top of page

The English Viol Consort in the Tudor Era


Over the centuries English music has rarely trodden the path of innovation. It is true that at the start of the fifteenth century Dunstaple and the so-called “English countenance” briefly pointed Europe in a new direction, inspiring the great theorist Johannes Tinctoris to proclaim the appearance of a “new art […] whose fount and origin is held to be among the English”, yet such leadership proved short-lived and rarely encountered subsequently. Notwithstanding the innately conservative and sometimes insular nature of English music, there is however a genre which, while exerting only moderate influence in a wider European context, in a quiet, understated way may be said to have defined English instrumental music over a surprisingly long period of time. Extending from shortly before the middle of the sixteenth century until nearly the end of the seventeenth, it would become known by the name we still use today - consort music.

If you look up the word “consort” in a dictionary, you will find it has various meanings, although the etymology within a musical context is fairly clear, the name being a corruption of the Italian “concerto” or French “concert”, which in their original definition simply meant a combination of sounds. Yet I find a pleasing correspondence in another definition that tells us that the word derives from the Latin “consors”, which means a shared partnership or destiny, since as any player will be quick to tell you few forms of chamber music provide a greater sense of equality or democracy than the English viol consort. Here there is no “1st violinist” as there is in a string quartet, with all the implications of leadership the term carries, simply an ensemble most commonly to be found playing the contrapuntal lines of polyphonic music that admits to no hierarchy.


The Emergence of the Viol and its Arrival in England

While bowed string instruments played resting on the knee or between the leg – da gamba – have been known for some nine centuries, the instrument we know today as the viola da gamba is of considerably later provenance, having apparently emerged in Aragon during the third quarter of the fifteenth century. The exact circumstances behind its arrival on the scene remain unclear; one theory being that it may have evolved from the Aragonese rebec, which is played in the same way, while another suggests it stemmed from attempts to bow the plucked vihuela (see Jonathan Dunford, “Viola da Gamba” in Goldberg 16). Whatever the truth the spread of the viol across the Mediterranean region was rapid, its arrival being particularly significant in Italy.

Quite when and how the viol reached England is another in a succession of unresolved questions concerning the instrument and its repertoire, but court accounts for entertainment expenses in 1510-11 mention three “mynstrelles with the vyalles”, who doubtless played in a mixed consort grouping with other instruments. Notwithstanding the viol’s probable presence at the English court during the first decade of the sixteenth century (it is not, however, among the instruments listed as being employed at the funeral of Henry VII in 1509), it was not until the 1520s that court documents begin to show evidence of a regular and permanent viol consort. The first minstrel to be named explicitly as a viol player is Matthew van Wilder, also a lutenist and a member of a family who appear in the annals of the English court for much of the century. In 1526 von Wilder was joined by two Flemish professionals, Hans Hossenet and Hans Highorne. Records group the three together, they therefore almost certainly coming to form the first 3-part consort of viols employing the principal instruments of the family, treble, tenor and bass, instruments that themselves are documented as having been of Flemish origin. There it seems the situation remained unchanged until 1540, the year in which Henry VIII hired a new group of six viol players from Italy. Known as the “newe vialles”, or the “Venetian Brethren”, their names  - Zorgi de Cremona, Vincenzo de Venetia, Ambrosio de Milano and so forth – provide us with an indication of their origins, although it was established by Roger Prior that rather than being Italian, all were Jews from northern Italian Sephardic communities. Ambrosio was the senior member of the Lupo family that played an important part in string playing, both on the viol and the violin, at the court of Henry VIII and beyond. Thus far we can therefore see that until the end of Henry’s reign the “English” viol consort at court was entirely the province of not just imported foreign musicians, but mostly Jewish ones, thus flying in the face of the edict that had banned Jews in England since 1290. Not until 1549, two years after Henry’s death, do we find an English gambist first being employed at court, at which point one Thomas Kentt was “admitted to the Vialles in place of greate Hans deceased”, obviously either Hossenet or Highorne”.

