Young Man’s Nostalgia

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • BuyByrd by Kerry McCarthy
    Oxford, 282 pp, £25.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 538875 6

We know a gratifying amount about William Byrd, partly thanks to quite recent archival rediscoveries, and Kerry McCarthy splendidly and concisely presents it all in this intelligent and affectionate biography. Alas, the one thing we don’t have is a contemporary portrait, not even anything as clumsy as the universally recognisable dome-headed icon of Shakespeare: the portrait-image of Byrd adorning CD sleeves and scores is an unimaginative Georgian-Tudor pastiche. That poses a problem to designers of dust-jackets for Byrd biographies. McCarthy or her designer has opted for a picture which, though initially a baffling choice, nails down half his identity very well. It is a pioneering forebear of those group photos taken at the end of G20 summits and the like – world statesmen exhibiting false bonhomie to camera – although the conventions of oil portraiture don’t include the wide smiles of the 21st century, which the deficiencies of Tudor dentistry would also render unwise. The picture shows the English, Spanish and Flemish delegates at one of the most important peace conferences of the Tudor age, which took place a year after Elizabeth I’s death at Somerset House in London. They had succeeded in ending three decades of cold and hot war between Reformed Protestant powers and the Spanish Habsburgs, confirming in the process the independence of the Protestant Northern Netherlands, and offering the possibility that Roman Catholicism might not always be seen as the inevitable enemy of the Elizabethan way of life.

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[1]

The Somerset House Conference, 1604 (artist unknown). Descending on the right: Thomas Sackville, Charles Howard, Charles Blount, Henry Howard, Robert Cecil.
‘The Somerset House Conference, 1604’ (artist unknown). Descending on the right: Thomas Sackville, Charles Howard, Charles Blount, Henry Howard, Robert Cecil.

[3]

The site of Waltham Abbey.
The site of Waltham Abbey.