Thursday, October 31, 2013

Defining Chivalry

by Helena P. Schrader

Recent discussions on the web about whether “chivalry is dead” revolved around whether men should open doors for women and demonstrate just how little is known and understood about the concept of chivalry today. To be sure, chivalry defied definition even in the centuries where it was the dominant ethos of educated classes in Western Europe. The biographer of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights of the late 12th and early 13th century who was often held up as a perfect chivalrous knight, himself asked, “What is chivalry?” His answer:

So strong a thing, and of such hardihood, and so costly in learning, 
that a wicked man or low dare not undertake it.

In this entry, I’d like to review what we do know about chivalry and the extent to which it influenced medieval society.

Scene from Le Livre de cuer d'amour espris by Rene d'Anjou.

Chivalry evolved out of the military and literary traditions of antiquity, and emerged at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as a concept that rapidly came to dominate the ethos and identity of the nobility. Chivalry is inextricably tied to knighthood, a phenomenon distinct to Europe in the Middle Ages. There have been cavalrymen in many different ages and societies, but the cult of knighthood, including a special dubbing ceremony and a code of ethics, exists only in the Age of Chivalry.

Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame the baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”

This is my favorite scene from Rene d'Anjou's book -- it shows the hero,
unhorsed and thrown into a river -- being rescued by his lady. 

Chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalrous deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.

So what defined chivalry? First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. He was also supposed to be upon a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” The troubadours, meanwhile, had introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become more noble through love.” Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.

A knight receives a token from his lady. From the Manessische Liederhandschift,

The chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Medieval Lovers from the Manessische Liederhandschrft, University of Heidelberg.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues, albeit only within the band of society that was “noble.” By definition, the heroes of chivalry are knights, and their ladies are just that -- ladies. Stories about peasants, priests, and merchants are simply not part of the genre, any more than lusting after a serving “wench” qualifies as “love” in the chivalric tradition. But within the chivalric class, a lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his chivalric virtues, not his lands or titles.

In more practical terms, one of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.

Geoffrey de Charney, the French hero from the Hundred Years’ War, also wrote a handbook on chivalry that is particularly valuable because he was a man with a powerful reputation as a chivalrous knight. (He was killed at the Battle of Poitiers defending the French battle standard, the oriflamme.) Charney puts the emphasis on love as a spur to great deeds and stresses that a knight must love “loyally” (with exclusive devotion to his one true love), but includes good manners, generosity, humility, fortitude, and courage among the qualities of chivalry as well. As a reflection of his career, Charney places greater value on fighting – stressing its hardships, deprivations, and risks – over frivolous tournaments.

Fifteenth century depiction of the Battle of Agincourt
(I couldn't find one of Poitiers)

William Marshal’s biographer, on the other hand, writing in the early 13th century, sees in tournaments a means of giving men a chance to demonstrate their “worth” – i.e., their courage, audacity, and skill at arms. These are the skills, combined with unwavering loyalty to his liege, that enable Marshal to rise from landless knight to regent of England. While Marshal (or at least his biographer) put the emphasis on courage, the themes of courtesy and discretion with respect to ladies, and generosity, are also present.

In Marshal's time the melee -- a great free for all -- was more common than jousting one-on-one. The above picture is from the Manessische Liederhandschrift, University of Heidelberg.
Readers interested in learning more about this fascinating concept can turn to:

Barber, Richard W., The Knight and Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1970, 1974, 1995.
Duby, George, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. New York: Random House, 1985.
Hopkins, Andrea, Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. London: Quarto Publishing, 1990.

Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction about historical events from Ancient Sparta to the Berlin Airlift. You can find out more about her books on her website:

She is currently working on the “Tales of Chivalry” series, ten novels set in the Age of Chivalry.  Visit her website: or view the video teaser by clicking Tales of Chivalry Video.

Giveaway! The Charter by Gillian Hamer

Gillian is giving away internationally a print copy and two ecopies of The Charter. You can read about the book HERE. You will be prompted to return to this post to enter the drawing by commenting below. Please be sure to leave your contact information.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Devil's Halloween in the Kirkyard of North Berwick and Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell

by Linda Root

copyright by Russ Root Art & Design

When I  read the name Bothwell  I think of James Hepburn, the 4th earl, Marie Stuart's controversial, egotistical, erudite and macho third husband, the one who either kidnapped and raped her or sold her on the idea of pretending that he had.  A good way for the couple to silence critics of her hasty marriage to the principal suspect in her second  husband Darnley's  murder was to paint it as a kidnap-rape. Back in those times, one way for a woman to avoid the stigma  of a ravishment was to wed the rapist. If Bothwell had been a wee bit less arrogant, it might have worked.

The next Earl of Bothwell, the 5th one, was  every bit as arrogant  and no less audacious. Lord Francis Stewart was James Hepburn's nephew, and he had a most intriguing pedigree. It is strange that so self-assured a man did not leave a portrait behind.  His mother Jean Hepburn was James Hepburn's only sister, but his father Lord John Stewart was the favorite among several illegitimate siblings of the Queen of Scots. Thus, Marie Stuart was both a natural aunt and an aunt by marriage to a man that many Scots regarded as a demon or a witch. One of the Scots who came to regard him in that light was his cousin King James VI.

Those of you who are familiar with the better known of the Bothwells, the Queen of Scots' third husband Lord James Hepburn, may recall that one of the allegations brought against him was that he and other members of his family dabbled in the occult, and that they had cast some sort of spell on Marie Stuart to keep her in  Hepburn's thrall.

His former mistress was Janet Beaton, Lady of Branxholme and Buccleugh, who was Jean Hepburn's close friend  and who was so closely linked  to occult practices that Walter Scott wrote a poem (The Lay of the Last Minstrel in which she appears as 'The Wizard Lady of  Branxholme.'. It is considered the work that established Sir Walter Scott as a rising literary talent.

She was not the only one of Bothwell's female friends with a colorful reputation. Reports of scandal involving Francis's mother Jean made it all the way to the English court, compliments of Sir Thomas Randolph, ambassador from the throne of Saint George to the throne of Saint Andrew.  And Randolph seemed to have the inside scoop, since he was the lover of one of the Four Maries, Marie Beaton, Janet Beaton's niece.  

During the six year personal rule of the Queen of Scots, witchcraft was not the major issue that it became during the rule of her son, who even wrote a book about it.  Dabbling in the occult was not unknown among the Scottish aristocracy, although it had not gained the notoriety it evoked in eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The king's cousin, Margaret Flemyng, Countess of Atholl, had been present in his birthing chamber to cast the Queen of Scots' labor pains on Lady Reres, whose birth name was Margaret Beaton.

Janet Beaton's sister, Lady Margaret Flemyng was believed to sponsor a coven of Dianists in Blair, perhaps the original Blair witch project. When James VI reached adulthood, he had concerns about his cousin Margaret Flemyng's link to Dianism, but he did not strike out against her. His attack on witches came later.

When the 4th earl kidnapped and allegedly raped the queen on April 24, 1567, he carried her off to Dunbar Castle, which had been given to him by Parliament the week before. That is one of the aspects of the rape story that gives it credibility.  Not only was Hepburn in good stead with Parliament, on the last night of the Parliamentary session, the Earl threw a dinner party at which a long list of the most powerful men in Scotland gave him a written endorsement as a potential husband of the queen.