It is interesting to speculate that the route taken by Kentt to a professional court appointment may have been through the London choir schools of the Chapel Royal, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, all of which had introduced the viol into their curriculum during the reign of Henry VIII. Other provincial cathedral choir schools doubtless followed in the wake of those in London, surviving records of payments for “chordis” (i.e. strings) and repairs showing that a set of viols was certainly owned by Lincoln Cathedral  - where William Byrd served between 1563 and 1572 - before the end of the century. The purpose of teaching the viol in choir schools appears to have been both didactic and practical. It was didactic in the sense that the objective was to help choristers to read music and become accustomed to working together in an ensemble. This takes on particular significance when we recall that the viol repertoire of the first half of the century was made up almost entirely of transcriptions of vocal music, both sacred and secular, the chanson being an especially popular source. There was no viol consort repertoire as such and the short “consort” pieces included in Henry VIII’s songbook, the earliest English source, were almost certainly not composed with any particular instrument or instruments in mind. The purpose was practical in that it enabled boys to play instrumental music for the plays in which they performed and to provide entertainment at functions. At a pageant mounted at St. Paul’s in 1553 on the accession of Mary, the boys of St. Paul’s, perhaps including the young William Byrd, both sang and played viols, while at the Goldsmith’s Annual Feast on 17 June 1560 the diners were amused “all the dinner time [by] the singing children of Paul’s [who] played on their viols and sang very pleasant songs to the delectation and rejoicing of the whole company” (text modernised).  There can be little doubt that the introduction of the viol to the choir schools represents the single most important factor in the growth of popularity achieved by the viol consort in England during the second half of the sixteenth century.

From Court to Country House

By the time Henry VIII died in 1547, the large inventory of instruments made following his death listed no fewer than nineteen viols, both “greate and small”. Neither did Henry’s successors draw back from adding further to the number of court players. The short reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) witnessed a considerable expansion of the court musical retinue, including six viol players, while eleven new Italian gambists are named in a warrant for new liveries drawn up in 1555 during the reign of Mary. As is well known, Elizabeth I continued her family’s musical tradition, while both the sons of the unmusical James I, the ill-fated Prince Henry and Prince Charles (later Charles I) were taught the viol as part of their education and maintained musical retinue’s. We can therefore note two distinctive and potentially conflicting strands: the continuation of a substantial presence of professional players at court and recognition of the viol’s status as an instrument of sufficient dignity to be played not just by the nobility, but even by royalty, thus placing it on a higher social level than the increasingly popular violin, which throughout the sixteenth century was generally regarded as an instrument suited only to dance or entertainment music played by professionals. The viol’s elevated courtly status, particularly in consort music, was recognised in one of the most influential publications of the century, Baldassare Castiglione’s handbook of courtly manners Il libro del cortegiano (Venice, 1528), which notes that: “The music with a set of viols doth no less delight a man: for it is very sweet and artificial” (text modernised from the first English translation of 1561). What is however often overlooked is Castiglione’s caveat that makes it clear the playing of such music should be undertaken only in private, not for public display, a dictum that may provide some explanation for the popularity of viol consort music among aristocratic amateurs. Reservations, sometimes voiced in dichotomous manner alongside the merits of the place of music in noble life, are also expressed in English writings throughout the century, as in the case of the writer who considered that there were those who while “moderate enough by nature, be many times marred by over much study and use of some sciences: Music, Arithmetic, and Geometry”. Such apparent paradoxes go far toward explaining the confusing picture of the viol consort’s place in aristocratic society, in the great country houses of England.

