Music from the time of the civil wars, or the wars of the three kingdoms

Fretwork musician Richard Boothby sets the scene for their Sheffield concert on 13 May

The Fretwork musicians

The Fretwork musicians

War and music are not happy bedfellows, and the immense and complex struggle which took place in Britain and Ireland between 1640 and 1651 is not an exception to that rule.

The conflict had profound effects on the musical life of the nations and most of all, on that of England. One of the most noticeable was the decentralisation of musical establishments and composers: where, before the war, musical life had been concentrated in London on the royal court, the dispersal of the court and the uncongenial nature of the city to musicians during and after the war meant that many fled the capital and rid out the conflict in remote parts of the country.

England had known an exceptionally long period of peace and prosperity since the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, through her long reign, the peaceful accession of James V of Scotland and I of England, and the passing on of the crown to his son, Charles I in 1625. But, while Elizabeth had been abstemious and relatively moderate in her expenditure, James was used to a much more pliant Scottish parliament, and spent money immoderately and passed this unfortunate characteristic on to his son.

Of course, what was to be ruinous for the monarchy was rather good news for musicians employed by the court: James’s eldest son, the much lauded Prince Henry, built up an
avant-garde musical establishment employing the best composers and players of the day: Coprario, Lupo, Ferrabosco and Gibbons were all writing stimulating, advanced music, and, when Henry unexpectedly died in 1612, this establishment was taken over by Henry’s brother, the much less confident Charles.

It is claimed that Charles himself could play ‘exactly well’ on the bass viol, and that he was taught the instrument by Giovanni Coprario – who started life as plain old John Cooper, until a trip to Italy turned his head – and that he and a young William Lawes, only 2 years his junior, learnt the instrument together. Lawes was certainly close to the king, but his consorts of five and six parts were not composed until the 1630s, when Charles’s difficulties with parliament were coming to a head. It seems he must have stopped composing by 1642 in order to devote himself to the royalist cause. His end came in September 1645 at the siege of Chester, where he was shot in a skirmish. The king dubbed him ‘The Father of English Music’.


Most musicians were going to be on the royalist side in this war: it was where they were most likely to gain employment. Matthew Locke, a generation younger than Lawes, was a boy treble in Exeter Cathedral (his carving ‘Mathew Lock 1638’ was recently rediscovered in the cathedral organ loft – above) and was conscripted into the royalist army there, to leave with the king for France and the Netherlands in 1648. He came back to England a Catholic and spent the Commonwealth in London contributing much music to plays and publishing his ‘Little Consort of Three Parts’. By the Restoration in 1660, he was England’s leading composer. While it’s not clear when his ‘Consorts of Fower Parts’ were written, they represent music of the old style brought to a modern and elegant perfection. Charles II was famously intolerant of music he couldn’t tap his foot to: Roger North said he had ‘an utter detestation of Fancys’, which suggests that his consort music was written during the Interregnum.

The one composer who seemed to thrive in all circumstances was John Hingeston, who studied with Orlando Gibbons and became Cromwell’s Master of Music. His ‘Protectorate Household’, established in 1654, was similar to the royal court, and where Hingeston had a band of 8 musicians and two boys. At the Restoration, he was appointed a viol player in the King’s Private Music and taught a young Henry Purcell.

YouTube: Music by William Lawes, performed by Fretwork

Simpson was a contemporary of Lawes, though he avoided a violent end, and thus lived through the war, the Interregnum and the Restoration. But he did fight on the royalist side early in the war, retiring to Scampton in Lincolnshire at the house of Sir Robert Bolles, a friend and patron. He was without doubt the most prominent virtuoso viol player of the age and wrote the first and best viol tutor published in English. John Jenkins was similarly an exceptional viol player, patronised by the great families of the nation, in particular the Derham and L’Estrange families of Norfolk. He thus was able to avoid the dangers of the war and at its end he was with the North family in Cambridgeshire. By the Restoration he was a venerable elder statesman of English music and lived on until the ripe age of 86. He wonderfully crafted consorts for 4, 5 & 6 viols are examples of a mature style that he created, extending the techniques of Byrd, Coprario and Ferrabosco.

Another immensely long-lived composer of the age was Thomas Tomkins, surely one of the greatest of all Welsh composers, born in St Davids. He was appointed to the Chapel Royal in 1620, and was friends and colleagues with Gibbons, Byrd, Coprario, though he also retained a position in Worcester Cathedral. As the war began to take its toll on court life, he retired here. In 1646 the town surrendered to Parliamentary forces and cathedral services were suspended. His famous ‘Sad Pavan for these distracted times’ is dated 14th February 1649, a fortnight after the execution of the king. He lived in the cathedral close until 1654, when he moved to the nearby village of Martin Hussingtree, where he died aged 82.

Richard Boothby will be performing with the internationally renowned viol consort, Fretwork, as part of our Love and War Festival of World Class Chamber Music on Tuesday 13 May at 7.15pm. A version of this article is featured in our Festival Souvenir Programme, available to buy throughout the Festival for £3.50.

The musicians will also be taking part in a Q&A session with our Artistic Director, Angus Smith, free to all concert ticket holders.

For more information about the concert, visit our website.

1 thought on “Interregnum – Fretwork musician Richard Boothby sets the scene for their Sheffield concert on Tuesday 13 May

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