Secular Part-Songs, including those of Cornysh and Henry VIII

The Masters of the Children

There is mention of the Chapel Royal as early as 1135 in the Red Book of the Exchequer, though the first reference to choristers comes during the reign of Henry V. The chapel post of Master of the Children was created by Henry VI and, in 1444, John Plummer--presumably the Polumier by whom there are some motets in a Modena MS--became the first Master appointed by royal patent. A commission was given him "to take throughout England such and so many boys as he or his deputies shall see to be fit and able to serve God and the King in the said Chapel Royal." (John Pyamour, represented by a motet in the same Modena MS, who in 1420 had been commissioned to impress boys for the Chapel Royal, had, for all practical purposes, been a Master of the Children more than twenty years earlier.) Plummer was succeeded, 1455 to 1478, by Henry Abyngdon (born c. 1418; died 1497), who was the earliest to receive the Mus. Bac. from Cambridge (1463).1 There followed in succession Gilbert Banastre, 1478-1486; Laurence Squire, 1486-1493; William Newark, 1493-1509, who, during the last three years of his tenure, had the additional duty of superintending and devising musical entertainments for Christmas festivities at court; and William Cornysh, 1509-1523, composer, poet, and writer of such "disguisings" as The Garden of Esperance, presented in 1517 and described in Hall's Chronicle. With the court's growing taste for plays and pageants, the window toward the continent again opened, as may be seen in the secular songs (including secular carols) of the period from c. 1480 to 1520 that have been preserved in five sources. These include the Fairfax Book of c. 1503, in which there are several works by Robert Fayrfax, but which derives its name from one of its former owners, whose family seems to have had no connection with that of the composer, the Ritson MS, and a printed collection (theXX Songes) dating from 1530 (In this boke ar coteynyd xx songes, ix of iiii pies and xi of thre ptes), one of the earliest examples of music printing in England, which was formerly considered to be a product of the press of Wynken de Worde. During the period from Abyngdon to Newark, the style of the English part-song, or chanson--for such, despite linguistic confusion, it surely is--seems much like that of Ockeghem. This may be seen, for example, in the long melismatic cadences of Sheryngham's My woful hart in paynful weryness and Edmond Turges' lovely Alas! it is I that wote nott what to say, and in the absence of imitation from the latter piece. Stylistically this music belongs to the Early Renaissance.

In the following period, in which Henry VIII himself figured as an active composer, the influence, on the one hand, of popular music (including the carol and the ballad) and that, on the other hand, of Italian and French music, produced a different style. Pieces of popular music, or at least of music in the popular vein, undoubtedly included the "freemen's songs." The origin of their name has never been satisfactorily explained: it may go back to an Anglo-Saxon word, "fréoman," or it may be a corruption of "three men" (see below). In The Lyffe of Sir Peter Carewe, such songs are mentioned in connection with Henry VIII.

For the Kynge hime self beinge miche delited to synge, and Sir Peter Carewe havinge a pleasaunte voyce, the Kynge woulde very often use hyme to synge with hime certeyne songes they called fremen songs, as namely, "By the bancke as I lay", and "As I walked the wode so wylde," &c.

The fact that two singers are here specified would seem inconsistent with a derivation from "three men" unless a third part was played on an instrument. Michael Drayton, in his "Legend of Thomas Cromwell" (printed in 1609) mentions the introduction of "Freemen's Catches" into Italy on the occasion of a presentation before the pope; but John Foxe, in describing the same event in his "Actes and Monuments" (first printed in 1554) refers to the singing of "a three-man's song (as we call it) in the English tongue, and all after the English fashion." In 1609, Ravenscroft printed in Deuteromelia pieces entitled K.H. [King Henry's] Mirth, or Freeman's Songs and, in spite of the print's late date, this material may be authentic and may, in part, even date from as far back as the reign of Henry VII. Hey, Robyn, Joly Robyn, illustrates the merging of popular elements with artistic ones not only in its music, by Cornysh, but also in its text, by Sir Thomas Wyatt. So far as the words are concerned, the refrain seems to be taken from a popular song, but the stanzas proper, which present a dialogue, appear to be Wyatt's own. In the composition, a round à 2, sung by the lower voices to refrain text, forms a pes over which two different stanza-melodies are sung alternately between renditions of a refrain melody. Part of the song is quoted in "Twelfth Night." In Act IV, scene 2, the clown sings "Hey Robin, jolly Robin, Tell me how thy lady does." (These words vary in some respects from those that appear with Cornysh's music, but agree with those in a literary source.) Probably the melody that Shakespeare wished the clown to sing is one of those that set the words in Cornysh's piece.

Return to: IVM: England through 1635  |   King Henry VIII


1. Henry Abyngdon became known as a singer and organist; he was, upon his death, styled "optimus orgaquenista" by Sir Thomas More. We have no music by him. Return to Text