The establishment of viol instruction in the cathedral choir schools must inevitably have resulted in at least a proportion of those who were taught continuing instrumental practice, some themselves perhaps becoming musicians and tutors in the aristocratic houses in which the viol consort in particular came to play an increasingly prominent role. The degree to which it did so and the extent to which it became the province of amateur players remain controversial subjects, the truth further clouded by conflicting contemporary accounts of the general standard of music making and education in England during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Notwithstanding such obfuscation, there remains a fair body of evidence to suggest that from at least the late 1530s the ownership of a set of viols become increasingly common in aristocratic or affluent households. In 1537, for example, the accounts of the Earls of Rutland at Belvoir not only show that 53s. 4d. was paid for ‘four viols bought at London’, but also include in subsequent years frequent bills for repairs, suggesting that the instruments were often used. In the December of the following year there is documentation of “a sett of violes” being brought to Beauchamp House, the London residence of Edward Seymour, the future Protector to the boy king Edward VI, while a couple of months later two more viols were added to the collection during an intense bout of musical shopping that also witnessed the purchase of a new pair of virginals and “howboys”.

The Cavendishes (Earls of Devonshire from 1555) were another great landowning family for whom we have records that show they took a considerable interest in music making. These records are unusually well preserved for the years 1597-1606, and are particularly valuable for the light they throw on the musical and literary education of a young Elizabethan aristocrat. This was William Cavendish, son of the first Earl, who was born in 1590. We learn that not only was William taught to sing, along with his sister Fraunces, but that in September 1598 a “trebl viale” was bought for him by a “Mr Starkey”, whose name appears frequently on the wages list for Hardwick Hall in Nottinghamshire (one of the Cavendish residences) and who was himself the recipient of a viol as a New Year’s gift in 1599. Young William must have made good progress on his treble viol, probably under Starkey, as the month after it was given to him he was rewarded with one pound by his father for ‘the first lesson he learned to play on the vialle”. Later it appears that William, who had also learned the lute, played in consort music at Chatsworth, the great family house built during the 1550s. This may have been either a viol consort or a so-called “broken” (or mixed instrument) consort. Accounts records show that during this period viol strings were constantly purchased, a chest of viols (a set of six, two each of treble, tenor and bass housed in a chest with partitions) was bought in August 1603 and the Earl himself bought a viol for 5s a year later. By 1606 William had obviously made sufficient progress to be capable of teaching his sister, the account books showing that he was paid twenty shillings for giving her lessons and that Fraunces was rewarded by her father for “learning five lessons of the viol”.  There is evidence among Cavendish records and other sources that members of the household were also taught instruments (and singing) thus providing an intriguing instance of mixed performance by master and servant, a topic that as yet does not appear to have been fully investigated.  If the example of the Cavendishes cannot exactly be taken as typical – they were a notably cultured family – it does nonetheless provide a strikingly personal picture of the precepts of Castiglione in practice. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that one of the books introduced to Chatsworth was Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Il Cortegiano. William Cavendish must have become very familiar with it – he was set to translate it into Latin.

One of the more intriguing little personal details to emerge from Chatsworth is that it was not only William who was taught the viol, but also, as we have just seen, his sister Fraunces. Further evidence that it was not only young male aristocrats who learnt the viol, but also girls comes from the remarkable diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, the sole surviving child of the 3rd Earl of Cumberland. Born in 1590, Anne spent most of her youth at Knole House in Kent, but in 1603 while on an extended stay at the house of her aunt Lady Warwick she tells us “she learned to sing and play on the Bass Viol of Jack Jenkins my Aunt’s Boy”. “Jack Jenkins” was almost certainly the great consort composer, lutenist and gambist John Jenkins, who was born in 1592 and appears to have been apprenticed to Lady Warwick. Unfortunately Anne’s diary is missing for the following dozen or so years, so there is no way of knowing what further progress (if any) she made on the viol.