He presented it to her the following day thinking she would be delighted, and she turned him down. There is a good argument that the rejection cause him to resort to violence. At any rate, he ambushed her and carted her off to Dunbar Castle, with or without her collusion. While she was his purported prisoner there, she was attended by the Beaton sisters and Bothwell's sister, Lady Jean. Her apologists later claimed that she was not a wanton, she was bewitched.

Entrance to stables at Crichton
With so much witchcraft in his family history, it is fair to assume that while growing up at Crichton and Hailes, the youthful Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had more than a casual exposure to the occult.  His father died shortly after his birth and he had been raised  by a group of very formidable and non-conforming women.

Like most Scottish aristocrats, he finished his education in Europe, and after a stint at the Sorbonne, he studied art in Naples where he became even more attracted to the occult. He returned to Scotland to ingratiate himself to his cousin James and soon became a significant member of the privy council.

He also remained a devoted Marian, and in 1587 when Marie Stuart was the victim of state sanctioned murder, he became an outspoken critic of the king. He made no secret of his disgust with James VI for failing to march south to avenge his mother, and the king had him locked  away for fear that he would  build himself an army and take care of the matter himself.

As was the practice between the two young cousins, it all blew over, and by the time James VI had decided on a bride, he and his cousin Frank were on friendly terms, or so James thought. When the king sailed to Denmark to claim his bride, he left Bothwell with substantial power. James VI had unwittingly turned his back on a demon in disguise.

Then came All Hallows Eve of 1590 when the witches upstaged the Danish wedding festivities of James Stuart, King of Scots,and Princess Anna of Denmark, by planning a Halloween gathering in the churchyard at North Berwick. Several of the party goers were said to have flown about on broomsticks and the Devil himself was Guest of Honor.  It is more than a little bit likely that there were hallucinogens in the many bonfires and that the devil had spiked the punch.

copyright Russ Root
There was a dark purpose to this 16th century Halloween party, and it was political.  King James VI was on his way to Denmark to collect his bride, the Danish Princess Anna, and not all Scots were in favor of the union. The kirk's graveyard was close to the pier and North Berwick was the perfect site for conjuring up a storm at sea. Generally the North Sea in autumn didn't need much conjuring to set it raging. And the devil directed the entire affair.

At the trials that came later there was testimony from those who touched him. His hand was hard and brittle, not unlike what one would expect if some animal parts had been coated with the juices from a lac beetle. The devil spoke to his minions in a low resonant voice through a mask that some said resembled a goat's head and others described as mostly hidden from view by a hooded cape that did not quite cover a nose that resembled an eagle's beak.

No one seemed clear as to how the Lord of Evil got there or how he left, but most witnesses agreed that there was some sort of smoke cloud and some foul-smelling vapors. There was also a good deal of libation being passed around.

Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thompson, Dr. James Fian, Barbara Napier and Euphemic McCalyan seemed to be in charge. The latter two women were high born and well known to Edinburgh society. Both had played substantial roles in the planning of the affair, and Mistress Napier had offered her kitchen as a place to concoct a witch's brew. Dr. Fian contributed the mandatory black toad. Agnes Sampson produced a wax effigy of the king to be cast into a fire when the Devil so directed.

The entire enterprise was not just a one night affair. There were minor experiments and practice sessions but the meeting in the kirkyard with the Devil in attendance was the grand finale. At some point in the revelries, Fian directed the others into the abbey church and the presence of their master. While no one at the subsequent trials identified the devil by name, the dialogue he delivered from the pulpit suggested that he was an ardent fan of the Earl of Bothwell and a bitter critic of the king. Bothwell himself did not appear personally that night, at least not out of costume, but his name was bandied about as the solution to most of Scotland's problems. When his congregation went back outside to perform their rituals, the honored guest disappeared in a cloud of white smoke.

And then, there were the cats. Stories differ as to whether there was one black cat or many, and they range from the moderately bizarre to the utterly inhumane. By some accounts a black cat was tortured, decorated with human body parts that had been exhumed from an opened grave, passed through a bonfire so its fur, or what was left of it would take on the scents and hallucinogenic properties of certain herbs and spices that had been added to the fire, (which would explain why so many witnesses testified later that they had been flying around on broomsticks and axe handles).

At any rate, at some point, one or several tormented cats were thrown into the sea. Some reports suggest that an immediate squall ensued and others indicated that the squalling was coming from the still living cats who managed to swim to shore. Later efforts may not have been as spectacular but they were easier to control once it was decided to strangle the cats before casting them into the surf.

Wikimedia commons, Chosovi. 
There were by some reports as many as two hundred people at the ceremony, but initially it attracted little attention. Although witchcraft was forbidden in Scotland, it had not been treated as a serious problem until King James ended up drinking a kingly share of ale and beer with his Danish hosts.

The Danes were well known for two characteristics--they loved the spirits they could swallow and hated those who went bump in the Danish night.  They convinced the king that witches were  to be dealt with harshly. It was well known that in the original  nuptial plans, James had not intended to sail off to Denmark with John Maitland of Thirlestane  so he could consummate his proxy marriage. Presumably the bride was coming to him.

But three unusually fierce early storms had driven her back each time she embarked. Thirlestane was inclined to blame it on the notorious North Sea, but the Danes were certain that witches were to blame. With a little digging, the events at North Berwick became big news.

{{PD-Art}}Wikimedea Commons
When James arrived back in Scotland, he launched a major investigation, and when it came time to interrogate the suspects, he personally participated. One of the first to reveal the details of the plot was a servant girl named Gelie Duncan, whose employer had noted her numerous nocturnal absences and found them suspicious enough to investigate.  As with most widespread investigations, the minor players were the one who got caned, racked and toasted.

Gelie confessed to the king that she had actually played a jews' harp at the Halloween gathering while the others danced a reel, and James was so fascinated that he called for one and had her play it while she did her devil's dance.

Many of the subsequent interrogations were conducted in the king's presence, and the earl of Bothwell's name kept coming up. The most damning evidence came from Robert Graham, a reputed necromancer whose statements revealed the long-time interest of Francis Stewart in the dark arts. The king realized His own Majesty had been the target of the gathering in North Berwick, and that he was facing something far more sinister than his cousin Margaret of Atholl's curious childbed incantations. This was treason.

Bothwell was indeed tried for treason by conspiring to bring about the death of the king.  Like his Uncle James had done in 1567 when tried for the queen's second husband Darnley's murder, the Earl of Bothwell packed the town with Borderers and others of his followers, and he was acquitted by men who sensed that the members of a jury that found the Earl of Bothwell guilty would not leave the Tollbooth alive. Bothwell spoke out in his own defense and did what most other Scottish aristocrats had found to be effective --he blamed the entire affair on Chancellor Thirlestane, who was nothing but an upstart of common birth.

Thereafter, Francis Stewart's conduct grew more and more bizarre. People referred to him as Wild Frank. He became increasingly aggressive with the king and on one occasion accosted him while he was sitting on the privy.

