No. 15: MORE BIRDS OF A FEATHER
by Marie Delgado Travis
As mentioned last time, there are scholars who believe that the “Bird” reference in the first and third lines of Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle (1601) is an homage to the composer, William Byrd— a composer as well-known to Elizabethan and Jacobean music as Shakespeare is to its literature. The lines in question read as follows:
Let the Bird with the Lowdeft Lay (“Loudest song”) …
Herauld fad (“Herald sad “) and trumpet be.
So naturally I began to muse … is there any proof that Will Shakspere, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, ever met Mr. Byrd? Did they ever have a pint together at the Mermaid Tavern, Cheapside?
While I found no evidence of such an historic encounter, there is plenty of proof that William Byrd and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford— whom many believe to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon— were Vere well acquainted.
Let’s review the facts together. According to an entry in British History Online entitled, “Stapleford Abbots: Manors, ”A History of the County of Essex,” Vol. 4 (1956), Edward de Vere leased a property named Batayles to William Byrd in 1574.
Soon Byrd became hopelessly embroiled in years of litigation. Because of Oxford’s “bad boy” reputation, I automatically assumed that the title of the property was defective. But the truth was Vere different, as we shall see.
Batayles, named after a Norman warrior who invaded England with William the Conqueror (1066 and all that), became part of the de Veres’ vast holdings through marriage. Over time, the property slipped in and out of the Earls of Oxford’s possession.
Whether a de Vere was beheaded for treason, or died of natural causes, there was usually a wolfish Earl, Duke, or King, vying to snatch up the property— among them, Shakespeare’s nasty arch-villain, Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III (Hmm… ), and Edward Seymour, Earl of Somerset, Lord Protector of Edward VI.
In Edward de Vere’s case, the property seized after his father John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford’s death, eventually reverted to his uncle Aubrey, by Act of Parliament.
After Edward came of age, he acquired the reversion for himself. It was then that he leased the property to William Byrd for a period of 31 years, to begin after Aubrey’s death, an unusual arrangement, but rather sweet, don’t you think? — Not at all like Richard II treated his uncle, John of Gaunt. Well, hopefully not …
Meanwhile, Byrd offered to sell his lease to a third party. Then he changed his mind, and offered the same lease to his brother, John, not realizing that the first promise, although verbal, could be construed as a binding contract.
For more than half a decade, the parties “battled” over the lease to Batayles in court, and when the judge and jury ruled against him, Byrd took the case to arbitration.
While this was going on, poor Aubrey passed away (January 1580). This freed Edward to save the composer from financial ruin, by selling Batayles to Byrd’s brother John (April 1580. This essentially rendered the matter moot, and not a moment too soon. Nine months later, the arbitrators—while sympathetic to Byrd’s financial straits— ruled against him.
Perhaps in appreciation, William Byrd composed a “tucket” (tucquet), “The Earl of Oxford’s March” (also known as “The Marche Before the Battell”).
A tucket is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, as a “[a] flourish on a trumpet; a signal for marching used by cavalry troops.”
Anthony Munday, who served as Edward de Vere’s secretary, referred to the piece as the “Earle of Oxenford’s March,” in his 1588 poetry collection, A banquet of daintie conceits furnished with verie delicate and choyse inuentions, to delight their minded, who take pleasure in musique, &c.
Anthony Munday: “Castelán of vaine exercises,” Banquet of daintie conceites…. (1588).
Source: Tamsin Lewis.
Munday assumes that his readers are familiar with the March, and will want to sing his “ditty” to it. In the same place , Munday refers to the “Earl of Oxenford’s Galliard,” which while not attributable to Byrd, is worth a listen:
More on Munday on another day.
For its part, “The Earl of Oxford’s March” stands alone and as the introduction to an ambitious “suite” by Byrd, collectively called “The Battell.” The suite not only reminds us of the name of the property that caused Byrd so much strife. It also follows— and improves upon— a tradition of earlier compositions with related war themes, e.g., “A la Battaglia” by Heinrich Issac (c. 1485), or “La Guerre” by Clement Janequin (1555):
There will be more to say about Byrd’s “Battell” in an upcoming post. But for the moment, let’s enjoy “The Earl of Oxford’s March”— or as the Constable of France urges the French nobles just before the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene 2:
Then let the trumpets sound,
The tucket sonance and the note to mount….
‘Til next time!