy in 1585, and bound in recognizance of the staggering sum of £200 for the same crime two years later. (He may never have paid it.) Still to come, in his declining years, was the accusation that he had “seduced” certain servants and neighbors away from the Church of England; but Byrd seems always to have stayed clear of actual arrest or serious harassment.

  1. 1

    Faber & Faber, 1978; University of California Press, 1979.

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