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Queen Mary's Big Belly

Hope for an heir in Catholic England
Gallicantus, Gabriel Crouch (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: January 2016
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nigel Short
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: February 2017
Total duration: 77 minutes 38 seconds
 

Gallicantus performs music surrounding the fascinating hopes and tragedies of Queen Mary’s ‘phantom pregnancy’ of 1555.

Reviews

'In drawing together a selection of relevant sacred and secular music, the harmonious voices of Gallicantus create a strong narrative' (Gramophone)

'A real sense of intimacy and superb clarity; all concerned sing with a beautiful elegance of line, and expressive beauty' (Planet Hugill)

'Gallicantus are singers of the highest order and, concept or no concept, we should be grateful to them for creating a programme of such wonderful music and drawing it to our attention' (MusicWeb International)

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Long-awaited news of a Tudor royal birth winged its way to London on 30 April 1555. A male heir had been born: a pledge of dynastic fertility after decades of royal stillbirths, miscarriages and marital misadventures. This was surely a sign of God’s pleasure with Mary I (1516-1558) and a vindication of her mission to restore Catholic religion, reverse the doctrinal experiments of the previous two decades, and return England to its historic place in Europe. The bells of London accordingly rang out while Te Deum laudamus, the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, was sung by the city’s choirs.

The festivities came to an abrupt end on 1 May. Yesterday’s news had been a mere rumour: there was to be no royal birth, not yet at least. ‘It turned out otherwise to the pleasure of God’, wrote the merchant-tailor Henry Machyn, assuring himself that the birth would happen ‘whenever it pleases God’. At thirty-nine years old Queen Mary was superannuated by sixteenth-century obstetric standards, but her pregnancy was generally deemed credible and she had not yet come to term by 1 May. The summer months drew on, but still no news. Long after the original due date, Mary eventually gave up hope, withdrawing from Hampton Court to Oatlands Palace in the first days of August.

There would be no apotheosis in 1555, but it had been tantalizingly imminent. This disc explores the musical traces of an extraordinary year of hopes raised and dashed. The music performed here resonates with the circumstances of the mid-1550s, even if some of the items were composed outside Mary’s own reign; some pieces stemmed from the royal ceremonies in which Mary participated as queen; and some of the music sung here can be directly tied to the specific events of 1554-5, including a newly-reconstructed Litany which was performed during Mary’s assumed pregnancy. The viewpoint shifts from the streets of London and its suburbs, through the ceremonial grandeur of the royal palaces and their chapels, to the intimacy of the queen’s birthing chamber.

We begin in the royal Privy Chamber. Mary’s lifetime witnessed a transformation in the polyphonic vocabulary of English musicians, aided by immigrant musicians from Italy and Flanders. Chief among these was Philip van Wilder (d1553), a Fleming who spent his career in London. Known to many Englishmen simply as ‘Mr Philips’, he was by far the best-paid musician working in the court of Henry VIII, Mary’s father ‘of famous memory’; he taught Mary the lute in the late 1530s and was rewarded with gifts from the princess on his marriage and his first child’s birth. He directed the singers of the Privy Chamber, a select ensemble of men and boys distinct from the ceremonial choir of the Chapel Royal. For this group van Wilder composed numerous French-texted chansons, but it is likely that his Latin Pater noster was also sung as a devotional piece in the Privy Chamber; unlike most of van Wilder’s music, which circulated posthumously in Elizabethan manuscripts, the Pater noster was printed abroad (in the Liber quartus ecclesiasticarum cantionum quatuor vocum of Tylman Susato, Antwerp, 1554). Philip van Wilder had died a few months before Mary’s accession, but music by her one-time lute-teacher would have retained her favour, not least a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

At first sight, the brief motet Exsurge Christe by William Mundy (c1528-91) takes us from the privacy of Mary’s royal apartments into the bustle of London’s Billingsgate ward. From 1541 until 1544 Mundy had been a chorister at the recently-founded Westminster Cathedral (today known by its old name, Westminster Abbey); by 1548 he was a lay clerk at the parish of St Mary at Hill in London, a centre of music-making where he remained until he became a lay vicar at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1558 or 1559. Throughout Mary’s reign, therefore, he was at work in a city church closely connected with the Chapel Royal. At least one of Mundy’s monumental Latin anthems, moreover, may have been composed for Queen Mary’s coronation festivities in August 1553 (we will meet William Forrest, the author of this anthem’s text, in a moment). Exsurge Christe is a pithy and unflinching three-part canon, apt to its non-liturgical (and probably purpose-written) text invoking Christ to end schism and restore apostolic truth.

