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Saturday quotes 2.26 Dowland’s training Part 5

November 17, 2012

Today’s post continues our speculative probe into John Dowland’s background, examining the conditions and events that may have contributed to form the composer’s persona and, by extension, his unique and intricate musical style.

Our last installment mentioned Dowland’s tenure as servant to Sir Henry Cobham, Ambassador to France.  We discussed the fine line between diplomatic service and espionage, and mentioned Cobham’s known activities as a spy under the stubby thumb of  Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530 – 1590).  We continue with a look at the tempestuous 1580s, the Catholic question, and the political power struggle between Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

The whole story is quite complex, and a thorough description of the religious struggles and political intrigues of the 1580s is really stretching far beyond the scope of our theme. But suffice it to say that the French connection figures prominently, and that ardent Protestant Walsingham had a reputation for extremely manipulative double-agent spy games.

Let Walsingham Disperse his riches over every land And thus appropriate their destinies To his own country; Drake may fly at once Across to India, that source of gold, Charting his vessels’ distant course among Uncharted seas: Let Sydney make again For Zeeland, Unton sail for France and Grey Return to Ireland, reaping great rewards. These two they’d surely win – Death and a Song: What else? For, as you see, the present age Produces nothing more.

– Laurence Humfrey, (c. 1527 – 1590)

In order to squeeze the massive amount of information into a manageable form, we resort to bullet points, to be followed by supporting quotes from the specialists.

  • Walsingham was Ambassador to France at the time of the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, recalled in 1573
  • Sir Amyas Paulet Ambassador to France between 1576–1579 with young Sir Francis Bacon in his charge; Paulet initiated marriage negotiations with François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou in 1578.
  • Sir Henry Cobham Ambassador to France between 1579–1583 with young Dowland as servant, continued marriage negotiations with Anjou.
  • Sir Edward Stafford as resident Ambassador in Paris between 1583–1590; Stafford allied with William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Dowland’s assignment unknown.
  • Young Robert Cecil studies at the Sorbonne in France circa 1584, suitor Anjou dies the same year (hmm…).

Dowland is known to have been in France as servant to Cobham by 1580 but there is hardly any mention of his activities, of his travels, nor of the date of his return to England.  The next recorded mention of Dowland is in John Case’s Apologia musices, tam vocalis quam instrumentalis, et mixtae (1588), translated as follows:

…And what cause is there now, why we should not mention, and qualify with just praise, these still surviving men, Bird, Munday, Bull, Morley, Douland, Johnson and others highly skilled upon instruments?…

Oblique mention of Dowland’s name in print by an eminent Oxford scholar reveals nothing concerning the lutenist’s whereabouts in 1588.  We know that in 1580 Dowland was in France as servant to a diplomat who engaged in espionage.  We must assume our notable musician was actively involved in entertainment at the French Court, rubbing elbows with Henri III’s renowned lutenist, Jacob Reyes, and keeping his acute ears open for random whisperings of useful intelligence.   We must guess whether Dowland returned to England in 1583 with Cobham, or whether he might have traveled with Cobham on diplomatic missions across the Continent, or whether he stayed on in Paris to experience the heightened atmosphere of intrigue with Sir Edward Stafford.

This is where the question of Dowland’s conversion to Catholicism enters the picture, and where we turn to the specialists.

During his long tenure as ‘principal secretary’, Walsingham had come to regard ambassadors as directly subordinate to him…Walsingham normally managed to provide ambassadors with staff whose first loyalty lay to himself: ‘Young Needham’ served both Henry Cobham and the Earl of Leicester in this way, and his careful reports on Leicester’s conduct fully justify Walsingham’s care in so placing him.

The need for accurate information stood at the centre of Walsingham’s system. ‘Knowledge is never too dear’ was allegedly his maxim, and Camden called him ‘a most subtle searcher out of hidden secrets’.

Walsingham by 1580 probably maintained six or seven regular correspondents in various cities: some were merchants, others soldiers, none of them English. In addition, he communicated with English soldiers in Dutch pay; with several political leaders in the United Provinces; and with spies of whom little is now known. He also drew, probably more fully, on the information traditionally amassed by English merchant sources.

Walsingham also recruited agents among English Catholics abroad, both among the exiles who plotted against the Queen in Paris and among those who sought refuge in Italy.

Such a network could not depend on the vagaries of the postal system; instead Walsingham’s own servants, acting as couriers, tended it. Thereby they lent the English government a new and widespread presence: in 1586, for example, Sir Horatio Palavacino, an Elizabethan secret service agent, chanced upon a servant of Walsingham’s in Dresden, homeward bound; moving on to Frankfurt, Palavacino there encountered Walter Williams, a prominent courier, heading to Geneva with letters for him. Such men led exciting lives.

The English embassy thus offered the ideal holding-post for mail, base for couriers, and receiving point for intelligence destined for London…Pliancy and trust were required and Walsingham could count himself fortunate that his successors in the embassy down to 1583 were, like him, allied closely with the Earl of Leicester.

