John Bull, the possessor of the most British-sounding name of all our composers (though he was not the prototype of the legendary figure), was born about 1562. Authorities differ as to the precise date and one goes so far as to state categorically '1563 in Somerset.' Apparently a family named Bull settled near Wellow in the 16th century but there is no direct evidence that the composer did, in fact, belong to it. In the early 1570s he was choirboy at hereford Cathedral. He is listed as having entered Queen Elizabeth's Chapel Royal in 1572 as a choirboy, where he later studied under William Blitheman who, before he came to London, had been Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford and was himself an important composer. At the end of 1582 or the beginning of 1583 Bull was appointed Master of the Children and, with John Hedges, organist at Hereford, succeeding the organist Thomas Mason. Three years or so later he was sworn in a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a purely honorary appointment, so it is probable that he continued to spend the greater part of his time in Hereford, where in 1586 a second organist, Thomas Warrock (or Warwick) was appointed. On July 9, 1586, Bull was admitted Bachelor of Music at Oxford and on July 7, 1592, he graduated Doctor of Music having proceeded to the degree at Cambridge in 1589; it may have been to commemorate this event that the well-known portrait of Bull was painted which now hangs in the Library of the Faculty of Music at Oxford. In 1592 he was appointed Organist of the Chapel Royal succeeding William Blitheman. Like most composers Bull seems not to have been very well off and a document preserved at Hatfield shows that in April 1591 he petitioned Queen Elizabeth for a lease in reversion of the yearly value of £30 in order to relieve him of the poverty which was handicapping him in his studies. As a result he was granted a lease to the annual value of 20 marks. Further compensation came from the Queen in 1596 when Bull was appointed Gresham Professor of Music. Sir Thomas Gresham, who died in 1579, and was founder of London's Royal Exchange, had bequeathed his house to the Corporation of the City of London and the Mercers' Company for the founding of a college. It is said, incidentally, that the Bourse of 1531 in Antwerp, the city in which Bull was later to achieve fame, provided Gresham with a model for London's original Royal Exchange. Gresham College was to have seven resident professors and give free instruction in astronomy, geometry, music, law, medicine and rhetoric and John Bull was the first Professor of Music. Apparently his twice-weekly lectures should have been delivered in Latin (according to Gresham's original intention) but since his knowledge of Latin was inadequate he was allowed, by special dispensation of the Queen, to speak in English and he delivered his first lecture on October 6, 1597.
In 1601 Bull went abroad, possibly for health reasons, and travelled in France and Germany visiting among other places St. Omer, Paris and Wolfenbüttel. The whole journey took some eighteen months and while he was away his deputy at Gresham College was Thomas Byrd, son of the celebrated William. On his return to England Bull continued in the service of James I, was made a Freeman of the Merchant Taylor's Company, married Elizabeth Walter, a Londoner (1607) and gave lessons to Prince Henry for which he received an additional salary. He was appointed Doctor of Musicke to the King's Chapel 1612. In 1613 seven of Bull's keyboard pieces appeared in Parthenia,the first book of virginal music to be published in England and also, that year, an anthem of his was performed at the wedding of Prince Frederick and Princess Elizabeth. Still later in the year, for some kind of misdemeanour of which no definite details exist, Bull fled to Brussels and entered the service of Archduke Albert, Governor of Spanish Netherlands as an organist where his colleagues included Peter Phillips and Pieter Cornet.
He was succeeded in London at the Chapel Royal by Peter Hopkins. In a letter dated May 13, 1614 from William Trumbull, the English Ambassador in Brussels, to James I he wrote: '.. . the said Bull did not leave your Majesties service for any wrong done unto him, or for matter of religion ... but did in a dishonest manner steal out of England, through the guilt of a corrupt conscience, to escape the punishment which notoriously he had deserved ... for his incontinence, fornication, adultery and other grievous crimes.' From then on one of England's greatest composers settled on the continent never to return to his own country. Bull left the service of the Archduke in Brussels at the end of August 1614 and a month or two later petitioned the Burgomaster of Antwerp to be allowed to become an 'organist-pensioner.' This was presumably not granted, for the Antwerp City Treasurer's accounts show that in 1616 he was in such a state of poverty that he was granted a gift of money. However, the following year on the death of Raymondus Waelrunt, for whom he had already acted as deputy, Bull was appointed organist of the Cathedral for a probationary period of three months and the appointment was confirmed at the end of December. His salary was to be 80 florins a year with an 'extraordinary supplement' of 20 florins. Bull seems to have settled well, into his Flemish surroundings, to have been accepted as an authority on organs and to have worked in close contact with many guilds in which Antwerp abounded. In 1620 he leased a house by the south door of the Cathedral next to a house called 'La Rose' and then moved to another house in the Papenhof.
He was obviously well acquainted with the other celebrated musicians of his day because in 1621 he composed a jewel for the French composer and harpsichordist, Jacques Champion (whom he had met on his first continental journey in 1601) and also a fantasy in memory of the great Dutch organist and composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Bull died in Antwerp in March, 1628 and on the 15th of the month was buried in the cemetary south of the Cathedral.
Bull was the supreme virtuoso among the English virginalists and he had a profound effect not only on the composers of this country but on the development of music on the continent of Europe. Sweelinck, for example, owed a considerable debt to John Bull and it must not be forgotten that it was Sweelinck's pupils who laid the foundations of what was to culminate in the unrivalled keyboard writing of J. S. Bach.