Lincoln Christ's Hospital School

Lincoln Christ's Hospital School
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William Byrd:

Organist, Choirmaster and Composer

                                                                                                          Compiled by Peter Harrod

from research by Professor Charles Garton and other sources

                                                                                     From the Garton Archive: Item of Interest No 37


William Byrd 1540-1623

William Byrd was the first British composer of genius whose works are still performed, and he remains arguably the most accomplished composer of our nation. He was a prolific and gifted composer of both secular and religious music, having written three masses, well over 150 motets, two Anglican services, twelve anthems, more than 100 pieces for virginals or harpsichord, and numerous short choral works, madrigals and songs. His prowess as organist and musician has been acknowledged by another more recent incumbent of that position at Lincoln Cathedral, Dr Philip Marshall; ‘Of all the Lincoln organists, William Byrd is the greatest musician that the Cathedral has known – or is ever likely to know’ (cited in Turbet (1992).

Professor Charles Garton has written extensively of the work of the William Byrd in his draft history of Lincoln School (Garton, 1983). He introduces the separate chapter on Byrd as follows;

It was during the three…..short headmasterships of John Plumtree, William Sanderson and John Winkle, that many of those Lincolnians who were choristers or chanters received their musical education from a striking newcomer, William Byrd.

What follows is a selective summary and synthesis of Professor Garton’s chapter, supplemented by intermittent references to other sources.

Professor Garton (CG) wrote that the Lincoln boys’ first sight of Byrd would take in something of his hereditary make-up, which contained genes from which the family name had apparently originated; trim compactness of figure, poise, sprightliness, a sense of balance and rhythm, receptivity of eye combined with introspectiveness, and an ability to evince depth and largeness of mind lightly and without straining. It was claimed by CG that some of those characteristics may be found even today in Europe and America in bearers of the name Bird, Vogel or Loiseau, and that the union of such traits combined with musicality to the fingertips. As I write this passage, I am unable to dismiss the somewhat idiosyncratic cricket umpire, Harold ‘Dicky’ Bird out of my mind! Ardent cricket supporters will understand! CG also detected some of those characteristics in the only surviving image we have of Byrd, a portrait dating from more than a century after his death, but probably based on earlier pictures (see image above).

Byrd was first referred to on 6th February 1562 or 1563, when he was probably already in Lincoln, for at that time the Cathedral Chapter took the surprising decision bearing in mind one so young, to give him entitlement, as a layman and student of music, to be the next rector of Hainton, a village some sixteen miles east of Lincoln, where the seat of the ancient county family of the Heneages was located at Hainton Hall, and indeed still is.

It is likely, given the reputation which Byrd had already secured in London as an organist and choirmaster, that the position was an added inducement both to attract him to such a post in Lincoln, and to encourage him to remain in post, which was already well remunerated. Such was the potential already seen in him by those with influence, insight and foresight, that Byrd was earmarked for taking on a privileged position with financial security even before he had relinquished student status and entered professional employment. Byrd, himself, must have been aware of his talents, because he must have known that, at the age of twenty, he would not normally have expected financial inducement to accept the offer of such a prestigious post.

There is evidence of Byrd’s prodigious and precocious talents in a number of surviving compositions, including organ works, hymns and motets, dating from his teenage years. He must have impressed the Lincoln Chapter shortly after beginning work in March 1563, because his appointment as organist and choirmaster was confirmed in writing a month later following an untypically short probationary period. The contract for the ‘office of song master or office of master of the chorister boys… and manual operator or player at the organ of the said church of Lincoln’ was confirmed ‘to the end and for the term of his natural life’, and for his ‘good service already rendered’. This was surely confirmation enough of the confidence shown by the Chapter in his abilities and potential.

The contract also stipulated that Byrd’s salary was paid on the condition that he and his deputy ‘…shall well and diligently instruct and teach the chorister boys …in the knowledge of the art of music, and shall well and diligently exercise and occupy the office of prayer or manual operator of the organ.’ The contract was witnessed and sealed in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral on the 24th day of the month of April A.D. 1563. The total remuneration of thirteen pounds six shillings and eight pence was an appreciably higher salary than most previous choirmasters and organists in Lincoln and elsewhere would have received, even allowing for inflation. One wonders what the Headmaster of Lincoln School, William Plumtree, might have thought as Byrd’s salary was two-thirds of his own, and he was twice his age.

CG has informed us that Byrd was a bachelor for the first five and a half years of his life in Lincoln, and that there was no record of where he lived. There has been speculation that he might have lived or lodged in Vicars’ Court, a location which would have suited a young bachelor, but this is no more than an educated guess. What is known is that he married a girl called Juliana Birley in September 1568, and that they lived in a dwelling house on the present site of 6 Minster Yard, overlooking the Chapter House, until they left Lincoln in 1573, some ten years after Byrd’s appointment in Lincoln. William and Juliana had three children; a girl and two boys, the second being was named after his godfather Thomas Tallis, the eminent composer, who had been one of William’s tutors in London.