He managed to spend the next few years alternately harassing and charming King James and Queen Anna, but eventually he alienated himself from the Protestant kirk which began criticizing him from its pulpits. To retaliate, the militant Protestant became a militant Catholic and attempted to engage the  great northern Catholic houses in rebellions that achieved little more than getting the earls of Huntly and Errol exiled.

By then, James had conducted his interrogations and with the aid of a variety of creative torture devices, the prosecutors got their convictions. Some of the high profile females were strangled and then burned and a couple of the low born women were burned alive. Eventually Dr. Fian was also strangled and thrown into the fire. He had confessed to all sorts of sins after the inquisitors ripped his fingernails and toenails out.

Bothwell eventually found himself friendless and fled first to France and then to Spain where he lived off the dole of kings Felipe II and III. He continued plotting against his cousin James VI and made a number of unsuccessful attempts to launch an invasion from the Spanish Netherlands. By the end of the century, the Free Dutch Republic and the English had all but bankrupted the Hapsburg kings of Spain; the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Albert and Isabella, wanted nothing to do with Stewart's madcap plans, and Bothwell's financial support dissolved. He ended up in Naples where he spent the remainder of his life dabbling in the occult. His wife and eight children remained in Scotland at the indulgence of the king.

1. For a full account of the affair, do not miss :
Watson, Godfrey, Bothwell & The Witches, Robert HaleI, London, 1975.
2.Although his son and his son's descendants used the title in spite of the attaint, Francis Stewart was the last holder of the undisputed Bothwell title, and the male line died out in 1683.
3. Original artwork by permission of the artist Russ Root of Joshua Tree, California: all other art is in the public domain.

Linda Root is a former supervising prosecuting attorney. In 2009 after reading Alison Weir's account of the murder of Lord Darnley, she began working on a 'murder book' aimed at presenting evidence of Marie Stuart's complicity in her second husband Darnley's murder. Instead she became fascinated by the life and times of the ill-fated Queen of Scots, and turned to writing historical fiction.  Her books in the Queen of Scots suite include The First Marie and the Queen of Scots; The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots; The Midwife's Secret-The Mystery of the Hidden Princess and The Other Daughter, Midwife's Secret II.  All are available at She is currently putting the finishing touches on the fifth book, 1603: The Queen's Revenge, and beginning a sixth, this one The Reluctant Countess: The Bittersweet Life of Lady Jean Gordon. Root live in Yucca Valley, California, with husband Chris and two giant mixed malamutes Maxx and Maya.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Catholic Composer in Queen Elizabeth's Court: William Byrd

by Melanie Spiller

You know how some people relate best to their parents’ generation? William Byrd was like that, being very much an Elizabethan figure (she reigned from 1558-1603), despite composing well into James I’s reign (1603-1625). His music and affinities belonged more to Edmund Spenser’s (c1552-1599) time than to that of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) or Francis Bacon (1561-1626), even though they were contemporaries. Byrd was firmly part of the group that defined Elizabethan culture, and it was his musical innovations that shaped what would become known as the English sound.

Byrd’s motets, the English version of the Italian madrigal, are the epitome of High Renaissance style. He also took the disheveled condition of English song in the 1560s and pulled it together to produce a rich and extensive repertoire of songs for consorts, a form that Byrd took seriously and that had no true imitators. He influenced lute songs with his consort pieces, and these evolved into what would become a distinctively English anthem form, Byrd’s most lasting legacy in English music.

His works for the virginal (a harpsichord-like keyboard instrument) transformed it from a parlor toy into an instrument of power and beauty. Byrd changed the direction of keyboard music, making it possible for later lights to shine, such as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frederic Chopin (1810-1949)—especially after the invention of the piano in 1770 or so.

Byrd’s direct impact on English composition can be compared to that of Shakespeare’s influence on the theater. Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) and Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) were his pupils, and possibly Peter Philips (c1560-1628), Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), and John Bull (c1562-1628). These, if you hadn’t guessed, are the royalty of English music during the Renaissance.

A Fettered Brilliance

He must have spent some of his formative years in London because he was Thomas Tallis’ pupil in 1575. Byrd grew up during Mary Tudor’s short reign, perhaps even in her Chapel Royal, and his early works were influenced by the big composers that had come before and whose music was still performed at court, including Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and John Taverner (1495-1545).

It’s probable that some of Byrd’s surviving compositions are from his teens. Three of the motets attributed to him are for the Sarum liturgy (an English interpretation of the Roman rite started in the 11th century, reinterpreted for the Anglican church in the 16th century, and ended during Mary Tudor’s reign), and indicate that he was composing before the death of Queen Mary, when he was 16 years old.

In 1558, Elizabeth became Queen of England, and the attitude toward Catholics changed. Although Elizabeth was fond of her two resident Catholic composers in the Chapel Royal, Byrd and Thomas Tallis, they weren’t allowed to openly practice their religion, and she wanted music composed that suited the new Church of England’s very British sensibilities.

In 1563, Byrd succeeded Robert Parsons (c1535-1572) as organist of Lincolnshire Cathedral (note that Parsons was not old enough to retire and he died by drowning rather than illness—there’s probably a good story there). Byrd was given a larger salary than usual as Master of the Choristers at Lincolnshire Cathedral, and he lived for free at the rectory at Hainton, in Lincolnshire.

Byrd married Juliana Birley (d. c1586) in 1568 at St. Margaret’s-in-the-Close in Lincoln. They had seven children: Christopher (1569-1615), Elizabeth (c1572- ?), Rachel (c1573- ?), Mary and Catherine (with no known dates), and twins Thomas and Edward (c1576-after 1651). Thomas was named after his godfather Thomas Tallis (or possibly William’s father) and was the only one of Byrd’s children to become a musician. After Juliana’s death, Byrd remarried a woman named Ellen. It’s possible that Mary and Catherine were products of the second marriage, as their dates are not recorded.

While at Lincoln, Byrd wrote most of his English liturgical music, although relatively little polyphony was required there. It looks, in fact, like he was trying to master all the genres, perhaps to get a better job in London. It worked.

Byrd was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1570, but he didn’t move to London until 1572, when the accidental drowning death of Robert Parsons left an opening in the Chapel’s residencies. In 1573, after he’d left for London and his successor had been appointed (at a lower salary), the Lincolnshire chapter agreed, under pressure from certain councilors of the Queen, to continue paying Byrd on the condition that he continue sending musical compositions for their use. He received a quarter of his former salary (in addition to his Chapel Royal salary) until 1581.

In London, Byrd’s success was undeniable. For the next two decades, his name appears in relation to all kinds of important and powerful people. Elizabethan lords figure among the dedicatees for his various publications, and some were known to intercede on his behalf occasionally.

Around 1573 or 1574, he rented Battails Hall in Stapleford Abbots in Essex from the Earl of Oxford, the poet. This property—and others—would involve him in a series of vitriolic litigations.

As a member of the Royal Chapel in London, Byrd shared the post of organist with Thomas Tallis. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted the two composers a monopoly to print and market part-music and lined music paper, a trade with a previously limited presence in England. The immediate fruit of this labor was Cantiones Sacres, a collection of more than 60 sacred works, published that same year.

The contents of Cantiones Sacres were performed at Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal. But otherwise, the publication didn’t do well and the pair published nothing further for 13 years. In 1577, they complained to the queen that their patent wasn’t profitable and petitioned for further benefits. Byrd received the Manor of Longney in Gloucestershire as a result. It would later be the source of more litigation.