Calls for truth and unity weren’t the sole preserve of any religious party in the sixteenth century, but Exsurge Christe was most topical in the mid-1550s. After six years of Protestant reform in the name of her half-brother Edward VI (r1547-53), Mary had fought her way to the throne in the summer of 1553, batting aside Edward’s chosen heir, her Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey. Latin services resumed in the Chapel Royal and, by Christmas, much of the Edwardian Reformation had been legislatively dismantled. The year 1554 was one of entrenchment: the material and ceremonial fabric of traditional religion was gradually stitched back together, married clergy were ejected, and heresy investigated; leading Protestants fled abroad. The broad direction of travel was clear but the destination was not yet reached or fully defined. Although under arrest, the Protestant Thomas Cranmer nominally remained archbishop of Canterbury until his deprivation as late as November 1555, and no new Latin service books were printed through the first year of Mary’s reign. Churchwardens and clergy ferreted out once-discarded chant books, patched them up, and pressed them into service once again.

Into this legal limbo step two giants of the Renaissance: in July 1554, Philip of Spain (1527-1598) son of Emperor Charles V, future king of Spain, and bridegroom of Mary Tudor, eleven years his senior; a few months later, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558), estranged cousin of Henry VIII, champion of Catholic renewal, and future archbishop of Canterbury. Pole’s return from his Roman exile in November 1554 marked England’s imminent acceptance back into the papal fold. Coming to court after a 20-year absence, Pole greeted Mary with the traditional words of the Angelus: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’. His double pun confirmed a gathering belief that Mary’s union with Philip of Spain, solemnized in Winchester four months earlier, was bearing fruit.

1554 ended on a note of high expectation: England would soon be reconciled with Rome; Thomas Cranmer and his heretical ilk would soon re-convert or face the consequences; the restoration of traditional religion would soon be completed; Mary would soon give birth to a Catholic heir. But mission was not yet accomplished: hence the expectant rather than triumphant tone of Exsurge Christe. The grand seven-part motet Peccavimus cum patribus by court composer Christopher Tye (d1573), a mélange of Biblical paraphrase and pleas for mercy, has also been dated to this same period of repentant expectation. Although by no means the only Renaissance motet to strike a penitential pose, Dr Tye’s Peccavimus recalls one of the most striking images of the mid-1550s, the medallion ‘Anglia resurges’, in which prodigal England kneels at the feet of Pope Julius III. Educated Tudor listeners would also have noticed the text’s allusion to Judith, slayer of the Assyrian general Holofernes, a much-favoured Biblical analogue for Queen Mary.

Reginald Pole may not yet have embarked for England when Tye composed Peccavimus. Te spectant, Reginalde, Poli must surely have been written at or soon after the cardinal’s triumphant return home, however: the heavy pun cannot be missed, while Pole’s conversion of England from (Protestant) obduracy to tearful (Catholic) applause was never more topical than in 1554-5. A composition date in 1554 is suggested by the reported presence in England of Orlande de Lassus (1532-94) within the entourage of the Neapolitan singer-diplomat Giulio Cesare Brancaccio in that year. The ‘auspicious fires’ emitted by Reginaldus have been taken as evidence for a later composition date of 1556, when Pole was consecrated archbishop and the heretic-burnings were in full swing; but a less sinister interpretation of these flaming portents, as a fashionably Humanistic allusion to Book II of the Aeneid, points towards the period before Pole’s elevation to Canterbury.