The placing of musically talented boys in apprenticeships in large country houses was not uncommon. There they would have the opportunity to learn their “trade” under the resident musician, who was frequently a notable and esteemed figure who would bring prestige to the household. We don’t know the identity of Jenkins’ master, but his connections with country house patrons continued throughout his life, continuing even after he was given a largely honorary court post at the Restoration in 1660. The most complete record of musical activity in an aristocratic milieu comes from an inventory of both instruments and printed music books made in 1603-4 at Hengrave Hall, near Bury St. Edmund’s in Suffolk, the home of the Kytson family. The Kytson’s remarkable musical interests appear to date from the early 1570s, by which time the lutenist and composer Edward Johnson was on the wages list. By 1574 one “Robert the musician” was also on the pay role, being responsible for the “base vyalles”, to which subsequent references are sufficiently frequent in the Hengrave records to suggest a significant role for consort playing. In 1593 Hengrave would also become the home of one of England’s finest madrigal composers, John Wilbye, who stands as a paradigm of the professional resident composer, surviving the death of Sir Thomas Kytson in 1602 to remain in the service of Lady Kytson until her death in 1626. The inventory that followed in the wake of Sir Thomas’ death allows us a glimpse of the sheer scale of music making that must have been seen at Hengrave. Space precludes a detailed listing, but for our present purposes we must note the inclusion of the expected chest of six viols, to which can be added a chest of six violins, seven recorders, four cornets, four lutes of varying sizes, a cittern, a bandora, a pair of virginals and sundry other wind instruments, a total of near forty instruments. An extensive list of music books includes vocal and solo instrumental music, along with instrumental music in parts, this last including only dances, which as we’ve already seen were more likely to be played by violins or a “broken” consort than a viol consort.

Such activity as recorded above suggests that the oft-expressed assertion that the viol made few inroads beyond the court during the sixteenth century cannot be substantiated with any degree of confidence, especially when it is recalled that few detailed records of life in aristocratic house survive.

The Repertoire and its Composers


Just what was the repertoire of viol consorts at court and in country houses such as Hengrave during the Tudor period, then? And for whom was it written: the professional players of the court or the kind of dilettante we’ve encountered above?  Since the answer to the second question is easier and shorter, we’ll answer that first. Succinctly put, it remains a subject of controversy, with scholars and performers (see the forthcoming interview with Fretwork) unable to agree on the extent to which amateurs took up consort music.

One thing we can say with certainty is that the repertoire is more extensive than we might imagine from the designated music for viol consort that survives, given that much of what we today consider as the great consort repertoire had still to be written – the works of such as Gibbons, as Jenkins, William Lawes, Locke and of course Purcell all lay in the future. In fact the foundation of the viol consort repertoire existed not in works composed especially for it, but in the rich tradition of contrapuntal vocal music that lay waiting for transposition by consorts. This debt to vocal music would play an enduring role long after composers moved beyond simple transposition to parody or reworked versions of vocal compositions and examples of it can be found in such works as Tallis’ 3-part Salvator mundi or some of the many transcriptions of Italian madrigals and motets made by Bologna-born Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (1543-1588), who arrived and England in 1562 and served at the court of Elizabeth I for nearly twenty years.

It is a short step from pieces wholly based on existing vocal models to emulating vocal models that took a cantus firmus melody, generally plainsong, around which other contrapuntal parts could be freely entwined. Several of William Byrd’s earliest consort works – probably dating from the mid-1560s and almost certainly intended for viols – fall into this category, including the two settings of Sermone blando (one in 3 parts, the other in 4) and several of the hymn Christe qui lux es, tiny pieces in which the young composer is obviously experimenting with the setting of a cantus firmus using a different number of voices. The most remarkable of all the cantus firmus type of consort piece was the In Nomine, so-called because it took as its foundation the “Gloria tibi Trinitas” plainchant from the “in nomine Domine” section of the Benedictus from John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which probably dates from between 1520 and 1530. Who wrote the first In Nomine is not known, but certainly one of its first and prime developers was Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1572). No fewer than 21 of Tye’s 31 extant consort works are In Nomines, mostly in five parts, their sometimes-curious titles (“Follow me”, “Howld fast” etc.) reminding us that from the start of the genre’s extraordinarily long history it soon became divorced from its religious context and open to treatment that reveals a much greater variety of mood than might be expected from an ostensibly restricted formula. The hugely significant role played by the In Nomine form, which remained uniquely English, can be judged by its place in the work-list of virtually every significant composer of consort music up until its final great flowering in the hands of Purcell.