Between 1563 and 1578, Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543-1588), a prolific Italian composer, was in England in Elizabeth’s service, and was probably a spy. He was the son of Domenico Ferrabosco (1513-1574), an early madrigalist and former colleague of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palastrina (c1525-1594) at the Vatican. Alfonso, as a motet composer, had learned the style of Netherlander Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and through him, Byrd came to understand the classical Netherlands imitative polyphony.

Times were tough for Catholics, and noblemen held secret Mass services in their private chapels. Few were prosecuted for this treasonous act, although it’s doubtful that Elizabeth I turned a blind eye. Byrd and Tallis were public figures and they had to put on a show of compliance.

But Byrd was known to be a Roman Catholic recusant, and he risked prosecution by writing Masses for undercover use. For English Catholics, 1581 became a year of decision and renewed commitment. In Harlingon, Byrd’s wife was cited for recusancy along with a servant. Byrd himself wasn’t cited until 1585, when lists of suspected recusant gathering places named his own house. The Byrd family was repeatedly accused of being recusants and in 1605, they were accused of being long-time seducers for the Catholic cause.

It was a terrible period for English Catholics, with rumors flying, forced retirement, assassinations, and executions. Byrd’s home at Harlington was searched twice, perhaps because he was there when he should have been in London. Byrd and his family were fined hugely, but there were concessions, probably at the behest of Elizabeth I. After all, he was still composing official pieces for her.

In the middle of all this turmoil, Juliana died in 1586 or so, and Byrd married Ellen.

In 1587, Byrd renewed his efforts at publishing. Both Tallis and Thomas Vautrollier (d.1587), the printer of the Cantiones Sacrae, had recently died, leaving Byrd in sole possession of the patent and free to make more advantageous business arrangements. With the printer Thomas East (c1540-c1608) as his assignee, Byrd presided over the first truly great years of English music printing.

Byrd began collecting a retrospective of his own music between 1588 and 1591, and he turned his attention to publishing purely English collections.
His first real success was the Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of 1588, the third known book of English songs ever to be published. The collection sold out that first year, and East printed two further editions before 1593. Byrd prepared another book for publication, converting a few pieces to vocal-only and writing a bunch of new pieces to be included, including two carols, and an anthem called Christ rising.

Italian madrigals were hitting it big in England, but Byrd wasn’t particularly excited by them. His 1589 publication barely touched on them. Ferrabosco, who’d left England in 1578, printed his own offerings to the English music scene in Nicholas Yonge’s (c1560-1619) translated madrigal anthology.

After 1590, Byrd’s attitude toward Latin sacred music underwent a change. Where his early motets had been penitential meditations, prayers, exhortations, and protests on behalf of the Catholic community, he started to work on a grandiose scheme to provide music specifically for Catholic services. The texts were drawn from the liturgy, and the music itself became less monumental, to serve the liturgical purpose of a shorter service. It was a new way to serve the recusant cause.

If the music was truly to serve, Byrd had to publish it. But even with his connections in high places, it was a dangerous undertaking. His most famous Masses were printed between 1593 and 1595, each in its own slim book, with no title pages or publication dates. (More on these later.)

Byrd’s fifth collection wasn’t published in his lifetime. It was called My Ladye Nevells Booke, and was dated 1591. One branch of the Nevell family lived at Uxbridge, near Harlington, but the lady in question hasn’t been identified. At any rate, Byrd preserved the best of his virginal music in this book, both old and new. Among these were the last fantasias that he composed.

In 1593, Byrd moved further from London to a large property in Stondon Massey, Essex, between Chipping Ongar and Ingatestone. Ingatestone and Thorndon were the two seats of his patrons, the Petre family, and he probably joined the local recusant Catholic community over which the Petres presided. He composed some pieces for the clandestine Masses, and he dedicated Book 2 of his Gradualia to Lord Petre. His most famous settings of the Ordinary of the Mass were probably first written for the Petres.

In 1593, Byrd moved his family to Essex, where he spent the rest of his life. When his publishing patent expired in 1598, it went to Thomas Morley, and a broader range of music in greater quantity began to be published, which implies that Byrd had censored which works he printed.

Byrd spent increasingly less time in London, and his name doesn’t appear in any of the lists of witnesses and petitioners recorded in the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal between 1592 and 1623, except in the formal register of the members.

He continued to compose, although new music reigned in London and his style of music was as out of fashion as his religion. He spent most of his time dealing with litigation about the numerous leases he’d acquired by grant or purchase. There were at least six lawsuits, and all of them dragged on; the one regarding Stondon Massey lasted 17 years. Byrd was not always in the right, and when he was the one suing, he was unpleasantly tenacious. Even in his will, he mentions a quarrel with his daughter-in-law Catherine and the “undutiful obstinacy of one whom I am unwilling to name.”

Byrd’s three Latin Masses were published openly in the 1590s, and after publication of the Gradualia (in 1605 and 1607, for use with the Catholic liturgy), possession of either book became a criminal offence. With the Gradualia of 1605, Byrd’s half-hearted effort to conceal his identity was abandoned. The political climate was more favorable in 1605, but things changed with the Gunpowder Plot (a failed Catholic uprising against James I), and at least one person was arrested for merely being in possession of the Gradualia. Byrd’s response was to withdraw the books and store the pages.

It would be nice to know how many Jacobean households celebrated Mass with Byrd’s Gradualia. Appleton Hall in Norfolk was certainly one. It was the home of Edward Paston, and was best known as the home of the Paston Letters (a collection of letters and papers from between 1422 and 1509). Byrd set some of Paston’s poetry to music in the consort-song style that he developed between 1596 and 1612.


Byrd was both a traditionalist and an innovator, converting Continental ideas of counterpoint and imitation into a new native-English tradition, and his expressive range was unusually wide.

Although his works were colored by the times in which he lived, many of his motets, galliards, and pastorals are exuberant and joyous. As a precaution against religious persecution, he took his texts from the Bible and other unassailable sources and he wrote for both Catholic and Anglican churches with equal genius.

His lifetime output—at least what is credited to him—includes 180 motets, three Latin Masses, four Anglican Services, dozens of anthems, secular part-songs, fantasias and other works for viol consort, and variations, fantasias, dances, and other works for keyboards. His vocal music includes psalms, sonnets and songs, and around 50 consort songs that could be sung or played by a consort of instruments.

During Byrd’s lifetime, there were few opportunities to perform his Latin motets publically because the requirement was that the new Anglican rite be sung in English only. His Latin motets capture the spirit of his religious loyalties and he probably wrote so many of them as a way of comforting the Catholic community that celebrated their faith in secret. He was fond of comparing the Catholic situation in England to that of the Jews in Biblical times; some of his motets lament for Jerusalem at the time of Babylonian captivity, some pray that the congregation might be liberated, and others are on the theme of the coming of God that was foretold in the Old Testament. But it was probably this very limitation that spurred Byrd’s creative juices into inventing the anthem.

