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Tallis is dead, and music dies

Detail from Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall of The Rebel Angels (1562)

I have always had a love for early modern music. One of my favourite composers is the chorister and organist Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and what follows is a brief overview of Tallis’s life, with thanks to his most recent biographer, John Milsom.

Tallis was probably born c.1505, although nothing is known about his birthplace, parents, or early life.  Eight years before his death in 1585 he described himself as ‘verie aged’.  Like other church musicians, Tallis would have begun his career as a chorister.  His earliest known work, Salve intemerata, is complex and elaborate, suggesting he had learned how to play the organ and compose organ music, probably in a recognised and influential choral institution.  His first professional position was as organist of the Benedictine priory of Dover from 1530 -33, and he was later lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral, which suggests he may have had links with Kent and the south-east of England.

Moving from Dover to London in 1535, Tallis became a member of the choir of St Mary-at-Hill, a parish church with a strong musical tradition.  In 1538 he moved to Waltham Abbey in Essex.  One of the abbey manuscripts, a book of musical theory, bears his signature, and when the abbey was dissolved in 1540 he may have taken the book with him.  By the summer of the same year Tallis had moved to Canterbury, and his name is listed as one of the choristers in the newly-enlarged choir.  He stayed at Canterbury two years, but by 1543 he had joined the choir of the Chapel Royal, where he remained until his death in 1585.

Other than Salve intemerata, there are very few works which can be firmly attributed to Tallis during the early years of his career.  Several pieces included in a set of music books copied in 1540-1 may be by Tallis. One of them is a mass which derives in part from Salve intemerata, and demonstrates the early influence on Tallis by established composers such as John Taverner.

The choir of the Chapel Royal had been significantly developed during the reign of Henry VIII.  Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, all received training in music as part of their education, and Tallis benefitted from this interest in musical excellence during the latter part of the sixteenth century.  He performed with and composed for a group of astonishingly talented singers, rising to become the choir’s most senior member. Officially designated as a ‘gentleman’ (lay singer), in 1575 he also referred to himself as joint organist alongside his colleague William Byrd.  During the reign of Mary I, Tallis married a widow, Joan, who had previously been married to Thomas Bury, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Like many other members of the royal choir, the couple lived in Greenwich.

From Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575)

In addition to particular performances at state occasions such as coronations, weddings, and funerals, the royal choir also took part in daily church services, which shifted substantially during Tallis’s career to reflect the developing and changing religious climate in England.  Under Edward VI a new repertory of canticles and anthems was introduced to English texts, but after the accession of Mary I, the Roman Catholic liturgy was once again restored.

No books used by the Chapel Royal survive from Tallis’s lifetime and a substantial number of works by him have almost certainly been lost.  However there are works which have survived in other sources, notably Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, a piece for a six-part choir in praise of the Virgin Mary.  Its composition cannot be dated, but it would have almost certainly been sung during the reign of Mary I.  Tallis’s setting of an English version of Te Deum, preserved in part, was probably written for an important state occasion. The most popular and enduring works written by Tallis at this time are the anthems and canticles he wrote 1549-53. Some of them, including ‘If ye love me’ and ‘Hear the voice and prayer’ have become firm constituents of the Anglican repertory, and served as models for the next generation of English composers.

According to his biographer, Tallis’s two popular settings of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Incipit lamentatio and De lamentatione, which survive only in manuscript, refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, a theme often interpreted as a metaphor for the suppression of the Catholic faith.  Tallis’s most moving motet (a piece of music choral music with Latin text), the forty-voice Spem in alium has endured down through the years.  There have been attempts made to link Spem in alium with the fortieth birthday celebrations of Elizabeth I in 1573, but an anecdote in an early seventeenth-century notebook connects it to Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, who is said to have commissioned the piece in 1571.  A copy of Spem in alium is included in a 1596 inventory of Arundel’s books, and according to the anecdote the work was first performed at Arundel House in the Strand in London.

