William Byrd, the Elizabethan composer, lived at Stondon Massey for the last thirty years of his life, dying in 1623. He was a Catholic but avoided the severest penalties because of his association with the Chapel Royal and Queen Elizabeth I (who loved his music) and James I. Recently evidence has come to light which provides an insight into this composer’s life as well as his music.
Two leading Byrd scholars, Kerry McCarthy and John Harley, have announced in the Musical Times (Winter 2009) the discovery of ten books containing Byrd's signature which had hitherto eluded nearly all other scholars. These books are in libraries spread across the United Kingdom and the United States of America but the authors have inspected each one and confirmed the identifications of the signatures to be genuine.
It is thought that Byrd may have collected books because of his association with the publishing trade. Alongside Thomas Tallis, the Queen granted him exclusive right to publish music.
The discovery of these books is important because, like any personal library, they reflect the tastes of the owner. Nine books are about religion, but more accurately the politics surrounding the Catholic and Protestant situation of the time, taking the Protestant side of the argument. One, ‘The unmasking of the politike athiest’, published in 1602, is a violent attack on the Roman Catholic religion by J. Hull. He condemns musical and liturgical practices of English Catholics, describing the ‘Ave maris stella’ (Hail Virgin Mary) as blasphemous and denounced the use of organs and other instruments of the church. ‘Superstitious’ holidays such as Candlemas, All Saints and Corpus Christi did not escape Hull’s tirade. What is curious is that Byrd should own such a book which was against everything he held dear. We know that Byrd composed many settings for such festive occasions. The authors suggest that Byrd was wily in his choice of books on public display and attempted to deceive those who browsed his bookshelves or those who were instructed, as in May 1585, ‘too send for byrd of the chappell and that his howse be diligentlye searchyd’.
The tenth book is one typical of the age. It is a sixteenth century travel guide covering everything from what to see, eat, wear and observe as customs “so that the traveller after his rangings and peregrinations shall retire himself a man of skill”. The book was dedicated to the great explorer Francis Drake. Byrd though was an armchair traveller believed to have never left these shores, unlike his brother John who was a London merchant and shipowner who frequently exported wheat to Spain and traded as far afield as West Africa and Brazil.
These fresh insights reveal that history is not a dead subject. Our modern age with its worldwide web is adding to the stories of our forbears. It’s a great time to be a local historian!
First published in ‘Church Matters’, July 2010
Welcome to our Festival blog
We are a small congregation who organised a highly successful 'William Byrd Festival' in May 2011 to celebrate the life and work of the village's Elizabethan composer, William Byrd (c.1540 - 1623). In 2012 we played host to the world-famous choir The Cardinall's Musick under their director Andrew Carwood.
This website contains everything you need to know about William Byrd and his links with Stondon Massey. The church is open for services, of course, and on the second Sunday afternoon in the month during the summer.