The secular songs he wrote predate the true madrigal (an Italian form of polyphony that lasted from the late 16th century until the mid 17th), and used intricate, flowing counterpoint derived from an earlier English style like that of Tallis (c1505-1585) and Taverner (1495-1545). His motets show him well free of the “for every syllable a note” restriction set up by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) during the Reformation, and reveal his mastery of freely imitative polyphony.

Byrd’s early settings of English poems were strophic songs, where all verses and choruses use the same tune—nowadays, we think of this as “normal,” but it wasn’t always so.

Like many other composers before and after him, Byrd used existing melodies, such as Greensleeves, in bits and pieces, throughout his consort pieces. It was a way of using tunes that would have been familiar to the congregation, and it offers today’s musicologists an insight into secular melodies, which were much less well documented than church music.

Byrd was only 10 years old in 1553 when Mary Tudor took the throne, so it’s unlikely that his Masses were much influenced by the five years of safety that her reign offered to Catholics. Despite the covert nature of his religious affinities, his Masses convey a certain freedom that it was never possible to display publically during his lifetime.

He used Continental-style patterns of imitation, but his occasional elaborate melismas (fancy bits where a single syllable is sung across a lot of notes) were more ornate than anything done by his predecessors. His Great Service uses imitative polyphony with frequent repetition of the text during the doxology (a short praise hymn that is often appended to the end of canticles, psalms, and hymns). This innovation would be widely imitated by later composers.

Life as a Catholic was difficult, and his works reflect that. All are fairly short, suitable for clandestine celebrations of Mass. Their contrapuntal style is remarkable for the variety of rhythms displayed during such short works. In this respect, Byrd’s music is more accessible to modern ears than other works from the predominantly Catholic Continent.

Byrd’s teaching was preserved by Thomas Morley in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke from 1597, which contains many remarkable tributes to Byrd. Luckily for posterity, Byrd also anthologized his own works, and his legacy in England is deservedly as great as that of Josquin (c1440-1521) in Europe. He was constantly learning and improving on his own work, and through his anthologies, it’s possible to see how he carefully reworked problems he’d been unable to resolve in his earlier works.

His last printed works were four quiet sacred songs that he published in Sir William Leighton’s Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule in 1614.
Byrd died a wealthy man at Stondon Massy on the 4th of July in 1623. He was probably buried in the parish churchyard as specified by his will, but his grave hasn’t been located. The will also states that he had apartments in the London house of the Earl of Worcester, which suggests that he might have been a private musician there. He also had a chamber in the Petres’ house at West Thorndon.

The only known portrait of Byrd was painted 105 years after his death and is therefore unreliable.


“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendt Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, James Harr, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.


Melanie Spiller is a medieval musician in San Francisco, California. She’s a bit of a chant-aholic, sings against anything with a drone from the refrigerator’s hum to a leaf blower to a shruti box, and is looking for a publisher (or two) for her books on Hildegard von Bingen (fiction and non-fiction). Her blog focuses mostly on the history of music. She’d love to help you figure out what your characters were listening to or what kind of instrument they would have played. Her blogs are collected on her website ( and publish approximately weekly at

Roanoke Island - 1587 and Now

by Jenny Barden 

When America's first English colonists arrived at Roanoke Island in 1587 they expected to find a land of bounty, with a benign climate, sparsely populated by gentle savages. Arthur Barlowe had described the region in glowing terms following his voyage of discovery with Philip Amadas in 1584. 'I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde,' he wrote. He described finding an island 'of many goodly woods, and full of Deere, Conies, Hares and Fowle,' as well as 'the highest, and reddest Cedars,' waters teeming with fish, and 'handsome' people, 'in their behaviour as mannerly, and civill as any of Europe.'

This view from modern day Hatteras Island is the kind of landscape the colonists would have seen on their way to make landfall in America, passing through a channel in the long thin strip of sand dune islands that fringes the vast shallow lagoon now known as Pamlico Sound. They would have used boats and their pinnace to reach Roanoke behind the outer barrier islands.
Raleigh's colonists were recruited to form a permanent English settlement in Virginia, to follow on from the garrisons that had been stationed on Roanoke Island during the previous two years, encouraged by the promise of going to a veritable Eden. Women and children were enlisted too, and men with the practical skills to create an enduring community, many of them tempted by the prospect of owning 500 acres of prime fertile land. In total, 113 colonists are recorded as having left England for a region which Richard Hakluyt the younger described as 'this paradise of the worlde.'*

Virginia as it was in 1587, based on John White's Virginea Pars map, showing areas controlled by native Algonquian Indian tribes.

On arrival, the first impressions of the colonists were probably consistent with having been brought to a promised land. They were set down at Roanoke, rather than in the Chesapeake Bay area where they had expected to settle, but all seemed to be well. They encountered no savages at first, and they landed in the height of summer. The Governor, John White, described the scene on approaching the garrison buildings. He wrote that they were: 'standing unhurt, saving the neather rooms of them, and also of the forte, were overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding on those Mellons.'

But this image of tranquility masked a sinister reality. The fort had been razed down, and the small contingent of soldiers that the colonists expected to meet was nowhere to be found. Only gradually did the truth become clear after a parley with the friendly Croatan tribe. The soldiers had been driven away, some of them killed, slain by warriors led by Wanchese of the Roanoke tribe who had turned against them. That enmity was to plunge the colony into crisis.

One of the colonists was murdered only days after disembarking, and subsequent efforts to forestall further attack proved disastrous. In the end, John White left for England to summon help after less than six weeks, and by the time he returned three years later Roanoke Island was deserted. The fate of the 'Lost Colony' has remained a mystery ever since. White never found out what had become of his daughter, Eleanor, or his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents to be born on American soil.

The reconstructed galleon Elizabeth at Roanoke Island Festival Park, a ship similar to the Lion in which the first colonists sailed to Virginia in 1587, though the Lion always remained in deep water beyond the Outer Banks.

Can the Eden that was Roanoke be found today? As regards the exact places that the first colonists inhabited, the answer is almost certainly 'No'. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, of which Roanoke Island now forms a part, are like a delicate chain of long thin beads, possessed of a fragile geology which is in constant flux. The shape, position and topography of the islands has changed substantially in the four hundred years and more since they were first mapped by John White. Hurricanes and the sea have closed some channels and opened up others.

The site of the principal settlement of the Croatan tribe, Croatoan on the island of that name, is thought to be located near present day Buxton on Hatteras Island, though most of the old island of Croatoan now forms part of the island of Ocracoke. The north coast of Roanoke Island has been considerably eroded, and the 'Creeke' to the east of the 'Citie of Ralegh' where the colonists once moored their boats appears to correspond with a submerged sandspit. It is quite possible that the first English city in America now lies under the waters of Pamlico Sound, one reason, perhaps, for the dearth of remains despite numerous archaeological excavations in and around the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. This site, and the Roanoke Island Festival Park, provide excellent displays of the history and lifestyle of the early colonists and the Algonquian Indians whose lands they tried to colonise, but they do not really show Virginia as it was.

The end of the road - a temporary bridge spanning New Inlet on Pea Island, opened up (again) by Hurricane Irene in 2011, just one of many new channels that have formed while others have silted up.