Related to the cantus firmus kind of composition, but potentially offering a greater degree of flexibility are variations, a form perhaps more common in keyboard music than consort music, but nevertheless employed by William Byrd in one of his best known consort works, the exuberant Browning, a popular tune also known as “The leaves be green”. But the freest, the most widely adopted and most highly esteemed of all consort forms was the fantasia or fantasy, which was described by Thomas Morley in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) as “the chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie”. Morley goes on to emphasize the diversity and freedom of the form (his text is here modernised): “the musician taking a point [subject] at his pleasure, wresting and turning it as he will, making either as much or as little of it as seems to him best. In this more art may be shown than in any other music, because the composer is tied to nothing but that to which he may add, diminish or alter at his pleasure”. This sense of freedom and the division of a fantasy into several contrasted parts owes no small debt to the flexibility and sectional nature of the Italian madrigal, one that is evident in the finest examples such as Byrd’s magnificent six-part Fantasias, where the form becomes a tour de force of technique and variety of mood and effect. Slightly later, composers such as Thomas Lupo (1571-1627) and Alfonso Ferrabosco II (1575-1628), both scions of émigré musicians, further widened the gap between the essential vocal idiom that pervaded much Tudor consort music and the increasingly idiomatic writing for viols that, as Thomas Tomkins noted in the case of the fantasias of the latter, “were made only for vyolles and organ which is the Reason he takes such liberty of compass which would have been Restrayned; had it been made for voices only”.

As has been noted, virtually all Tudor viol consort music has some kind of connection with vocal music. It is hardly surprising therefore to find therefore that the two merge in both the sacred consort anthem and consort song, the former notably in the hands of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), while the undoubted master of the consort song was William Byrd, whose total of some forty examples includes both sacred and secular pieces.

It remains to note one further genre, that of dance music, which may be roughly divided into two: music that played a practical part in the dance, or stylised dance music that employed dance forms but was not intended for dancing. The former need not concern us here, since as was noted above it was customarily played on the brighter, more flexible violins or by a mixed consort of strings and wind. The latter however forms an important component of the viol consort repertoire, being dominated almost exclusively during this period by the slow, often stately pavane (pavan in its anglicised version) and its quick corollary, the galliard. Both are distinguished from other forms of consort music by being significantly less contrapuntal, although the pavan frequently attained considerable seriousness of purpose, with its tripartite structure sometimes attaining a quasi-fantasia character.

The era under consideration culminates in one of the most glorious periods of English cultural history, a golden age in which secular music, poetry, the theatre and design came together in a dynamic outburst of artistic achievement. Music for viol consort forms an integral and particularly cultivated part of this artistic phenomenon. Unlike other aspects it would live on throughout nearly another century, a turbulent century during which consort music would witness the incursion of its headstrong young relative, the violin, and much change in form and substance, but equally a magnificent apotheosis of its pure form in the music of Purcell. But that is a story for another time.


Short Bibliography

John Caldwell: The Oxford History of English Music – Volume 1: From the Beginnings to c.1715, Oxford, 1991.

D. J. H. Clifford, ed.: The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford.

John Harley: William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, Aldershot, 1997.

Peter Holman: Four and Twenty Fiddlers: The Violin at the English Court, 1540-1690, Oxford, 1993.

David C. Price: Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance, Cambridge, 1981.

Henry Raynor: A Social History of Music: From the Middle Ages to Beethoven, London, 1972.

Ian Woodfield & Lucy Robinson: “Viol” in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 10 October 2008




























If you have enjoyed this article please consider making a donation to help with the upkeep of this site, which is fundamentally an educational resource carrying only a small amount of advertising. If you would prefer to donate in $ or euros please go to the home page.

bottom of page