Tallis’s closest friendship was probably with fellow composer William Byrd (1542-1623). The two men worked closely together and Tallis was godfather to Byrd’s son Thomas. Tallis died on 23 November 1585 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church of St Alfege, Greenwich. After his death, Byrd wrote a lament, ‘Ye Sacred Muses’, which closes with the words ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’.  Tallis’s burial was marked with a brass memorial, lost during the Second World War. The text however was recorded as follows:

He serv’d long Tyme in Chapp[ell] with grete prayse,
Fower sovereygnes reignes (a thing not often scene),
I mean King Henry and Prince Edward’s Dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth our Quene.
He maryed was, though Children had he none,
And lyv’d in Love full thre and thirty Yeres …
As he did Lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet Sort (O! happy Man).

Tallis’s position as one of the foundational composers of Protestant church music ensured that his name endured in English church worship from the sixteenth century onwards.  He contributed several of the pieces in Matthew Parker’s psalter, published for private circulation, which are now very famous, including the ‘Eighth Tune’, known as ‘Tallis’s Canon’ to the words ‘Glory to thee, my God, this night’, and the ‘Third Tune’, upon which Ralph Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910).  In 1928 Tallis’s collected works were published, and today he is held in high regard as one of the most performed and respected composers of early modern England.

Source: John Milsom, DNB
A facsimile copy of the collection of Latin motets by Tallis and Byrd, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (London, 1575), is available via EEBO.

Tallis: Spem in Alium - The Lamentations of Jeremiah - Choir Of King's College, Cambridge, Choir Of St. John's College, Cambridge, David Wilcocks, George Guest & Stephen Cleobury

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Art Biography Court Love

The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs

As regular visitors to Fragments will know, I’ve recently returned from a tour of 17th century India. Taking in the forts, mosques, temples and buildings of mogul Rajasthan brought new layers of meaning to my research into early modern England.  For example, every day goods such as cloves, pepper and nutmeg, and fabrics like silk and calico, were finding their way into the homes of Shakespeare’s London via the East India Company, which was founded in 1600 and given a royal charter by Elizabeth I.  That trade links between England and the Indian sub-continent had been established so early came as something of a surprise to me, and as I delved a little deeper, by way of a little bookshop in Jaipur, in which I spent embarrassingly large amounts of rupees, one name in particular came to the fore again and again. The 17th century mogul emperor Shah Jahan. I became quite fascinated by Shah Jahan, quizzing the Indian historians I met over Kingfisher beers late at night, and poring over accounts of his building works as well as his love life.  His name will no doubt be unfamiliar to many, but his achievements certainly will not. It was Shah Jahan who oversaw the construction of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, and possibly the most beautiful building on earth.  I visited the Taj Mahal on Independence Day, which somehow lent the occasion a certain gravity.  I was both awe-inspired, and humbled, and the story behind this most famous of monuments is as enduring as the building itself.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666), became the fifth Mogul ruler of Rajasthan when he succeeded his father, Jahangir, in 1628. Born in Lahore, Prince Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram came to the throne at the age of thirty-five. He was a clever and intelligent, and had already impressed many with his flair for building works, having enlarged the fort at Agra, home of the then royal court, at the age of 16. In 1607, he became engaged to Arjumand Banu Begum, the daughter of a Persian noble.  The legend goes that their eyes met in the marketplace and it was love at first sight. After the wedding, Khurram nicknamed his wife Jewel of the Palace, or Mumtaz Mahal.

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan 

On Khurram’s accession to the throne, the court at Agra, which he preferred to that at Delhi, was greatly expanded. He built public and private audience halls, a residential hall known as the Court of the Grapes overlooking the river, and a congregational mosque known as the Pearl Mosque.   In 1638 Jahan moved the court from Agra to Delhi, forming a new city known as Shahjahanabad.  Its design was undertaken by Ahmed Lahwari, the chief architect of the Taj Mahal.  This walled city included water courses, homes for the nobility, mosques, gardens, and a fortified palace known as the Red Fort.