Drive down Highway 12 over Hatteras Island and you'll see dense development of three and four storey clapboard houses on stilts beyond the protected Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, but get off the road where the houses thin out, or take the ferry to Ocracoke Island, and climb over the sand dunes for a view of the ocean with a wild backdrop of white sand and beach grass, a view which must look much the same now as it did in 1587. There are no tall red cedars left, all felled for timber long ago, but the maritime forest of Buxton Woods is a delight, and here, with the smell of the sea in the loblolly pines, or inland in quiet places, such as the swampy backwaters of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, it's possible to find timeless landscapes that breathe the spirit of the New World as it must have appeared to the first English explorers.

Bald cypress in a Chowan swamp

'It is the goodliest and most pleasing territorie of the world,' wrote Ralph Lane to Richard Hakluyt the elder in 1585, 'for the soile is of a huge unknowen greatnesse,' he added. 'To conclude, if Virginia had but Horses and Kine in some reasonable proportion, I dare assure my selfe being inhabited with English, no realme in Christendome were comparable to it.' Prophetic words. Though the colony at Roanoke was lost, with horses and cattle, America was to be transformed.

Along the Roanoke River
* In Hakluyt's narrative of the two voyages to Virginia made in 1586 first published in The Principal Navigations... of the English Nation in 1589

** Other quotations from the original accounts are as reproduced in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by DB Quinn and AM Quinn

*** All images copyright of Jenny Barden


Jenny Barden's second novel, The Lost Duchess, is an epic Elizabethan adventure-love story set against the backdrop of Raleigh's 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke. It will be released on 7 November and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK

More about Jenny and her writing can be found on her website:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Touching the Heart of a Woman ~ A New Film about Jane Austen in the Making, and How You Can Help...

by Sue Pomeroy

At the start of this year I had no idea I would be making a film about Jane Austen. The catalyst for embarking on this extraordinary journey has been this 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane’s beloved Pride & Prejudice. I almost feel as if I have been pushed to leap to her defense.

It’s not as if Jane Austen’s work is ignored or overlooked – quite the contrary. It’s not that the delight in the Regency world she created has become almost an end in itself; the balls and promenades, the making of costumes and dancing until midnight is joyful fun and harms no-one. And the academic recognition of her individual genius has not overshadowed the novels themselves.

It just troubles me that the Jane Austen ‘brand’ is becoming almost a public ‘craze’, and Janeite projects are firing off in all directions like a giddy firework display. News of this bi-centenary has pulsated around the world, Regency balls and banquets have honoured her, Harper Collins have even commissioned contemporary authors to write new versions of her novels. Whatever next?

She has become ‘a worldwide industry’ to quote a spokesman at the Jane Austen’s House Museum. Amid all the hullabaloo a striking image cuts through it all for me. I hear a woman’s voice, like a heart-achingly touching piece of music, break through the noise and chatter.

I see a single woman, an unknown writer by the name of Jane Austen, writing alone in her modest cottage, persevering against all odds, -- the loss of her beloved home in Steventon, the untimely death of her father, the loss of any hopes she nurtured of a love filled marriage – and despite everything keeping her inspiration and her hope and her lively wit burning bright.

The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is breathtaking, but amid all the adulation my heart goes out to a woman at her modest desk in a quiet English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving. And I am deeply touched by her uplifting inspiration as she pours her heart and soul into her novels.

I am convinced her inspiration came as much from her walks through the beautiful Hampshire countryside, her love of the sea and her visits to the stunning coast nearby, and her love of the music which she played and listened to, which formed the texture of her church worship, as it did to the social whirl of Regency life.

She was in many ways a private person, her work written down quietly in the heart of her family with no fanfare and no great claims to fame. Jane never was at the centre of all the gaiety, the social whirl and the marriage merry-go-round she describes in her novels. She was an outsider.

She had connections to the life of wealth and opulence through a few of her friends and relatives. She was most certainly a player on that stage, but hers was a ‘cameo’ and not a leading role. The flirtation and ‘love affair’ with Tom Lefroy was cut short because of his expectations and her lowly standing in life, a poor country parson’s daughter.

Her life became more difficult when her family left the Steventon rectory and all their goods were sold to fund the move to Bath including Jane’s precious possessions, her piano and writing desk. The whole neighbourhood trooped around their house, viewing their belongings prior to the auction when it was all sold off. It must have been devastating.

A few years later, when her beloved father died suddenly, she and her mother and sister had to rely on the support of her brothers even to live. We might never have had the chance to read her novels had it not been for the generosity of her brother Edward who offered her sanctuary in a cottage in the grounds of his inherited estate in Chawton.

Jane Austen would have been expected to secure her personal and financial stability with a good marriage and had the opportunity to achieve that when Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to her. Instead she turned him down, and continued to write. In the context of her own time, writing six novels of the highest quality and establishing a new ‘social realism’ in literature was in itself a radical act.

Jane must have had such singleness of mind, such dedication to keep on writing. Many years later Virginia Woolf was to say that a woman needs an income and ‘a room of her own’ if she is to write fiction. Jane Austen, for most of her life, had neither.

From the age of twenty one when she wrote ‘First Impressions’ it was fifteen years before she saw a word of hers in print. I worry that we have lost sight of her individual journey to write those novels and aim to put the focus back on Jane herself, and the hope and dreams she nourished. To help redress the balance. That is the catalyst for making this film.

Some people may say that it was not such a significant achievement for Jane Austen as a woman to write and publish such exceptional novels – after all she had role models such as Fanny Burney, Madame de Stahl and Maria Edgeworth.

My response to that is to look at the Bronte sisters who more than thirty years later adopted male pseudonyms just to get published. Look at campaigners in our own time, like Caroline Criado Perez whose path unexpectedly criss-crossed with Jane Austen when the Bank of England bowed to pressure from her and 35,000 other campaigners to put a woman on the new £10 bank notes.

Criado-Perez approved of the Bank’s choice of Jane Austen: "She spent her time poking fun at the establishment. All her books are about how women are trapped and misrepresented. It is really sad that she was saying that 200 years ago and I am still having to say that today".

This decision by the Bank of England -- just over three months ago -- was enough for numerous threats, including violent acts, to be made against Criado-Perez and other women on Twitter from the day of the Bank of England's announcement in July. At this point Criado-Perez herself was receiving about 50 such threats hourly.

So, I ask, what was it like for Jane Austen over two hundred years ago to stand up and put her work into the public arena? Did it require courage and conviction? Did it draw on her deepest reserves of endurance and inspiration? To me it is self evident that it did.

I very much want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year. Don’t get me wrong. We have been filming and documenting many of these events for inclusion on the full length feature documentary, Jane Austen – Overcoming Pride & Prejudice. We’ve been interviewing the people who have attended them, some of them from all over the world. It demonstrates that the love of Jane Austen is international, without boundaries.

Star names have already got behind the project and interviews filmed with David Bamber (the obsequious Rev’d Collins in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice), renowned composer Carl Davis (who wrote the wonderful theme music for the series) as well as actress Jean Boht who played a wonderfully daft Mrs Bennett in my original stage production.

