Robert Parsons is first found in a Teller’s Roll for 1560/1 which refers to him co-ordinating payments to Richard Bower, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. The Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal records Parsons’ appointment as a Gentleman on 17 October 1563:
Merton died 22nd of September, and Roberte Parsons sworne in his place the 17th October, Ao 5to.
Unusually there is no note of the place where he had previously been employed and this, together with the references in the Teller’s Roll, suggests that Parsons was connected with the Chapel before he became a Gentleman. On 30 May 1567 he was granted a Crown lease for twenty-one years on three rectories near Lincoln (‘Sturton, Randbie and Staynton’) and in 1571 an annual tax certificate issued to court servants confirms his residence as being in Greenwich. The next mention is a further emotionless reference in the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal:
Robt. Parsons was drowned at Newark uppon Trent the 25th of Januarie, and Wm. Bird sworne gentleman in his place at the first the 22d of Februarie followinge, Ao 14o Lincolne.
Quite why he was travelling near Newark is unclear. He may have been visiting his rectories or attending to other business but it is clear that he died in 1572, the fourteenth regnal year of Queen Elizabeth I. His only epitaph is a couplet found in the partbooks prepared by the copyist Robert Dow in the 1580s which suggests that Parsons was highly esteemed and suffered an early death:
Qui tantus primo Parsone in flore fuisti
Quantus in autumno ni morere fores.
[Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life,
how great you would have been in the autumn, had death not come.]
Parsons lived through some of the most tumultuous years of the sixteenth century as the four religious settlements loosely termed the English Reformation tore society apart. After Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his relatively conservative reforms, the baton was then passed in 1549 to his son Edward VI who, steered by his Protestant advisors and then later developing his own agenda, pursued a more radical path. This course was halted by Edward’s half-sister, Mary I, eldest daughter of Henry VIII and devout Catholic, in 1553. She returned England to communion with Rome and met with much support for her policies until the economic downturn of the late 1550s and her own increasing personal instability. Then in turn her death in 1558 and the accession of Elizabeth I, her half-sister and Henry’s second daughter, led to a new English settlement which drew on Edward’s reforms but with considerably more artistic and liturgical sensitivity than had been allowed by the young king.
The surviving music by Parsons consists of nine pieces in Latin, two Services in English, two anthems in English, a handful of secular songs and some instrumental pieces including five In nomines. The lack of small-scale English sacred music seems to suggest that Parsons was not active as a composer during the reign of Edward VI.
from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2011