At the event: Musical time-travel

King Richard III passing through Market Bosworth en route to Leicester. Copyright Margaret Jones

King Richard III passing through Market Bosworth en route to Leicester.
Copyright Margaret Jones

On Sunday 22nd March I was in Market Bosworth, watching King Richard III’s cortege on its way to his reburial at Leicester Cathedral. It was a wonderful day memorable for many reasons – the skill and dedication of the volunteer army of helpers, the atmosphere,the colourful banners, the half-muffled peal of bells summoning the crowd like medieval pilgrims to the centre of the town, and the sometimes surreal historical costumes – everything from medieval merchants to refugees from nativity plays and Georgian milkmaids.

Music, as usual, was a problem. Why does no-one ever seem to get this quite right? Medieval was evidently considered too “odd” for modern ears, so we got Bach instead. A strange musical anachronism, with 200 years separating Bach’s birth from the Battle of Bosworth. So what, and who, would Richard, and his nemesis Henry Tudor, have been listening to in 1485?

There’s a fascinating little snippet in volume 7 of Andrew Ashbee’s informative and entertaining Records of English Court Music dating from 23rd July 1486 :

Where as oure welbeloved servantes Alexander Mason, marchalle of our mynstralles, Robert Grene, John Hawkyns, Thomas Mayho, William Grene, Thomas a Spence, Henry Swan, and William Davy, our mynstrelles have by oure commaundemnet wayted and attended upon us, that is to say, fro the xxij daie of August laste paste, hiderto withoute any fee or reward by us to thaym given…order to pay them 80 marks.

What’s interesting about this is that 22nd August 1485 was the date of the Battle of Bosworth, so these musicians were almost certainly Richard’s musicians, who, in line with civil servants everywhere, were taken over by the new regime.

It’s perhaps not altogether surprising that Henry Tudor took a year to pay them. Their loyalty may have been suspect, as some of them would have been close to the previous regime; and, notoriously, it was not uncommon for musicians to be paid well in arrears.

Alexander Mason had previously been minstrel and jester to Edward IV and Richard III. Jesters (gestours) were originally primarily story tellers and musicians rather than fools, their “job description” would change over the course of the next century. Mason rose through the ranks to the post of Marshal of the Minstrels. He seems to have been held in high regard by both Edward and Richard receiving a bonus that was equal to his pay. Despite playing at Richard’s coronation he remained in service to Henry VII until Easter 1495 when he was replaced by Henry Glasebury.

Robert Grene was a musician in the early years of Edward IV’s reign. Grene had started life as a squire of the King’s chamber, within a few years he was working as a minstrel. It’s possible that Robert was the patriarch of a line of Grene musicians with royal connections, as there seem to be several other Grenes (Greens) throughout the Tudor period who sang in the Chapel Royal. Both Grene and John Hawkyns were given a gift of 10 marks a year for life during the first year of Richard’s reign.

Thomas Mayho may have been Thomas Mayhue (Mayhew) who from 1476 was a sackbut player in the service of the King. Henry Swan played at Richard’s coronation, where he was listed among the trumpeters and tabret players. By the time he was playing for Henry VII it would appear that Swan was playing a softer wind instrument, but versatility across instruments was common in minstrel circles. Swan continued to play at court till 1509, while Thomas Spence was still working in the early 1520s. I can find nothing further on William Davy, although an earlier Davy was a bagpipe player at the court of Edward III – a distant relative perhaps?

At the sign of the white boar. Banners in Market Bosworth.Copyright Margaret Jones

At the sign of the white boar. Banners in Market Bosworth.
Copyright Margaret Jones

Richard III was clearly keen on music. He issued an order to gather together talented singing men and children from cathedrals, colleges, chapels, even monasteries, and place them in the choir at Windsor. He employed Austrian and Bavarian musicians to play at court for brief periods and had a company of players, which suggests that he was perhaps a rather merrier monarch than later history may have suggested.

He also had links with Cambridge. Queens’ College was partially endowed by Richard, who gave generously to the college (hence why Queens’ still has a boar as its badge). The building of King’s College chapel, which had been neglected by Edward IV, was recommenced by Richard. His generosity resulted in the University stipulating on 16th March 1483 that an annual Mass should be said for him, and that this was to be continued after his death.

Richard visited Cambridge annually throughout his reign. In 1484, four sets of minstrels accompanied the royal party, 7 shillings was paid to Richard’s musicians, the musicians allocated to his son, Edward, the Prince of Wales also received 7 shillings, while the Queen’s musicians received 6s 8d. Sadly for the family the young Prince of Wales died shortly after his visit to Cambridge.

Intriguingly there is also a payment for the minstrels of the Duke of York, who presumably is the younger boy of the “Princes in the Tower”. However by 1484 there are suggestions that he was already dead. So, was Richard pretending that life was going on as usual, or was young Richard of Shrewsbury still alive at this point?

When Henry VII visited Cambridge in March 1486 a note is made of “rewards given to the minstrels of the Lord Richard the third, late in fact, and not in right, King of England…” These are probably our same group of musicians not formerly employed yet by Henry VII, but still fulfilling their role as instrumentalists. They received 6s 8d for their work, and must have been thankful for the extra 2 shillings spent on wine.

I’ve interspersed this post with music that is roughly contemporary with Richard. As he was a religious man, John Browne’s (1453-fl. 1490) O Maria Salvatoris Mater had to come first. The work was considered so special in Browne’s lifetime that it was given pride of place, the opening item in the Eton choirbook. Conrad Paumann’s Mit Ganczem Willen was first published for organ in 1452, and became popular across Europe, while Ockeghem’s Ma bouche rit first appears in a chansonnier in 1475, so would have been strikingly new to Richard. Ockeghem’s collected works can be found at M200.a.71.

For more information on the world of the court minstrel see Richard Rastell’s The minstrels and trumpeters of Edward IV : some further thoughts in Plainsong and medieval music. October 2004; The early Tudor court and international musical relations by Theodor Dumitrescu, and The history of English dramatic poetry by J. Payne Collier. Lots of helpful information is also available on the Waits website resources page, and in the first volume of Annals of Cambridge by Charles Henry Cooper.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to At the event: Musical time-travel

  1. A lot of great music here!
    all best,


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