In fact this whole process has been so inspirational that we are making a special short film about this bi-centenary featuring the great and the good who we have met along the way, including leading academics and even a surviving member of Jane’s own family. The Jane Austen 200th Anniversary Special film should be a fascinating insight into what Jane’s vision means to us now in 2013 and why her novels have such power to captivate us still. This film is available on the Fuschia Films website (below)

Alongside this, as part of my individual homage to Jane and her work, I want to balance the delight and celebration with an acknowledgement of the difficult path she trod. We plan to film dramatised episodes of her life next year, in preparation for the full length film - discussions are taking place with some of our best actors to star in the film. These filmed sequences will juxtapose with and inform the documentary footage we are currently filming and the widespread passion of modern readers for Jane and her work.

I feel it is vital to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story. We will be touching the heart of a woman, a funny, brilliant and private woman who poured her love and hope into her novels. It will be about Jane Austen, overcoming pride and prejudice.


Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about 
Jane Austen’s life and work. To find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit

You might still catch the recent BBC Radio interviews at: BBC Bristol:  1hr 17mins and 41secs into the programme

BBC Solent: 1hr 16mins and 16 secs into the programme

BBC Hereford and Worcester: 2hr 34mins and 45 secs into the programme

For more on Fuchsia Films see
For regular updates follow the project on twitter and

Saturday, October 26, 2013

English Saints: Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer

By Lauren Gilbert

Religion played a huge part in medieval life. It is not too much to say that religion dominated every aspect of daily life. During the tumultuous time of Henry VIII, the religious life of England was ripped asunder and reshaped.

As we approach All Saints Day and All Souls Day, I thought it would be interesting to discuss two men, contemporaries, who did much to shape the religious debate and in many ways embody the disparate sides, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More. Both are still the subjects of veneration and discussion today, with one being revered as a reformer and martyr in the Church of England and the other, a canonized Roman Catholic saint, being honored in both faiths.

Although both men are well known, my views were shaped as much by fiction (representations of them in novels, television and movies) as by fact. Clearly, some research was in order. As I was reading about these two men, I became intrigued by their differences, and with their similarity. As fascinating as the religious and political issues are, my area of focus became the personal issues that shaped their thinking and viewpoints later.

Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Thomas More was the elder of the two. He was born February 6, 1478, to Sir John More and his wife Agnes, in London. Sir John More was a man of substance; he had inherited lands, and had been given the right to bear a coat of arms by Edward IV. Sir John became an influential barrister and a judge in the Court of the King’s Bench. The first school Thomas More attended as a boy was St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, where he was educated in Latin.

At roughly the age of 13, about 1490, he was received into the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also a close advisor of Henry VII). After about 2 years service, Archbishop Morton sent him to Canterbury College at Oxford (Canterbury College was later absorbed into Christ Church), where he studied Greek and Latin. After only 2 years at Oxford, Sir John called Thomas home.

After some time studying at the new Inn, Thomas was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s inn about 1496, and called to the bar in 1501. He also lectured at St Lawrence’s Church on St. Augustine’s City of God. In 1504, Thomas was elected to Parliament. During this time period, he also became drawn to Christian Humanist philosophy, which combined the study of Greek with the study of the Gospels. Available data indicates he was brilliant and popular, with a whimsical sense of humour; he was also unsure of his vocation. He lived with the London Carthusians for 4 years but ultimately felt no clear call to either the priesthood or monastic life.

In approximately 1505 (roughly age 27), Thomas married Jane Colt, and they had 4 children (Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia and John) before Jane’s death in 1511. He remarried, to a widow named Alice Middleton. Thomas’s home became a seat of learning, entertaining visitors including Thomas Linacre (English humanist scholar and physician), John Colet (English humanist, churchman and educator), John Fisher who became Bishop of Rochester (who studied at Cambridge and was Chancellor of Cambridge), among others.

Thomas was as concerned with the education of his daughters as well as his son. His career was also developing.

During Henry VII’s reign, Thomas became a Burgess in Parliament, but came under Henry VII’s displeasure during an issue involving funds for Princess Margaret’s marriage to the King of Scotland (Thomas was against it). Thomas was prepared to leave England, when Henry VII died.

Thomas’s situation improved when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. In 1510, he became one of two under-sheriffs of London, and was very active in the courts. With the King’s consent, he was appointed as ambassador twice at the request of the English Merchants to the Merchants of Stilliards.

On his first visit, he was negotiating for the English Wool Merchants in Antwerp when he began writing Utopia in 15115, his time in the Low Countries giving him an opportunity to observe Reformist activity in that region. (He finished and published Utopia in 1516, a satire on the corruption and abuse of power, with individual reason as a method of acquiring faith-the citizens of his mythical world had the freedom to choose their religion, but not the freedom of unbelief. It would seem to indicate that he observed some need for reform within the Church.)

His successes brought him to the attention of the King and Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey placed Thomas in his household, and Thomas was brought to court. Thomas entered the king’s service about 1517, and gained rapid preferment at court, becoming Master of the Requests and receiving a knighthood in 1521 (his father was knighted in 1518).He also became a member of the Privy Council.

He became very popular with the king and queen, who requested his presence frequently (he had to sneak out to visit his family). When the Treasurer of the Exchequer died, Thomas was appointed to that position. In about 1523 (the 14th year of Henry VIII’s reign), Thomas was chosen Speaker in Parliament. He was already actively writing against protestant reformers. His work included helping Henry with Henry’s Assertio (a response to Martin Luther) in 1521, his own Responsio Ad Lutheram (a harsh work in which he accused Luther of heresy), among others.

By contrast, Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, the second son of Thomas Cranmer and his wife Anne. The Cranmer family was considered minor gentry, long established in Nottinghamshire but possessed of little fortune. Thomas passed to his son a fondness for country sport (hounds, archery and horsemanship-young Tom was known for his skills with a pack of hound and with either the long bow or the cross bow). Tom’s elder brother inherited the property in 1501, while Tom and a younger brother received small allowances intended for their education. Little is known about Tom’s education as a boy.

In 1503, at about age 14, he was sent to Jesus College at Cambridge, where he studied for at least 10 years, obtaining a bachelor of arts in approximately 1511. One of his contemporaries at Cambridge was Hugh Latimer. Tom studied the scriptures and was exposed to the writings of Erasmus.

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlache Flicke

At this point, Cranmer made what is described as an imprudent marriage to Joan, which caused him to lose his preferment at Jesus College and interrupted his studies. He obtained a lectureship at Magdalen College, which provided a small income. He earned a reputation with his lectures, which were attended by numerous scholars, where he argued against religious superstitions. His wife died in childbirth, with the child, after about a year of marriage.

He regained his preferment at Jesus College, obtaining a master of arts and becoming a fellow as a layman about 1514. The fact that he was able to regain his preferment indicates that he was held in esteem at Cambridge. In 1520, he took orders as a secular priest (not a religious priest-more about this later). Agents of Cardinal Wolsey were looking for a body of learned men to fill Wolsey’s college of Christ Church in Oxford and seem to have offered Cranmer a position.

According to several sources Cranmer elected to stay at Cambridge and became a Doctor of Divinity somewhere between 1523 and 1526. Notes in the margins of the few surviving books from his library indicate his beliefs were still fairly orthodox at this time. He held a lectureship at Cambridge in Old and New Testaments, and was appointed one of the examiners in Theology. He had the reputation of being very strict and requiring his students to be well acquainted with the scriptures. He was also known for his mildness and simplicity.