Te spectant was subsequently published by Jan Laet of Antwerp in 1556, the year of Pole’s consecration as archbishop. England’s religious affairs played to a continental audience, not least because the baby that Mary believed she was carrying would be heir to a vast sprawl of continental territories. Pole formally received England back into Roman obedience on St Andrew’s day, 30 November 1554; writing to Pope Julius, Pole recalled a tearful parliament bursting into spontaneous applause. The news circulated throughout Europe, sped in large part through the medium of print. Since the moment of Mary’s accession, the presses had been busily at work in her praise or deprecation. From the early months of her reign, certainly before her marriage to Philip (of whom it makes no mention), the New Ballad of the Marigold was the work of William Forrest, royal chaplain and author of the panegyric Vox patris caelestis which had probably been set to music by William Mundy during the first weeks of Mary’s reign. Printed by Richard Lant without a melody, it is sung here to the tune ‘I smile to see how you devise’. No hard evidence connects Forrest’s platitudinous rhyme with this melody save their matching meters and their shared origins in Tudor court culture. The music is found in an early Elizabethan source closely connected with Mary’s court: the so-called Mulliner Book (British Library, Add, MS 30513). This book is a lute and keyboard miscellany connecting the old pre-Reformation world of plainsong-based organ versets with newer, predominantly secular forms: fantasia, arrangements of dances, part songs and anthems, musical numbers from choirboy plays, and scrapbook snippets of contrapuntal exemplars. The same source contains several other pieces heard here: Mundy’s Exsurge Christe, with the title ‘Tres partes in una’; Newman’s Fansye, a competent early essay in what would become a classic Elizabethan genre, the free fantasia; and two charming partsongs by Thomas Tallis (d1585). The first of these, Like as the doleful dove, sets a text by Tallis’s Chapel Royal colleague, William Hunnis, which was later published in the Paradyse of Daynty deuises (1576) by Richard Edwards, also of the Chapel; the second Tallis partsong, When shall my sorrowful sighing slack, is found in numerous manuscripts, one of which belonged to the courtier, Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, a leading Catholic to whom Mary granted Henry VIII’s unfinished pleasure dome, Nonsuch Palace, in 1556.

The geopolitical future of England and Europe would be settled in the stuffy confines of the royal birthing chamber to which Mary would retreat, following ancient custom, around Easter 1555. Part songs and lute songs in English, French and Italian were the pastimes of the secular spaces of Privy Chamber and, later on, birthing chamber. But it was in ceremonies and processions of public worship that kingship was performed most conspicuously, even when the queen herself was absent. The main forum for this worship was, of course, the Chapel Royal—not a single building, but a permanent body of clergy, lay singers and boy choristers who sang services in whichever Thames-side palace the king and queen were resident during the legal terms. Members of the Chapel frequently lived and worked in Greenwich (Thomas Tallis), London and Westminster (John Sheppard). They might lend their voices to local churches such as St Mary at Hill; equally, the Chapel might draw in members of local choirs whenever a particularly grand procession was needed. The first two years of Mary’s reign witnessed many such processions that quite literally stamped traditionalism upon the streets of London and its environs.

From the first announcement of Mary’s assumed pregnancy, made in St Paul’s Cathedral late on 28 November 1554, prayers for her safe delivery had been made in large public processions. Litanies, intercessory dialogues between priest and singers, were a standard element of these processions. By chance a suitable polyphonic Latin litany has survived, jotted into the endpapers of two printed service books belonging to singers at Westminster Cathedral, one copy now in Lambeth Palace Library, the other in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. This setting bears a close resemblance to Tallis’s mould-breaking five-part English litany, which had almost certainly been composed in 1544. Only the Medius and Bassus parts survive, but much of the Tenor was based on the traditional plainsong tone, allowing the two Contratenor parts to be reconstructed—in this case, by Jason Smart. We can be certain that this litany is the one sung on Mary’s behalf in 1554-5: in each source, different copyists added litany petitions in favour of ‘Mary our pregnant queen’ and ‘Philip our king’. The litany is immediately followed, in the Paris copy, with the Eucharistic motet O sacrum convivium by Thomas Tallis—presumably in veneration of the holy sacrament that was carried in public processions. Given the Westminster provenance of the two sources, it would seem likely that this litany/motet combination was performed in a procession organized by Hugh Weston, dean of Westminster, that took place on Sunday 27 January 1555. The destination was Temple Bar, reached via the Strand and King Street (which passed through Whitehall Palace, where Queen Mary was staying); but the starting point was in St Margaret’s churchyard: so St Margaret of Antioch has been included among the Litany of Saints invoked in this recording.

The remaining pieces presented here trace the arc of Mary’s pregnancy from the optimism of New Year of 1555 towards the summer of disappointment. It was probably around this time that Thomas Tallis composed his incomparably fine setting of the respond Quod chorus vatum for the feast of Purification (2 February). A few weeks later, the feast of the Annunciation marked the beginning of the new calendar year (25 March), and provided an opportunity to sing John Sheppard’s respond, also for six voices, Christi virgo dilectissima. Later still, on Maundy Thursday (11 April), Mary performed the annual pedilavium, one of her last public appearances before entering confinement. A detailed description of this rite survives from the following year, when the queen gave alms to 41 poor women in Greenwich Palace, washing their feet while the Chapel Royal sang psalm verses and antiphons in alternation. A setting by John Sheppard (d1558) of one of these psalms, Deus misereatur, is interspersed here with the antiphon Maria unxit ergo pedes: not the official liturgical combination, perhaps, but the best modal match between the chant and Sheppard’s polyphony, in which all verses cadence on the same chord of F.

