More Books from the Library of William Byrd

By McCarthy, Kerry; Harley, John | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

More Books from the Library of William Byrd


McCarthy, Kerry, Harley, John, Musical Times


In The Musical Times for Winter 2009 we reported our discovery of ten books which once belonged to the composer William Byrd (1539 or 1 540- 1623).1 He wrote his name on the title-page of each book; one was also signed by his son Christopher. This article describes the discovery of two more 'Byrd' books, and provides new information about the first group we found - most notably the presence of many of them in the collection of a 17th-century Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, who also owned most of Byrd's printed books of music.

Newly discovered books

The first of the newly discovered books turned up even before our previous article was published. It is Byrd's copy of Richard Crompton's L'authoritie et iurisdiction des courts de la maiestie de la Roygne (1594). Byrd signed the title-page as usual, on either side of a central ornamental panel: 'Wm' is to the left, and 'Byrde' is to the right. Before the printed date of publication he wrote '14 Junij'. In the top right-hand corner of the titlepage a contemporary hand (perhaps that of a bookseller) wrote what was evidently the price: 'iiijs' (four shillings). The book was found in the library of St John's College, Cambridge, where it was disguised in the catalogue by the misreading of 'Byrde' as 'Byrsey' - an error (now corrected) due to the terminal flourish of Byrd's signature. Its presence there was, however, noted in The Musical Times more than a century ago, in an article by the editor, Frederick George Edwards, writing under the pen name 'Dotted Crotchet'.2 An inscription in the book shows that it was presented to St John's in the early 18th century by Robert Grove (d.1726), a Fellow of the college and the University's Principal Academic Registrar.

L'authoritie et iurisdiction is a handbook of English law, a digest of important cases and precedents compiled by a leading figure of Elizabethan jurisprudence. It is not too surprising to see Byrd reading a legal handbook, and decidedly less so than seeing a devout Catholic reading anti-papist screeds, or a settled landowner who never left England reading a guide for travellers. Both of these were likely occurrences from what we know of the rest of his library, though the second may be explained by his brothers' activities as members of the merchant community. He was constantly mired in lawsuits and other legal intrigues from middle age onward. He also seems to have been in the habit of drafting his own legal statements. Among the writings we have in Byrd's own hand are several such documents, and we hear from a third party that one of his lawsuits in 1 591 had to be thrown out and restarted because two crucial words were omitted - which may well point to some sort of amateur legal activity.

Whatever Byrd was doing with this legal textbook, the mere fact that he owned it reveals him as someone who was naturally curious, and probably ambitious, well beyond the requirements of his job as a professional musician. Like the travel book he owned and signed - Certaine briefe, and speciali instructions (1589) - it shows that his non-musical interests were wider than mere polemic or controversy. It also offers an unusual glimpse into his education and intellectual background. Most of L'authoritie is written in the specialised language of Law French, and Byrd's ownership of the book implies that he must have had at least some acquaintance with, if not complete fluency in, that sort of legal parlance. (One of Byrd's own songs, the humorous My mistress had a little dog, features a mock trial called to order with the familiar Law French tag 'Oyez, oyez'.)

It is worth asking whether Byrd might have been intended at some point for a legal career, but rejected it in favour of music. His son Thomas spent a year in his late teens studying law, as we know from the records of the English College at Valladolid in Spain. When Thomas entered the College at the age of 20, apparently with plans for ordination to the priesthood, it was reported that he had studied 'humanioribus Uteris, et legibus municipalibus Angliae ' (the humanities and the municipal laws of England). …

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