While Sir Thomas More’s background appears to have been more affluent, these two men are strikingly similar: both of respectable birth, highly intelligent and extremely well educated. Both were exposed fairly early to Humanism and influenced by that philosophy. By all accounts, Oxford was a more conservative institution while Cambridge seems to have attracted a more radical, reformist circle.

Thomas More’s father dictated a change of study to the law after a short time, while Thomas Cranmer was immersed in University studies for over a decade (theological studies). Both seemed to be men of faith and conviction, even though there were differences in their views early on.

It is interesting to note that there would probably have been overlaps in their acquaintances, especially considering that they were both influenced by humanist philosophy. Just to name one, Thomas More’s friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, studied at Cambridge, and was Chancellor of Cambridge-it seems highly unlikely that Thomas Cranmer would have had no acquaintance with him. Both seemed to be well-established in a certain career path.

Marriage is another common point with them. Both men married fairly young; a radical point of separation is the outcome. Thomas More and his wife had 4 children before she passed away after 6 years of marriage. As a widower with children, More’s decision to remarry would have been considered the reasonable decision (if not an essential one). Thomas Cranmer lost his wife and their child after roughly a year of marriage, and was not his father’s heir--another marriage would not have been essential for him.

Thomas Cranmer’s decision to take orders a secular priest seems a logical outcome of the death of his wife after a very short marriage and his immersion in theological study (a secular priest was one who had not taken holy orders as part of a religious community; there is some question about whether or not a vow of chastity was required of a secular priest, according to different works on the subject).

Thomas More’s career in law owed much at this point to his father’s standing and influence, as well as the advantages gained from Archbishop Morton, and subsequently Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer was much more of a self-made man at this stage of his life. These similarities and divergences show the roots of their later differences: Thomas More, in spite of his humanist leanings, was much more conservative and traditional in his views. Thomas Cranmer was already vocal about his opinions on reform.

We now come to the watershed: in 1526, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn) escalated to the divorce debate. This polarizing subject engulfed the legal and religious minds of the day in England.

During this time, Cranmer came to Wolsey’s attention and was sent on a minor diplomat mission to Spain from which he returned in 1527 to his position in Cambridge. About 1529, an illness similar to the plague, possibly the “sweating sickness,” broke out. Schools and universities (including Cambridge) were closed, and Cranmer retired to Waltham in Essex to the house of a Mr. Cressy, whose sons were his students and whose education he continued to supervise. He was still in Waltham in 1529.

After the legatine court was dissolved after revoking the divorce case to Rome, Henry went on a summer progress in southern England in 1529. Members of Henry’s court, Fox and Gardiner among others, were invited to Mr. Cressy’s home, where Fox and Gardiner met Dr. Cranmer. Of course, Henry’s divorce was the topic of discussion.

Supposedly, Cranmer the academic suggested that they pursue a collection of opinions of all of the universities in Europe regarding the question “Is it lawful to marry a brother’s wife?”. If yes, the king’s scruples would be satisfied; if no, the pope would have to decide for divorce. This narrowed the central question away from the matter of the dispensation to a point which could allow a decision that the marriage was null.

Fox and Gardiner allegedly brought this to Henry’s attention the next day. Henry met with Cranmer, and sent him to the Boleyn household. The ultimate result was that, after preparing a treatise outlining and defending the course he proposed, Cranmer was appointed to a commission with the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne Boleyn’s father) and the Bishop of London which set out for Rome in 1530. Cranmer was also entrusted with the King’s dispatches and with matters of trade to negotiate for the merchants of England. These activities kept him in Europe for a while, where he became a convert to the Reformation.

The failure of the legatine court to resolve the issue in Henry’s favour resulted in the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, who lost the position of Lord Chancellor. The King appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in October of 1529, with More being the first layman to hold this position.

As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More upheld heresy laws, imprisoned Lutherans and other dissenters, and even ordered the burning of six heretics while continuing his writings against reformers. When Henry VIII imposed himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England (even with the limitation of so far as the Law of Christ allows established by the convocation), More wanted to resign as chancellor. However, he was persuaded to stay on and look into the “Great Matter.”

He upheld the validity of Henry’s marriage, but was allowed to stay out of the controversy. However, his opposition to Henry’s proposal to forbid the clergy to prosecute heretics or to hold meetings without his consent, and a later effort to withhold First Fruits from the Holy See resulted in King Henry VIII accepting More’s resignation in May of 1532. Reduced to near poverty, More returned home and lived quietly, engaged in his writing, but staying out of the controversies surrounding the King’s marriage and religious matters.

Ironically, it was in October of 1532 that Cranmer, who was still in Europe, received a message that Henry planned to reward him with the See of Canterbury, which had become vacant upon the death of William Warham.(Another irony: his taking position of Archbishop of Canterbury was dependent upon bulls from the pope.)

Cranmer was troubled by two issues: as a convert to the Reformation, he was not comfortable with the thought of swearing an oath to the Pope; secondly, in 1532, he had remarried. There was a prejudice against married clergy, and Henry, in particular, disapproved.

Henry obtained the bulls in February of 1533 and in March, the consecration took place. There is no indication that he disclosed his marriage or discussed his concerns with Henry or anyone else. However, he took his oaths as Archbishop openly making exceptions, taking it as it was consistent with the Laws of God, the King’s prerogatives and the statutes of the realm. By openly swearing his oath with qualifications, he apparently felt no scruples at accepting the post.

So, at this point, both men were in position for the next development in the drama that was England under Henry VIII. As the influence of one waned, the influence of the other grew. Each had their respective strengths and weaknesses; each played his part as the drama went on, with More being one of the earlier casualties of Henry’s new order, and Cranmer outliving both Henry and his son Edward only to meet his end under Henry’s daughter Mary.

I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the motivations, ethical dilemmas or other issues. What fascinates me are the similarities between these men, something I frankly had not expected. Well educated, dedicated to their careers, passionate about their religious beliefs, sincere in their desires to serve their king. Descriptions indicate that both were personable men that others liked and respected.

I can’t help but wonder if at any time these two men ever engaged in conversation. Their educational background and diplomatic experiences gave them many points in common. While their religious differences were profound, I think these two men could still have found issues on which they could agree, with both having humanist leanings and years of theological studies under their belts.

I also wonder about the age difference; More was 11 years older than Cranmer. Is it possible that, had More been born a bit later, he would have been more open to the Reformation? Would Cranmer have remained more conservative in his outlook if he had been born earlier? At the end of the day, I found both of these men to be much more interesting, engaging and human than I expected.

Sources include:

Walsh, Michael, ed. BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS Concise Edition Revised and Updated.New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wilson, Derek.IN THE LION’S COURT Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

Catholic Encyclopedia website. “St. Sir Thomas More.”

Encyclopedia of World Biography website. “Thomas More Biography.”

European Graduate School website. “Thomas More – Biography.”

Fordham University website. “Modern History Sourcebook: William Roper: The Life of Sir Thomas More.”

Gilpin, William.The Life of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. London: R. Blamire, 1784. GoogleBooks.

Luminarium Anthology of English Literature website. “Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).

“The Life of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).”

Both images from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, and a contributor to CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors.She lives in Florida with her husband.  Visit her website at