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.

Remarkably, all five of the English politicians portrayed on one side of the Somerset House table in 1604 were linked to William Byrd.[1] The most powerful, the great Protestant statesman Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, was the dedicatee of one of Byrd’s last and most haunting keyboard ensembles of pavan and galliard, so popular that they were still admired and adapted through the centuries when most Tudor music was relegated to the archives.[2] Beside him are Thomas Sackville, earl of Dorset, and the earls and cousins Charles and Henry Howard. All three were Byrd’s patrons, and to various degrees shared the shifts and ambiguities of his religious convictions; it was odds-on that all of them would have conformed to a restoration of Catholicism in England if it had happened to take place. The fifth figure, Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, would have enjoyed the complimentary references to his scandalously flaunted mistress Lady Penelope Rich in several of Byrd’s songs written around this time.

And so Byrd’s public life is refracted through the images of these English noblemen. He was the much honoured and privileged royal servant to Elizabeth and James for more than half a century, called ‘a father of music’ in the records of the Chapel Royal at his death in his eighties; a man of affairs who, when he produced a list of reasons to become proficient in singing, emphasised first its benefits to health and public speaking. To judge from one of his surviving books, Byrd may have been at home in the barbarously archaic Norman-French of the Tudor law courts, which he certainly exploited with enthusiasm in perennial litigation, as any self-respecting Elizabethan gentleman would. It is symbolic of a certain insularity in Byrd that he owned this peculiarly English legal text while his inept word-setting in his one Italian song reveals that he had no idea how that language was spoken. And he never travelled abroad, so never experienced the working-out of the Counter-Reformation in mainland Europe which followed the end of the Council of Trent in 1563, unlike many young Englishmen of restless spirit and Catholic inclinations.

The Somerset House picture is still only half William Byrd. If McCarthy’s publishers had budgeted for a back-cover image, I would have recommended an empty lawn on the fringes of North London: the site of the gargantuan Romanesque abbey church at Waltham Holy Cross, whose admittedly stately parish church abutting on the west end of the lawn is often mistaken by casual visitors for part of that lost building.[3] The monastery was closed and stripped in 1540, around the time Byrd was born, Waltham being the last purely monastic house in England to suffer Henry VIII’s dissolutions. So Byrd would never have experienced its echoing acoustic, unlike his collaborator and close friend Thomas Tallis (later godfather to Byrd’s youngest son, Thomas), who lost his job as organist when Waltham Abbey was destroyed, and who thoughtfully squirrelled away a century-old manuscript on music theory from the abbey’s library.

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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.