The Musical Aftermath of Henry VIII’s Divorce: Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 –1585) and William Byrd (1540–1623)

Henry VIII’s Divorce

In 1509, Henry VIII, age 18, ascended the throne of England. His interests were then, as now, the common interests of a youth: of sport, of intellectual prowess and as monarch, political clout, with soldiers and a Navy at his command.
The priest – become – Chancellor, Wolsey, had served Henry VII and likewise served Henry VIII. He recognized the moral profligacy of the English clergy, but was not above it, himself. The public, also recognized its base condition. Heresy increased. In 1506, 45 men were charged and tried for heresy; most recanted, but two were burned to death. There were many such inquisitional trials throughout England for the next 15 years. The heresies giving rise to such barbarity included the rejection of transubstantiation for consubstantiation; rejection of the intermediary role of priests to consecrate or absolve; rejection of the salvific necessity for sacraments; rejection of pilgrimages and prayers for the dead; the notion that celibacy was contrary to human nature and that priests should marry (probably as a reaction to widespread concubinage of English clergy); and even, with Luther, the notion that the Christian is saved by faith, and not by works.
In 1521 Henry VIII issued his vituperous Assertion of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther, which many believed was authored by Wolsey. Luther took his time to reply, but then in kind, to the “King of the Lies, King Heinz, by God’s disgrace King of England.”
We have often heard of Henry VIII’s request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, of denial by the Church, and of his decision to part ways with the Catholic Church because of that denial.

Somewhat foreshadowing Princess Di, the English public remained sympathetic and devoted to Catherine. Among the lower classes, the divorce was an anathema; many clergy had difficulty accepting the replacement of the Pope with Henry VIII; the demise of Wolsey left the clergy without support or defense; and the northern provinces remained strongly Catholic and loyal to the pope. In England, proper, nationalism prevailed over ecclesiastical demands. There appeared a written demand that the King confiscate property of the hurch in England: “The Supplication of the Beggars.” There was further intrigue; Thomas Cromwell, who grew up in poverty but came to serve Wolsey, came to valiantly support King Henry. Henry was able to obtain from the parliament a declaration annulling the marriage of him with Catherine, thereby bastardizing their child, Mary.  Ultimately, Patliament declared the King to be sovereign over the Church in England (Anglican church). Chaotic! This was the political and cultural environment in which Thomas Thales and Robert Byrd lived and composed.

Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis is one of England’s great composers. He was a Roman Catholic in a time of religious turmoil in England precipitated by Henry VIII when he established the Anglican church. Queen Mary granted him and the younger William Byrd exclusive rights to publish monophonic and polyphonic music in England, the use of a manor and an annual income.

His style of writing moved from melismatic treatment of the texts to syllabic and chordal treatments, wedding music to text.  He wrote a number of anthems in the English vernacular.  In a time when musical composition was becoming more complex, he maintained a more simple style with the possible exception of his Spem In Alium , written for eight choirs and forty parts or voices.  Even then, despite the many voices, it remains thematically, rhythmically and harmonically simple.

God Grant with Grace (Psalm 67:1-2:

See for a brief biography and discography of Tallis.

See for a performance of Tallis’ anthem, If Ye Love Me Keep My Commandments performed by the Cambridge singers, directed by John Rutter; see, also for a choral performance and a brass quintet performance of the same work.  At the bottom of that page you will also find a video of a choral performance of his In ieiunio et fletu (from Cantiones Sacrae, 1575)

See for a performance of his motet, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.”

See for a performance of the motet, Spem In Alium.  See, also for a video of a remarkable mass performance of this work with choirs totaling 700 singers in Manchester, England and conducted by David Lawrence.

See for a collection of his sacred music, including Spem In Alium, and a note concerning the constantly shifting religious environment of England, in which he wrote. The comments of viewers of that particular blog are beautiful in their own right. Several affirm my own experience of the spiritual nature of aesthetic beauty.

See for recordings of his music available for purchase.

William Byrd

William Byrd (1540–1623) was an English composer contemporary with Thomas Tallis. He wrote sacred and secular polyphony and music for the keyboard, called a virginal. In 1575 he and Tallis were granted the exclusive right to print and publish music in England by Queen Elizabeth. The two composers jointly published 34 Latin motets, 17 each, dedicated to the Queen. He was a Catholic, remaining loyal to his Church when the Parliament established the Anglican church. When Pope Pius V issued a bull, absolving subjects of Queen Elizabeth from allegiance to her, Byrd became a subject of seditious suspicions.

He remained committed to his Catholic faith throughout his life, as was expressed in his approximately 50 motets. Many of his works have been associated with subjects of Jewish persecution and exile in Egypt and in Babylon, leading some experts to suggest that he intended those representations to analogize his lamentations to the plight of Catholics in England, particularly in his Tribue Domine of 1575, Tribulatio proxima est (1589) and Infelix ego (1591). Oen stylistic characteristic of his motets is its conservative preservation of the cantus firmus style, perhaps reflective of his Catholic allegiance.

For examples of his work, see the following:


Mass for Five Voices

Agnus Dei,

Mass for 4 voices

Agnus Dei,

Ave Verum Corpus,

Note the preparations for dissonance, the dissonance, and its resolution.

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