The second weekend of the ‘William Byrd Festival’ at Stondon Massey features the Writtle Singers in a programme entitled ‘William Byrd: Loyal Heart or Traitor?” (Saturday 14 May 2011. 7.30pm) The inspiration behind the programme, devised by Christine Gwynn their director, comes from two previous performances by the Choir: one celebrating Gloriana, the other ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605. The title come from Queen Elizabeth I’s anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic rhetoric delivered at Tilbury in Essex when the nation faced the threat of the Armada.
“My loving people,
“We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood even, in the dust.
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
“I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”
William Byrd trod the fine line of being a ‘loyal heart’ to the Queen by writing music which she simply adored and that of ‘treachery’ or being a ‘traitor’ in being a recusant Catholic writing illegal and subversive music.
Roman Catholic religious services were illegal in England and Wales between 1559 and 1778. The fear of revolution and invasion from Catholic Spain caused the law to be strengthened, in 1581 and 1585, whereupon the saying of Mass, even in a private home, was illegal; priests so doing faced the death penalty.
One such priest was John Payne, who was imprisoned during the winter of 1576-77 for being present with the Petre family of Ingatestone Hall. He is recorded in 1577 as a servant to Lady Petre, Sir William Petre’s widow. She died in 1582, ten years after her husband. After celebrating Mass at the house of William More, in Haddon, Oxfordshire, Payne was again arrested, betrayed into the hands of the authorities by the notorious priest-catcher George ‘Judas’ Eliot, who he had met at Ingatestone Hall in Christmas 1579. Unable to secure a conviction, a charge was made that he had tried to enlist Eliot in a plot to murder the Queen. Tortured on the rack, he was subsequently found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered at Chelmsford in 1582. Revd Reeve of Stondon Massey wrote, “The manuscripts of the Custos Rotulorum preserved at Chelmsford yield up the information that in April, 1582, one John Gaye, of Blackmore, was examined as to his knowledge of ‘Payne the traytour’, recently executed and of his accomplices. He confessed to having said at Writtle that Payne was reported to have ‘belonged to one Master Shelley’ [William Shelley of Stondon Massey]”. The irony was that Shelley was later effectively evicted from his home at Stondon Place, only to be rented by Byrd himself.
Byrd was the protest singer of his day, a kind of Bob Dylan figure, who, on the execution or martyrdom of Edmund Campion penned ‘Why Do I Use My Paper Ink and Pen’. Eliot too had betrayed Campion at Lyford in Berkshire in July 1581, as he had done a further thirty priests.
Byrd would have known of Payne’s execution too. He was friendly with the Petre family at that time: a friendship which became closer after Lady William Petre’s death, when John Petre became lord of the manor.
Byrd also set to music the secret text of Psalm 137, anglicised as ‘How Do We Sing The Lord’s Song In a Strange Land’, an undercover reference to his alien Catholicism in a protestant country.
Payne was later beatified by the Catholic church and was among forty martyrs canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970. His feast day is remembered on 6 May.
Stewart Foster. The Catholic Church in Ingatestone
D.W.Coller. A Peoples History of Essex
F.G.Emmison. Tudor Secretary (Sir William Petre)