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.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

AV: William Byrd, Stondon Massey and the Authorised Version of The Bible

When Kerry McCarthy gave a lecture last week to guests at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge she said, according to an Internet source (http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2011/01/william-byrd-and-the-king-james-bible-he-was-agin-it/ ), that William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) set none of his music to the text of the King James Version of the Bible. The lecture was given in celebration of the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Kerry McCarthy is an influential authority on Stondon Massey’s great composer, an Associate Professor of Duke University in the United States, and prime mover and shaker of the Byrd Festival in Portland, Oregon.

Thinking somewhat laterally, it seems to almost state the obvious that William Byrd would disregard the ‘new’ Anglican Bible of 1611. Byrd was an ardent recusant Catholic living in semi-retirement at Stondon Place in the quiet village of Stondon Massey in Essex. Four hundred years ago he had just published an entire edition of two cycles of Gradualia: illegal settings of Masses for the complete liturgical year to be sung in secret by ‘papist sympathisers’ at such places as Ingatestone Hall, the home of the Petre family, Byrd’s patrons. The year 1611 also marked the final publication of the composer’s work. Here was a man of at least three score and ten years who probably could not be bothered with the new-fangled version of the Bible.

The origin of the King James Version of the Bible is admirably covered in Derek Wilson’s new book, ‘The People’s Bible’ (2010). He tells the story of how churchman of various persuasions, mainstream Anglicans and Puritans, in 1604 flattered King James I into the creation of a unifying work bearing his name. Over six years six teams of scholars in Westminster, Cambridge and Oxford toiled over existing English language translations to create, as a Committee, a definitive work for its time.

Derek Wilson devotes the first seventy pages of his two hundred page book to those Bibles which had already translated and printed in English during the sixteenth century. Among those was the illegally imported translation by Tyndale, which cost him his life in 1536. Ironically only three years later King Henry VIII decreed that another translation, the Great Bible, be made available in all churches up and down the land. The Geneva Bible was published abroad in 1560; the Bishops Bible of 1568 followed which omitted controversial margin notes of the Geneva Bible; and the Rheims Bible published in the Low Countries in 1582. The Douai-Rheims Bible was the fruit of an English College, founded by William Allen, an exiled Jesuit biblical scholar, completed by Gregory Martin.

Byrd’s religious sympathies must have been towards the Rheims Bible, a ‘Catholic translation’ probably used covertly during the services at Ingatestone Hall. We need only think too of Byrd’s reaction to the martyrdom of Edmund Campion in Byrd’s motet, ‘Why Do I Use My Paper Ink and Pen’, and known friendship with Father Henry Garnett who was later arrested and hung in connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 because he had heard, in a confessional, the plans of the conspirators. Garnett was a marked man. Throughout his trial was referred to as “Mr Garnett” because the authorities did not recognise his Jesuit priesthood.

1605 and 1607 were the years of publication of Byrd’s two books of Gradualia. This merely illustrates the dangerous path Byrd trod.

Byrd’s frequent naming before the Essex Archdeaconry Court by the parson and churchwardens of Stondon Massey for non-attendance at St Peter & St Paul Church, coupled with heavy fines, is further illustration of his refusal to embrace the established church. What is interesting is that his wife, who died c1606, was consistently named Ellen and not Juliana. Byrd biographer John Harley (1997) suggests this was the same person. We can deduce that whilst Byrd was not known in his immediate local community he moved nonetheless in influential circles and avoided the penalties associated with blatant Catholicism, that of imprisonment, confiscation of property and death. Nowhere could the Catholic mass be legally celebrated.

There is, perhaps, another reason why Byrd did not use the Authorised Version of the Bible. Derek Wilson points out that although the research was completed in 1610, the work itself was hurriedly proof-read; compiled for publication and printed the following year. The finished work was littered with errors and despite stringent efforts to ensure that the King James Version was the only Bible produced in England, copies of the Geneva Bible continued to be imported until the 1640s. In the early days the Authorised Version was hardly a roaring success, but its monopoly, and corrections, ensured its longevity.

