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Music for The Great and Close Siege of York

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What is it about musicians who, usually a financially-savvy bunch who will happily lay down their instruments if they're not paid, but, when the chips are down, will pick them up again to help out? Following his rift with Parliament in March 1642, Charles I moved his court to York for a few months (staying at King's Manor - where his coat-of-arms is still displayed at the entrance, see above) and summoned his musicians to join him, but some were not prepared to make the journey as their pay was two years in arrears. In April 1642, perhaps with help from the residentary Minster Choir, the Investiture of the Duke of York and Prince Rupert (brother and cousin to the king) as Knights of the Order of the Garter went ahead in the Chapter House 'with the utmost magnificence'.

And then, just 2 years later, York found itself centre-stage again, as it endured a 12-week siege that culminated in defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor and eventual surrender of the city. Yet despite the circumstances, there is a remarkable description of high quality of music-making in the cathedral, whle the church itself was under fire!

Now here you must take notice, that they had then a Custom in that Church, (which I hear not of in any other Cathedral, which was) that always before the Sermon, the whole Congregation sang a Psalm, together with the Quire and the Organ; And you must also know, that there was then a most Excellent-large-plump-lusty-full-speaking-Organ, which cost (as I am credibly informed) a thousand pounds. This Organ, I say, (when the Psalm was set before the Sermon) being let out, into all its Fulness of Stops, together with the Quire, began the Psalm. But when That Vast-Conchording-Unity of the whole Congregational-Chorus, came (as I may say) Thundering in, even so, as it made the very Ground shake under us....

This flowery narrative was written by Thomas Mace, brother of Henry, one of the Minster lay vicars. He goes on to mention how the Parliamentarian and Scottish forces 'constantly in Prayers time they would not fail to make their Hellish disturbance, by shooting against and battering the Church, in so much that sometimes a Canon Bullet has come in at the windows, and bounc’d about from Pillar to Pillar, (even like some Furious Fiend, or evil Spirit).' Fanciful words, certainly, but we do know that on the morning of Trinity Sunday, the besiegers on the Bootham side of the city had mined Marygate Tower, and a major skirmish occured on the bolwing green alongside King's Manor.

It is possible that Mace's commentary is simply an elaborate description of the custom of 'lining out', of a singer reciting a phrase before the congregation took it up, and Henry Mace had this role at the Minster.

The focus of our recording is a collection of psalms by William Lawes which are unique, as they feature verses written in the style of the Court verse anthem but alternating with verses to metrical 'Common tunes', using text and music familiar to congregations but by the 1630s associated with the Puritian fringes of the Church of England. It is difficult to imagine a context for the singing of these psalms, except for the city under siege. The metrical psalms would have not been tolerated by Charles' High Church groupies in London or Oxford, although one of the psalms also appears in another manuscript, possibly connected with the Chapel Royal, with common tunes omitted - musically acceptable but half the psalm text absent. York Minster, on the otherhand, had a tradition of singing congregational psalms as well as performing the more mainstream cathedral repertoire of Gibbons and Tomkins.

More on Lawes to follow!

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