Red Fort at Delhi

During their marriage, Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were inseparable.  She was not his only wife; he married two other women during his reign, but his relationships with these wives was said to be nothing more than ceremonial. Mumtaz was the true love of his life. But while on campaign with her husband in 1631, she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  Khurram was utterly grief-stricken. It is said he ordered his court into a period of mourning from which he emerged white-haired and broken.  Rumours abound that Mumtaz, on her deathbed, demanded that Khurram build her a lasting monument, a building unrivalled throughout the world, in order to demonstrate his love for her.  Whatever the truth, Shah Jahan began construction of a mausoleum for Mumtaz in 1632 on the banks of the river Yamuna in Agra.  ‘He intends it shall excel all other,’ wrote an East India employee travelling through Agra in the 1630s. ‘The building goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, gold and silver [being] esteemed common metall and marble as ordinarie stone.’

The design of the Taj Mahal is purely Islamic.  It is said to represent the image of the Throne of God; the marble dome which sits over Mumtaz’s tomb is 35 metres high, and the four minarets set at each of the four corners are over 40 metres high.  Earlier buildings overseen by Shah Jahan were constructed from red sandstone, but the Taj Mahal was built entirely from white marble, inlaid with semi-precious stones.  As a Muslim tomb, pictorial representations were strictly forbidden, so in addition to the exquisite patterns laid into the marble, verses from the Koran decorate and adorn the building.   The Taj Mahal was completed in 1643 and was instantly considered a masterpiece.

In 1657, Khurram’s son, Aurangzeb, seized power and imprisoned his father in the fort at Agra with a small retinue.  Now in poor health, and under house arrest, Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his days in a small suite of rooms which overlooked the river and his monument to Mumtaz.

 Shah Jahan’s rooms at Agra Fort
View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

It is said that Khurram planned to build a mirror monument to himself in black marble across the river from the Taj Mahal, but this claim has yet to be substantiated. He said of his wife’s tomb:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.

On his deathbed in 1666, Shah Jahan reportedly kept his eyes fixed firmly on the Taj Mahal. After his death he was buried alongside his beloved Mumtaz in the dazzling building he had erected in her memory.

Sources for this post are largely confined to the many people I spoke to in India. However some biographical information and other details comes from John Keay’s authoratitive India: A History, Harper Collins, India (2004).
© 2009-2014 All Rights Reserved
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Carnivalesque 64

Fragments is very pleased to be hosting the 64th edition of Early Modern Carnivalesque, a gathering of some of the most interesting blog posts from the early modern blogging community.

First up we have the fate of the Wedgewood Museum over at the award-winning Georgian London. Lucy Inglis considers the plight of the Wedgewood Collection, and its formation under artisan Josiah Wedgewood, who died in 1725.


From the decorative arts, to art of a very different nature, Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor explores the unusual medicinal practise of diagnosis via urine from 1815.


Taking a detour from urine to royalty, Nick, at Mercurius Politicus, reveals some intriguing royalist graffiti in Cheam.


Odd fellows from Roy, at Early Modern Whale, who takes a look at the early modern Fortune Teller.


‘My appetite is sick for want of a capacity to digest your favours.’ Women in Medieval and Early Modern History offer up some extraordinary early modern chat up lines.

Once you’ve wooed your beloved, you might like to make them a John Evelyn salad. The Gentleman Administrator reveals all you need to know.


The World Cup may be over, but the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have devised a means to keep your interest alive. Iago is in mid-field in Shakespeare’s Fantasy Football

From Iago to a villain of a different kind, Executed Today examines the hanging of pirate John Quelch.    
Speaking of villains, cartoonist Ade Teal kindly provides us with caricatures of two early modern rogues:


On the other side of the Atlantic, Warren, artistic director of early modern music ensemble Magnificat, recently visited Spain, and reports back on the 18th century composer Martini’s enormous collection of music manuscripts and partbooks  

More printing, this time from the Two Nerdy History Girls, who witnessed the early modern printing process in action.
Sally, over at Travels and Travails in Eighteenth Century England, has been exploring medicinal recipes, including the Lady Puckring’s salve for sore brests.
From sore breasts to slippery weather, Emily at The Artist’s Progress reveals the history of early modern caricature.