The King James Bible was intended to be read out aloud during Divine Worship. Even today its seventeenth century text seems to work through being heard. The success of the King James Version was due to an accident of history. It became the vogue in seventeenth century worship for the pulpit to take more importance than the altar. Lengthy sermons were not uncommon. At Stondon Massey we find part of a triple-decker pulpit. Reverend Reeve, a former Rector, wrote: “The pulpit in Stondon Church with the reading desk attached was erected during [Nathanial] Ward’s incumbency, and bears the date 1630. In all probability it was introduced into the Church in response to an order from Bishop Laud, but I think we may trace Ward’s handiwork also, and his personal superintendence. On the panels of the desk we find the words “Christ is All in All” the text of the famous discourse of his brother Samuel, “preacher of Ipswich”, which was published in 1627, while in the pulpit is carved “2 Tim. iv. 1-2”, the reference being to the words of St Paul, ‘Preach the word in season and out of season’, which no doubt was a favourite Apostolic injunction with the Puritan divine.”

It is to the Wards that we must look for the Stondon connection and the Authorised Version. Samuel Ward, the Ipswich preacher, became Master of Sidney Sussex College in 1610. But he was also a member of the Cambridge II team of translators responsible, with others, for the Apocrypha. His brother, Nathanial, became incumbent at Stondon Massey in 1628, and was one of the foremost Puritan preachers in Essex.

Nathaniel Ward’s nemesis was William Laud, the Bishop of London who on appointment in 1628 immediately forbade the printing of the Geneva Bible. Laud is described by Wilson as “the scourge of the Puritans” and Reeve as “determined to strengthen the traditional and Catholic position of the Church of England.”

Reeve takes up the story: “The Rector of Stondon was “presented” … “for not wearing a surplice in Church for the two last years past, and that prayers were not constantly read in Church on Wednesdaies, Fridaies and Holydaies”.

“A few years later, however, the end came. The Bishop’s books in the Registry of St Paul’s record that on 27th Sept. 1632 Nathaniel Ward was suspended; on 30th Oct. of the same year he was excommunicated for non-obedience to the Canons, and on 16th Dec. he was deprived.

“On his expulsion from his living, Ward determined to visit the New England about which he had heard so much, and in the following year (1634) he set sail.”

The book which these New England settlers took with them was the Authorised Version of the Bible. Over time wherever Britain colonised and created its Empire, wherever the atlas was coloured red, the Bible was present in the culture of each new society.

The influence of this Bible spread because of its association with the monarchy, with stability and of order in society. Melvyn Bragg, for example, lists the King James Bible in his set of essays, ’12 Books That Changed The World’ (2006). Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’, Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ and ‘The Rule Book for Association Football’ are also listed in his hall of fame. Perhaps it is an overstatement to suggest that the AV played a part in the democratic influence of England on other nations, but it is no understatement that the book had no cultural affect worldwide. It is interesting to reflect that while Britain considers AV – alternative voting – in a referendum, elsewhere in the world there is unrest and uprising against leaders in Middle Eastern countries.

The King James Version became, certainly for over 300 years, a core work in the English language and the teaching of the English language both at home and abroad. It became part of England’s literary heritage. This was both its success and long term failure. Melvyn Bragg suggests that there are some Christians who believe that only a return to regular use of the King James Version will return the nation to “the true path”. Derek Wilson says that the study of the Christian faith adapts with each age and while the works of Shakespeare, a contemporary of the Bible, could not possibly be rewritten, likewise this was mistakenly felt with the King James Version.

Wilson also cites why the KJV’s popularity fell into decline, pointing to the First World War, the break-up of the hierarchical society and increasing secularisation of the nation. Changes in education too meant that learning text by rote is considered out dated and that widespread use of the Bible in teaching in schools is now politically incorrect.

In the Church of England this year, strenuous efforts are being made to encourage greater personal Bible reading. (See for example the Bishop of Chelmsford’s item on the diocese website: http://www.chelmsford.anglican.org/bishop-says-the-bible-is.html). Clergy say that the Bible provides moral compass for peoples’ lives and the King James Version is more than a piece of towering seventeenth century literature.


Bragg, Melvyn. 12 Books That Changed The World (Hodder & Stourton, 2006).

Fraser, Antonia. The Gunpowder Plot. Terror and Faith in 1605 (Arrow, 1999).

Harley, John. William Byrd. Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (Ashgate, 1997)

Reeve, Rev. E. H. L.. A History of Stondon Massey in Essex (Wiles & Son, Colchester, 1906).

Wilson, Derek. The People’s Bible. The Remarkable History of the King James Version (Lion, 2010).

Other sources:

‘Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible’. An exhibition (which runs until 18 June 2011) at Cambridge University Library. See http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/KJV/index.html

Andrew Smith

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