The irruption of Sir Edward Stafford into such a sensitive yet ‘safe’ part of Walsingham’s territory created trouble almost immediately. Lord Cobham, the outgoing ambassador, departed without offering Stafford more than a handful of documents, and no details of informants whatsoever.  Stafford retaliated by sending copies of all his dispatches to Lord Burghley…

Stafford began to feel bypassed by the mysterious activities of Henry Unton, a gentleman close to Walsingham (and many years later Stafford’s replacement in Paris), and also by the close friendship developed by Walsingham with the French ambassador in London, Mauvissiere, by whose means business was often channelled direct to Henry III, only reaching Stafford later.

Stafford…had deliberately written a letter full of false information because he knew it would be intercepted, so it ‘caryed both matters which the Spanishe imbassador knew to be trewe, and also introductions owte of cypher to help [him] to discover partlye that which was in cypher’.  He further suggested that his wife, by feigning Catholicism, enter into a French court intrigue – but this the Queen expressly forbade.

…In October 1584 Michael Moody, one of Stafford’s servants, at court to receive letters for his master, was detained at Walsingham’s command on the grounds that he was conveying letters to and from Catholics. Stafford was not informed of this development for four months and immediately saw it as part of a campaign to denude him of servants, to force him to ‘seek new fellows to trust to, that may serve other men’s humours more than [mine]’. Then in the autumn of 1585 Walsingham detained William Lilly, another of Stafford’s personal servants, on the grounds that he had read [‘Marian’ tract] Leycester’s Commonwealth…

– Mitchell Leimon and Geoffrey Parker, ‘Treason and Plot in Elizabethan Diplomacy: the “Fame of Sir Edward Stafford” Reconsidered’, English Historical Review, cxi (1996), pp. 1134-1158.

It is entirely possible that Dowland, like Stafford’s wife, was directed by his handlers to feign conversion to Catholicism.  Servant or no, as an Englishman in the diplomatic service of  a strongly Protestant  Queen Elizabeth, it must have been a challenge just being in France during such a volatile time.  After the death of Anjou in 1584, the Eighth War of Religion broke out in 1585.  If Dowland remained in Paris during this time, he must have been affected by the religious strife regardless of whether he converted — and especially if he feigned conversion.

In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada,  Dowland was admitted Bachelor of Music by Christ Church, Oxford, requiring that he subscribe the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church.  This still tells us nothing of his whereabouts, since matriculation at university — nor even the award of a degree — appeared to require a physical presence at the time.

In closing this overlong post, we refer to the next notable mention of Dowland and quote liberally from Dowland’s biographer, Diana Poulton:

In 1592 an entertainment took place in which, for the first time, there is a definite record of his having played before the Queen.  While she was on progress in Gloustershire she visited Sudeley Castle, the home of Giles Bridges, Lord Chandos.  One of the customary entertainments was prepared in her honour and was mounted with the usual lavish expenditure.  It was entitled ‘Daphne and Apollo’ and was presented in the grounds at Sudeley.  When the scene was set, two musicians, ‘one who sang and one who plaide’, were placed on either side of a laurel tree, and the song ‘My heart and tongue were twinnes’ was performed.  Some dialogue follows and there is a scene between Melibraus, Nisa and Cutter of Cootsholde, in which this remarkable passage occurs:

Nis.    …You, sirra, that sit as though your wits were a woole-gathering, will you have a question or a commaundement?
Cut.    No question of a Queene, for they are hard to be answered; but any commaundement, for that must be obeyed.
Nis.    Then sing.  And you sir, a question or a commaundement?
Do.    A commaundement I; and glad that I am!
Nis.    Then play.
Do.    I have plaide so long with my fingers, that I have beaten out of play al my good fortune.

The Song. [Herbes, wordes, and stones]

Taken in conjunction with the presence of the song ‘My heart and tongue were twinnes’ there can be no doubt that the contraction ‘Do.’ stands for Dowland himself.  In all probability the second song was set by him too, although no trace of the music has survived.  The little scene so disconnected with the ‘argument’ of the entertainment, such as it is, that the possibility can hardly be overlooked that is was introduced to allow Dowland to make a plea before the Queen against the real or imagined neglect which even at this early date, appears to have become something of a fixed idea in his mind.

Diana Poulton, John Dowland, p. 29 – 30.

Dowland seems to have had a golden opportunity to advance his career by performing before the Queen.  Instead of playing the fawning and deferential servant of humble station, the lutenist chose to carp about all his hard work and his limited prospects.  No wonder she thought him obstinate, papist or no.

  1. Dan permalink

    Very interesting. A veritable garden of delights, or mine-field, for espionage writers like John Le Carre, Wm. F. Buckley Jr., or mystery/detective writers like John Mortimer or Rex Stout. Hard to think of transplanting Raymond Chandler to 16th century Paris or London, but where else should one find “Philip Marlowe”?

    This is the first time I’ve heard that Dowland’s possible conversion to Catholicism was perhaps feigned, for political/espionage purposes- but why not? I guess Catholicism could be considered the “Communism” of the those times. As for Dowland’s dramatically couched “audition” repertoire choices? Probably nothing would have worked, perhaps in order not to blow his Catholic “cover” – whether he wanted it that way or not.

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