It is beyond the scope of this article to summarise CG’s detailed account of the choristers and Burghersh chanters under Byrd’s ‘baton’ at Lincoln Cathedral, but suffice it to say that life did not always run smoothly. In any case, much of what is written is, by CG’s own admission, speculative. Those readers who are drawn to such detail are referred to the full text of CG’s chapter, which may be read in the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School. Richard Turbet (1993) offers a more concise summary, and a copy is also available in the Archive as part of CG’s extensive ex-libris collection.

What is significant is that Byrd cut his choirmasterly skills on those boys he inherited, and it was through his teaching of these choirboys and their successors that he probably began to form his famous list of reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing. The reasons he gave, long after leaving Lincoln, betrayed on the whole a happy relationship with both choirboys and men, claiming in retrospect that he was ‘well-settled’ in Lincoln. Singing, he has said, ‘is a knowledge easily taught and quickly learned, when there is a good master and an apt scholar’. He also pointed out, among other claims, that it was delightful to nature, good to preserve the health of men, and a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering. It also, in his own words, ‘doth strengthen’ all parts of the breast, and ‘doth open the pipes’. Moreover, he claimed that it was the best means to procure a perfect pronunciation, and to make a good orator. Moreover, he asserted that no musical instrument was comparable to the ‘voices of men’. It was to be several decades, of course, before the voices of women were to make inroads into the male dominance of cathedral choirs. ‘The better the voice is, the ‘meeter’ it is to honour and serve God therewith’, he proclaimed.

One of Byrd’s main responsibilities, in moulding his choir, was to choose and appoint the new choristers. For example, there is a record in the Lincolnshire Archives of a John Man who in 1567 was admitted as a chorister on the nomination of the Precentor of Lincoln Cathedral, Master Reniger, having first been approved and found fit by Master William Byrd, schoolmaster of the said choristers.

By 1570 at the latest Byrd must have known that he was going to leave Lincoln for London, and as CG reported he was probably away there on business several times before finally departing. During his ten years in Lincoln, however, Byrd matured from a twenty year-old student to a thirty year-old husband and father. In addition to his role as organist and choirmaster, he was also expected to take part in the boys’ general education and was very much one of their schoolmasters, being given the title of ‘pedagogus’ and ‘ludimagister’.  His main purpose, however, was to preside over the Cathedral music, and during his time in Lincoln he set a procession of trebles on the road to a musical career.

In building appropriate relationships with his boys, Byrd soon realised in his career in Lincoln that there was a need for a closer liaison between choirmaster and headmaster, and not least for a clear agreement on which hours the choirboys were expected to attend at the School. For some time Lincoln School had in effect been two schools; the one serving the Church and the other the City of Lincoln. This division created uncertainty and conflict over the years, and symbolised the curious uphill/downhill antagonisms that characterise so much of Lincoln’s past. In those days, as indeed in more recent times, the choristers would have received at least some of their education in the  Grammar School. There were reports of unexplained dawdlings in their coming and going between the two schools, and boys being boys they would lay the blame on whichever quarter from which they appeared to have been late! There was also a strange coincidence that the eventual breaking of their voices seemed to go hand in hand with mysterious breaks in the school attendance! So in June 1567 the Chapter set the school hours in black and white. It was decreed that choirboys would attend the Grammar School daily from 6 am to 9 am and from 1 pm to 3 pm, a 5-hour day for the choristers. Once their voices had broken, they were required to attend the Grammar School on a full-time basis.

Alongside his work as a teacher, Byrd busied himself as an organist and composer, and appears to have maintained a lively contact with London, where his talents and abilities may well have been recognised and appreciated more than some of the more hidebound elements of the Lincoln Chapter. One example of this was when Byrd’s salary was withdrawn following allegations about which CG could only speculate. It may have been because of his excessively elaborate playing of the organ which Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav, has written was the usual complaint that church authorities made when they found to their embarrassment that they were employing a genius. Perhaps it was more likely that it had something to do with his frequent visits to London, or his continued associations with the Catholic Church. Byrd in fact remained a Catholic all his life.

Byrd was shortly to be offered a position in the Chapel Royal in London, although he was to remain in Lincoln for a further two years. Perhaps because of his loyalty, the Lincoln Chapter revoked the decision to dock Byrd’s pay, after chewing it over for several months, and in the end he did not receive any pecuniary loss.

Byrd finally said his farewells to Lincoln in1572, and took up his appointment as a Gentleman of the Royal Chapel, where he became joint organist to Elizabeth I with his former tutor, Thomas Tallis. It has been written that he found his stride as a composer in Lincoln, and that he wrote several of his more influential compositions there. Imogen Holst believes that one of his pieces for virginal, The Bells, must surely have been written with the memory of those reverberating bells at Lincoln still in his mind’s ear. It might also be reasonably inferred, given the number of his successful pupils, that he also found his métier as a teacher in Lincoln.


Garton, Charles (1983)   Lincoln School: 1500-1585   Unpublished

Holst, Imogen (1972)   Byrd   Praeger Publishers, New York

Turbet, Richard (1993)   William Byrd 1543 - 1623   The Honeywood Press: Lincoln Cathedral Publications