Art of a different nature from the engraver Mr Read, who entertains with more spectral escapades at The Cogitations of Read.


And Ben, at Res Obscura, has been getting to grips with some 17th century  apothecary poetry.


Finally, here at Fragments, I’ve been exploring the last will and testament of Mr William Shakespeare, gent. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Carnivalesque, or would like to be a host, contact the lovely Sharon at Early Modern Web
Biography Court Elizabeth London

The life of Sir Walter Ralegh

Today’s fragments form an overview of the life of one of England’s most famous explorers and courtiers.

Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) was born at Hayes, near East Budleigh, in Devon. He was the second son of Walter Ralegh and his third wife, Katherine. The Raleghs were an old-established Protestant family; Walter senior was the deputy vice-admiral under Mary I from 1555 to 1558, and Katherine Ralegh’s children from her first marriage included the famous mariner and soldier Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose career greatly influenced Walter.

Little is known of Walter’s early life. It is thought he was an ‘indefatigable Reader’, and remarks gleaned from his History of the World, which he published in 1614, suggest he served as volunteer with the Huguenot armies in France from about 1569.

Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford in 1572, and left without a degree, being admitted to the Middle Temple in 1575. His first published poem appeared in George Gascoigne’s The Steel Glass in 1576.

Walter’s mother’s elder sister, Katherine Astley, had been governess to Elizabeth I from 1544, and she became her chief gentlewoman in 1558. It may have been this connection which offered Ralegh his initial introduction at court. In 1578, Walter’s step-brother Humphrey secured a patent to discover ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’ and Walter sailed in his fleet as captain of the Falcon. The expedition was beleaguered with storms and desertions, but Ralegh continued on into the Atlantic in search of adventure, eventually returning to Plymouth in 1579.

In 1580, he secured a captain’s commission and was sent to Ireland to tackle the Desmond rebellion.  Serving under Arthur Grey in county Kerry, Ralegh oversaw the slaughter of a force of Italian and Spanish adventurers who had landed in support of the Irish rebels. It was at this time that he fathered his first child, of which little is known; it has been suggested that Ralegh later betrothed the child to Daniel Dumaresq, his page, and that the girl died of plague.


Walter returned to court in 1581, and soon attracted the attention of the queen. He was a tall man, with dark hair and attractive features. The famous story of him spreading his cloak over a puddle to allow the Queen to walk without getting her feet muddied is probably no more than gossip recorded by Thomas Fuller. Nonetheless, Walter quickly became one of the queen’s favourites, and he wrote her elegant, courtly poems, one of which, Farewell false love, was read widely during the early 1580s. In 1583, Elizabeth granted Ralegh one of her favourite palaces, Durham Place on the Strand. It came complete with a lantern tower which had views across London ‘as pleasant perhaps as any in the world.’

Humphrey Gilbert died in 1583, and Ralegh took up his half-brother’s ambitious plans to colonise the New World. In 1585, having secured his patents, Ralegh set off on his expedition, taking four ships and 600 men, including his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Ralegh’s grand plans to reach Virginia came to fruition under Grenville, who left men to settle on Roanoke Island, while he himself went on to pursue a private voyage in search of wealth and plunder. By the summer of the following year, the colonists were on the point of starvation, and many chose to return home with Sir Francis Drake, who had anchored at Roanoke on his return from the Caribbean. In 1587, Ralegh embarked on another expedition to the New World, however this enterprise was as unsuccessful as his last; the colonists suffered the same fate as the inhabitants of Roanoke, and by 1590 the settlement was deserted.