Soon after Easter Sunday, 14 April 1555, Mary entered her confinement at Hampton Court. Eyewitnesses described her appearance at a casement window, watching her husband as he presided over the traditional Garter procession on St George’s day, 23 April; Martyr Dei qui unicum was among the hymns sung on this feast, and John Sheppard’s six-part setting, with its rich culminating ‘Amen’ may have been written specifically for Garter day. Hopes remained high as Mary sat out the early summer in the gloomy confinement of her birthing chamber. Whit Sunday on 2 June, Trinity Sunday on 9th and Corpus Christi the following Thursday were a climax of the royal festal calendar year and would normally be occasions for the most lavish ceremonial: although it cannot be securely dated, Thomas Tallis’s splendidly ebullient seven-part respond Loquebantur variis linguis (Whitsun) perfectly suited the temper and style of Marian Catholicism. John Sheppard’s Libera nos (Trinity), also for seven voices, is often attributed to his stint at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the mid-1540s, but would equally have suited the Chapel Royal, whose dedicatee was the Holy Trinity. But it is unlikely that Mary had much appetite for either of these great set pieces in 1555. As the summer grew hotter, doubts started to gnaw; with its reminder that ‘such is the cost of all our pain, but labour lost and spent in vain’, hearing John Sheppard’s Vain, all our life may have required superhuman stoicism on Mary’s part.

It was all over on 3 August. News quickly reached the London diarist Henry Machyn that Philip and Mary had retreated to Oatlands Palace. In his dispatch of 5 August, the Venetian ambassador reported to the Doge, noting the official reason why the queen had vacated Hampton Court (the need for a spring clean); everyone knew, but dare not say, that the queen’s pregnancy had been spectral, he said, and that the change of residence enabled the fact to be acknowledged without the need for an embarrassing public announcement; quitting Hampton Court for the relative solitude of Oatlands also meant that the constant public processions, convened during the initial burst of optimism, could be quietly discontinued. Her majesty’s intimates, he wrote, expected the pregnancy to end in wind.

A second false pregnancy in 1558 also produced no heir, but instead precipitated Mary’s death on 17 November of that year. In later years, Mary’s childlessness would be depicted as a providential turning point, clearing the way for a Protestant succession. Narrated in John Foxe’s best-selling Acts and Monuments (1563), Mary’s false pregnancies became lodged in folk memory. As late as the 1680s, amidst fears that Queen Mary of Modena, wife of James II, would give birth to a son, Foxe’s narrative served to whip up popular hostility to a possible Catholic succession. Quoting the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, the pamphlet Idem iterum, or the History of Q. Mary’s Big-belly (1688) reminded its readers: ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be … there is no new thing under the Sun’.

Some said this rumour of the Queen’s conception was spread for a policy; some other affirmed, that she was deceived by a Tympany or some other like Disease, to think her self with Child, and was not; some thought she was with Child, and that it did by some chance miscarry, or else that she was bewitched; but what was the truth thereof the Lord knoweth, to whom nothing is secret.

John Foxe, Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church (London: John Day, 1563), p. 1205.

Signum Classics © 2016

A Prayer made by Dr. Weston, Dean of Westminster, daily to be said for the Queen’s Deliverance:

O most righteous Lord God, which for the offence of the first Woman, hast threatened unto all Women a common, sharp, and inevitable Malediction, and hast enjoined them that they should conceive in sin, and being conceived, should be subject to many and grievous torments, and finally, be delivered with the danger and jeopardy of their lives; We beseech thee for thine exceeding great goodness and bottomless mercy, to mitigate the strictness of that Law: assuage thine anger for a while, and cherish in the bosom of thy favour and mercy our most gracious Queen Mary, being now at the point to be delivered: So help her, that without danger of her life she may overcome the sorrow, and in due season bring forth a Child, in body beautiful and comely, in mind noble and valiant …

Signum Classics © 2016

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