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Elizabeth I, Queen of Englandfree

  • David Scott

(b Greenwich, Sept 7, 1533; d London, March 24, 1603). English patron of music. She was the second daughter of Henry VIII (by Anne Boleyn), came to the throne in 1558 and reigned until her death. She received the classical education of a Renaissance prince, including studies in Latin and Greek with Roger Ascham. Shortly after Elizabeth’s death John Clapham, a courtier in Burghley’s household, wrote that ‘in matters of recreation, as singing, dancing and playing upon instruments, she was not ignorant nor excellent’. There are no contemporary accounts of her singing, but of the 1599 Twelfth Night revels the Spanish ambassador reported that ‘the head of the Church of England and Ireland was to be seen in her old age dancing three or four galliards’ (Calendar of Letters and Papers in the Archives of Simancas, iv, 650). As for her ‘playing upon instruments’, according to Playford (An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, 11/1687) ‘she did often recreate herself upon an excellent Instrument called the Polyphant, not much unlike a Lute but strung with Wire’. She also played the virginals: Sir James Melville, an ambassador from Mary Queen of Scots, wrote of an occasion in October 1564 when

after dinner my Lord of Hunsdean drew me up to a quiet gallery … where I might hear the Queen play on the Virginals …. I entered within the Chamber, and stood a pretty space hearing her play excellently well, but she left off immediately, so soon as she turned her about and saw me.

It is often said that Elizabeth played the lute, but the only evidence for this seems to be the presence of a lute-like instrument in a needlework representation of The Education of Princess Elizabeth (Irwin Untermeyer’s private collection; not listed in Strong, 1963), Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth holding a lute (Strong, 1963, miniature no.4; see illustration) and a report that ‘in 1565 Henry Lord Berkeley bought a lute of mother-of-pearl for his Lady, for which Queen Elizabeth had offered 100 marks’ (T.D. Fosbroke: Berkeley Manuscripts, London, 1821, p.102).

Elizabeth I with a lute: miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c1580 (private collection)

E Hansen, Berkeley Castle
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Early in her reign Elizabeth issued a proclamation (1559, Injunction 49; before 19 July) making clear her views on the musical side of worship: there should be

a modest distinct songue, so used in all partes of the common prayers in the Church, that the same may be as playnely understanded, as yf it were read without syngyng, and yet nevertheless, for the comfortyng of suche as delyght in musicke, it may be permitted that in the begynning, or in the ende of common prayers, eyther at morning or evenyng, that there may be song an Hymne, or such like songue, to the praise of almightie god, in the best sort of melodie that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the sentence of the Hymne may be understanded and perceyved.

Her devotion to church music was recognized by John Boswell, who wrote in 1572: ‘What say I, music one of the seven liberal sciences; it is almost banished the realme. If it were not the queenes majesty that did favour that excellente science, singing-men and choristers might go a-begging, together with their master the player on the organes’.

Music played a significant part in all royal state occasions, and the queen often gave detailed instructions to her courtiers as to the nature of the music she wished to have (a memorandum made by Hunsdon for the 1601 Twelfth Night celebrations is quoted in Hotson). Music arranged by host courtiers or civic bodies on her progresses was an integral part of their entertainment. The arrangements for the progresses to Kenilworth (1575), Norwich (1578) and Elvetham (1591) have perhaps become best known, but contemporary accounts of others show that music was just as important to their success, though it is now not known what music was heard. Of music that is known to have been heard on various occasions the following works are perhaps representative: Tallis’s Spem in alium (probably first heard on Elizabeth’s 40th birthday, 1573), Dowland’s His golden locks (sung on Accession Day 1590 to mark the retirement of Sir Henry Lee, the originator of the tilts) and Morley’s collection of madrigals by various authors, The Triumphes of Oriana (RISM 160116, probably heard as part of the May Day celebrations in 1601).

Of the various instruments that Elizabeth is said to have owned, only the spinet now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (R. Russell: Victoria and Albert Museum: Catalogue of Musical Instruments, i: Keyboard Instruments, London, 1968, no.7), is likely to have had any strong links with her. Similarly, of the many manuscripts she is said to have owned (e.g. the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and the ‘Winchester’ Partbooks of Flemish music, c1564), none has a credible provenance.

Music was heard at the beginning and end of Elizabeth’s life: it is said that ‘Te Deum was sung incontinently upon her birth’, and Jacques Bonnet in his Histoire de la musique et de son effets (1715) cited the memoirs of the Abbé Victorio Siri (1677–9) to the effect that when she was dying she called for her musicians to play around her bed; ‘so that, she said, she might die as gaily as she had lived, and that the horrors of death might be lessened; she heard the music tranquilly until her last breath’.


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