There is an historical myth which claims it was Ralegh who introduced both tobacco and the potato to England. However there is nothing in print to link the potato, which originated in Peru and arrived in Spain by 1570 and wider Europe thereafter, with Ralegh until at least 1699. Likewise, Ralegh’s links with tobacco, which is first mentioned by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and was introduced into Europe by Andre Thevet in the mid fifteenth century and was being smoked in England by c.1571. While Ralegh was not responsible for the introduction of smoking in England, he is thought to have popularised it at court.

In 1591, Ralegh began a liaison with Bess, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, and daughter of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. On discovering Bess was pregnant later that same year, Ralegh and she were married in secret, knowing full well that news of their union would greatly displease Elizabeth I. Ralegh worked hard to quash rumours of the marriage, but the couple’s son was born in March 1592, after which Bess returned to court, while Ralegh set sail on yet another expedition. By May, he was back in England, and news of his illicit marriage broke. His son was brought to him by his nurse at Durham Place, perhaps the only time the two were together. Ralegh’s wife was placed in the custody of Sir Thomas Heneage, and Ralegh was committed to the custody of Cecil. Ralegh made a variety of pleas to the Queen which only worsened the situation, and on 7th August 1592, both he and his wife were committed to the Tower. Fortunately, one of Ralegh’s overseas expeditions returned home the following month with a huge treasure hoard, and Ralegh was released to oversee the division of the loot. Elizabeth I allowed him to keep a tiny share of the spoils, and it appears she had softened her attitude towards Ralegh, even permitting Bess to be released from the Tower in December of that year.



Unfortunately Ralegh and Bess’s son died in infancy, but their second child, Walter, was born in November 1593. The couple was still banished from court (and Ralegh would remain so until 1597), but Ralegh spent his time in politics, representing Dorset in Parliament. During these years he also began to plan an expedition to discover El Dorado, the mythical lost city of gold. In 1595, he set sail from Plymouth, arriving at a Spanish colony on Trinidad, before travelling on to Orinoco. However, despite his efforts, he arrived home seven months later empty-handed, to the mockery of both Queen and court.

The following year, he was still much in disgrace but the mounting fear of an attack from Spain brought a demand for Ralegh’s maritime experience and he returned to court. The Queen, fearing an invasion, insisted on including Ralegh in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, which became one of the triumphs of her reign.

In 1603, Elizabeth died, and Ralegh, having by now made some dangerous enemies at court, was quickly rebuffed by the new king, James. He was stripped of his monopolies and told to leave Durham House. In the summer of the same year he was detained for questioning on treason charges, and placed under house arrest. Implicated in the Main plot, which intended the death of the King and a Spanish invasion, Ralegh was sent to the Tower. In intense despair, he attempted a failed suicide bid, and lived as a prisoner at the Tower until 1612. He was permitted two rooms in the Bloody Tower (which can still be seen today), books, and a garden. During his imprisonment he wrote his major work, The History of the World, which he began writing in 1607. It was eventually published in 1614.


Ralegh’s room, preserved at the Tower of London

Ralegh was finally released from the Tower in 1616, and he at once began plans for another expedition to find El Dorado. He set sail in August, but illness, desertion, and a demoralised crew ensured that Ralegh eventually returned to England empty-handed, and something of a broken man. This last failure was a hard blow, ‘My braines are broken,’ he wrote to Bess on 22nd March, ‘and tis a torment to me to write.’

In 1618, Ralegh was once more arrested, this time over reports that activity during his final expedition had placed the peace between England and Spain in jeopardy. Placed under house arrest, Ralegh made a failed escape bid to France, and was once again sent to the Tower. Despite moving speeches and entreaties, Ralegh’s pleas for clemency were ignored, and he was executed on 29th October 1618 at Westminster. His head, severed after the second blow, was placed in a leather bag, and kept by his wife, while his body was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

In the years following his death, Ralegh’s popularity as a poet and adventurer grew. His works were published and republished, and he developed a cult status as a gentleman explorer and pioneer which continues to this day.

Source: Mark Nicholls, DNB.

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